TEENA MARIE / “If I Were A Bell”

Interviewer: There are no white artists who have had the kind of appeal among African-Americans like you have. Why do you think you've always been so embraced by the black community? Teena Marie: My thoughts are so sincere that they come through musically. I have a white mother that gave birth to me and I have black mother that nurtured me as well, who was always there by my side and explained a lot things to me that I didn’t understand as a young girl. I’m just very true to who I am and the music that I love — I think people can feel that sincerity. I think they know that it's not contrived; this is the way that I live. I think God wanted me to bring people together through music and you shouldn’t have to be a certain color to sing a certain type of music. —Teena Marie from “Teena Marie: Ultimate Soul Diva” I walked around during the course of the evening [at a Teena Marie performance] and asked at least ten different people the question: “How come Black people love Teena Marie so much even though she's white?” Every person that I asked responded with the exact same answer: “Teena Marie ain’t white. She’s one of us.” — Bob Davis of Soul-Patrol.com
Mary Christine Brockert was born in March of 1956 in Santa Monica, California. Her much better known stage name is an inversion and permutation of her first and middle names ‘Mary Christine.’ If you haven’t already figured it out, we’re talking about Teena Marie. teena marie 07.jpg In the world of black music, Teena Marie is an anomaly. Actually, when it comes to white artists performing black music, she’s the anomaly. I can’t think of any other white singer or instrumentalist who is accepted—100% and without question—as not just “sounding black,” but BEING black. If you didn’t grow up during the seventies or eighties and/or you didn’t grow up in a black community, Bob Davis’ quoting of black concert goers (‘Teena Marie ain’t white’) might sound strange. But if you, like me, grew up in a black ghetto at a time when Teena was at her artistic and commercial peak, Davis’ quote will make you smile in nostalgic recognition because (to sort of quote Teena herself) you’ve heard those words many times before. There are other white artists who’ve scored significant success with black music lovers. I remember Hall & Oates having a string of hits in the black community. George Michael was very popular for a time. Back in the day, Elvis Presley had several #1 hits on the R&B chart — one year, he was second only to Fats Domino for the title of most popular R&B artist. And what self-respecting ghetto dweller hasn’t cut a rug to an Average White Band record or too? But none of these artists ever rose to the level of not just seeming or sounding or even acting black, but BEING black. No, black people aren’t blind. We see Teena’s blond hair and hazel eyes. (Although we didn’t see either on the cover of Teena’s debut album on Motown. Berry Gordy intentionally left all photos of Teena off of the jacket.) And no, we aren’t delusional. If pressed, we will admit that Teena, biologically speaking, is white. (Well, “probably” white. Or maybe “mostly” white. Somewhere back there in the gene pool, we imagine, there had to have been at least one brother or sister with some extraordinarily powerful DNA that somehow made it’s way all the way down to little Mary Christine.) The point is, black folk are aware—on a literal level—that Teena Marie is of Caucasian ancestry. Still, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard black people say (especially if Teena’s music is actually playing, and most definitely at any Teena Marie performance), “Teena ain’t white. She’s black.” Note that black folk reserve this weird sort of collective denial of reality solely for people or events of the most crucial importance. Ask someone in the ‘hood if Tupac is dead. Nope — he’s alive. Theories abound, all ridiculous. Ask somebody in the ghetto if O.J. did it. Nope — he’s innocent. Again, more goofball theories, usually accompanied by a little sideways grin. Ask somebody from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward if Katrina was responsible for flooding their neighborhood or if Al Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center buildings. Nope, they’ll tell you. The government blew up both. The thing is, all of these ‘beliefs’ serve a purpose. To give just one example, Tupac was the one hip-hop figure who resonated with not just the young people in the ‘hood, but with their parents as well. The parents may not have loved or even liked his music, but they recognized something good, something powerful in the young man. Through his mother, Tupac was a living connection back to the Black Power movement. For ghetto people, he was a hope for the future. I’ve been in black neighborhoods all over America and seen murals of Tupac, often alongside images of Malcolm or Martin or Marley. Is Tupac dead? Nope. For black folk, especially black women, Teena Marie’s music provides a similar kind of inspiration and hope. Teena’s lyrics—almost all of which she wrote herself—are frequently articulate, passionate, perceptive and multi-faceted. Despite standing barely more than five feet tall, she has a commanding, powerful presence. Over the years, even when she was identified as a Rick James protégée, she’s defined herself, written for herself and produced herself. She even famously litigated for herself, suing Motown for breach of contract and eventually winning not just her contractual freedom but also an entertainment industry legal statute named after her. And that voice. Teena sings most of her lyrics in a soothing and flawless croon, one that she came by naturally. According to Teena, she never had much in the way of formal vocal lessons or instruction. But when her songs reach their climax, when she really starts feeling that spirit, Teena’s voice breaks into a piercing near-shriek that is as loved in the black community as any sound ever produced by the likes of Aretha, Gladys, Chaka, Anita or Mary. teena marie 09.jpg The connection between Teena Marie and the black community works both ways. Teena has been a big influence on and inspiration for black women, but in a way, she’s just repaying the favor. In interviews, Teena talks about her godmother, a black women who “explained a lot of things [Teena] didn’t understand.” And, over the years, I’ve noticed that Teena’s been looking more and more black herself. Black women in the ghetto have this way of dressing and making up their faces and hair that says, “I’m fabulous not because you think I am, but because I think I am.” It’s a defiant act of self-definition that remains consistent in black communities from L.A. to New York and all points between. When black women get dressed up to go out, looking fabulous, magnificent and queenly is much more important than looking ‘proper.’ These women may not be ‘fit’ or ‘slim’; they may not look like any of the sex symbols on TV; they may be just a couple of hours removed from sweating in somebody’s kitchen or chasing behind somebody’s kids; they may be hanging every which way out of their too-tight clothes, but right here and right now, they know they look good. Go to a Teena Marie concert these days, and more likely than not, Teena will take the stage looking as ghetto fabulous as most of her audience—hair teased, cleavage showing, pants too tight. The whole nine yards. The reason is simple. Teena’s not trying to imitate her audience. Teena, quite simply, has become her audience. Just like the people say, Teena ain’t white. She’s black.
* * *
Over the next two weeks, I’m going to hit you with twelve of my favorite Teena Marie records. (I couldn’t do just ten.) Teena has recorded all kinds of music but my favorite Teena Marie songs are her classic slow jams. Here’s number twelve: #12. “Ooo La La La” – From Naked To The World (Epic, 1988) teena marie 06.jpg It’s hard to believe that this is Teena’s only #1 record. It’s a damn good tune, but Teena cut many tracks before it and at least one after it that were better. One reason I don’t like it more is those cheesy synth drums. (Then again, it was ’88. By then, R&B had become overrun with synthesizers.) Lyrically, I always thought this record was inspired by The Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You.” Note too that this record was later immortalized by Lauryn, Wyclef and Pras as “Fu-Gee-La.” #11. “Young Love” – From Irons In The Fire (Motown, 1980) This is a strange record. I like it as much as I do for the same reason that I don’t like it more than I do. It’s strangely uncentered. It’s rambling, wandering and scattered — at times, it sounds almost improvised. Still, I have to say that ‘all over the place’ feeling appeals to me a lot. Listening to it, I get the feeling that Teena is trying to figure out what she’s trying to say even as she’s saying it. It also helps that the song has a significant Smokey Robinson vibe going. #10. “I’m Gonna Have My Cake (And Eat It Too)” – From Wild And Peaceful (Motown, 1979) My second-favorite tune from Teena’s debut album — the one that didn’t show her on the cover. This is also the only song from the album that Teena wrote. (Smokey Robinson wrote one and Rick James wrote the rest.) Teena’s voice is already fully formed, but you can hear the immaturity in her delivery. It’s a great composition — I almost wish she’d re-recorded it at some point. At times, you can hear her rushing through her phrases and not quite letting certain notes breathe enough. Still, it’s a damn good record. #9. “Out On A Limb” – From Starchild (1984) “I feel so insecure and yet I’ve never felt so sure.” Teena’s lyrics do a great job of encapsulating what it feels like to fall for someone who may or may not be the right person. This is a slow record, but keyboards are doing something weird in the background, something that keeps the tension level high throughout. The song never really resolves that tension. The bridge loosens things up a little, but all the way through the end, we’re never really sure—either musically or lyrically—how things are going to end up. I guess that’s why the record is named “Out On A Limb” and not, “Safe Here In Your Arms” or whatever. Notice how, for the last minute of the record, those slightly ominous-sounding keyboards and the steadily ticking high-hat move from the background to the foreground. #8. “Irons In The Fire” – From Irons In The Fire (Motown, 1980) Nice scatting, Teena. I’ve always wondered how Mary Brockert of Santa Monica, California could’ve soaked up enough black culture to end up becoming the legendary soul singer Teena Marie. On this autobiographical tune Teena talks about being born in “Venice, Harlem.” I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of Los Angeles’ neighborhoods, especially not as they were back in the early sixties, but there’s got to be an explanation in there somewhere. By the way, if you’re looking for a good place to start a Teena Marie collection, Irons In The Fire just might be it. When an interviewer asked Teena which of her albums, if any, was her favorite, she said: “Irons in the Fire, probably, the third one. This album [Sapphire] isn't my favorite — I like it, it's really good, but it's not my favorite. Irons in the Fire is my favorite.” #7. “If I Were A Bell” – From Ivory (1990) teena marie 08.jpg Teena’s last true classic. She’s recorded some good tunes since, but this is the last one that gives you that timeless ‘God Damn!’ effect. I like a number of Teena’s tunes better in terms of composition or musicianship, but in terms of vocal performance, I don’t think she ever sounded better. Her pacing, delivery and overall vocal quality is perfect. And what about the lyrics? “I’ll never be the same,” she says, “Because you made me over.” Then she compares herself to a bell — a bell that will ring each day from every mountain top to let the whole world know that dude is her everything and she belongs to him. Jesus. (I’m fanning myself — it’s getting hot in here.) Next week, six more Teena Marie classics. —Mtume ya Salaam
      2nd Tier, i.e. up in the back of the balcony       
Mtume, you have not yet dipped into the Teena Marie stuff I dig. We're still in that part of the show where half the audience is trooping in looking for their seats—actually looking to see what good seats are available so they can cop a squat since the person with ticket number T45 didn't show and you have to ask somebody in U44 if they would mind switching so you can sit next to your squeeze and they are cool with it cause they're not in their designated seat either and right before Teena gets deep into the stuff you came to hear the rightful owners show up with the usher and well, you know, you have to troop all the way up to the back of the second balcony where them cheap ass seats you bought are, but it's cool cause they got a good sound system and you can smoke your joint in peace up there. Mtume, your intro makes it clear, you're in love with Teena and can't help yourself: going to devote two weeks to a soul singer who ain't got a major chart record. Yeah, yeah, I hear you (and agree with you) she's important. Sort of like Otis Redding who never had much success with the Billboard charts either. (I believe the posthumous "Dock Of The Bay" was his first and only Billboard number one! I'ma check on that, and if it's not the case I will correct it here, but I believe that's the case or not far from right even if I'm wrong). Teena deserves two weeks attention. No ifs, ands or buts! Looking forward to next week. ;->) —Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Monday, April 21st, 2008 at 1:08 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

19 Responses to “TEENA MARIE / “If I Were A Bell””

Q Says:
April 22nd, 2008 at 2:33 pm

First to Kalamu’s Otis Redding remark, Otis isn’t a one hit wonder. How about “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, “Tramp”, “Mr Pitiful”, “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Hard to Handle”. Granted they didn’t chart, but then again most GOOD music never does. Not only was “Sitting On the Dock of the Bay” posthumusly released, it was recorded three days before his death.

Now about Ms. “T”…Mtume, why you gotta keep us waiting another week. Is this a publicity stunt, LOL! These tracks are good. But, I expect to see “Portugeuse Love” next week. And if you venture outside of the Ballads, “Square Biz” is a good one also.

Stephanie Renee Says:
April 25th, 2008 at 8:16 am

As Miss Teena is one of my all-time faves as well, I will now cast my vote for “You Make Love Like Springtime” in next week’s lineup. You can’t talk about Teena the soul diva without giving significant love to her jazzier roots as well. And it is fitting to note that Smokey not only wrote songs for her, but clearly had a PROFOUND influence on her vocally as well.

Thank you for shining light on one of music’s brilliant jewels.

Dallas Trenton Says:
June 11th, 2008 at 3:17 pm

What happened to "Portuguese Love"??????

          Mtume says           

It was #2. The post you read was  #6 – 12.


Derrick Perkins Says:
July 17th, 2008 at 9:50 am

This is a lady that i love and she has it all My song that i love the most is Out On A Limb that is the best in my book and so is Miss Marie thank u

smoothyc Says:
August 20th, 2008 at 5:02 pm

teena marie greatest song from a list of great songs is very hard, but a song that stands out is pretty man on passion play , its sexy , passionate , and mesmorising and beautifully performed by our ivory queen of soul .
please check out the ivory queen of soul website
much love smoothyc e

MotleySTL Says:
October 22nd, 2008 at 8:15 am

Tina,you been breakin my heart since I was 25 yeras old with Square Biz. I love you. Beautiful too.

AJ Says:
January 24th, 2009 at 11:30 pm

Lady Tee’s reading on DE JA VU (I’ve Been Here Before) is sheer brilliance…………

SRR Says:
November 10th, 2009 at 12:30 pm

I thought we were all colorblind now? Why all the discussion of the woman’s ancestry? I guess community pride will always be divided along color lines.

Anonymous Says:
December 26th, 2010 at 10:19 pm

somebody just like you is by far my favorite Teena Marie song. It’s old school and new school Teena all in one song!

gayle Says:
December 26th, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Excuse me?!!! Did this article imply that African American women are fat and out of shape?!!! I happen to be a professional Black woman who jogs, rollerblades, ices skates, works out at the gym and I am a knock out in a bikini. I just tried to copy and paste my photo to prove it.
How dare you classify a whole entire race of people into one box. I am going to report this article on grounds of sexism and racisim.

Jimmy Says:
December 27th, 2010 at 2:36 am

TEENA MARIE is my favorite Black female singer.

Maddog Says:
December 27th, 2010 at 8:23 am

R.I.P. Teena…I fell in love with you the first time I heard your voice.

anthony Says:
December 27th, 2010 at 1:00 pm

WOW CANT BELEAVE YOUR ARE GONE,I GREW UP LISTEN TO YEENA a military brat,you are going to be missed love you teena

AdrienneS Says:
December 27th, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Lady T you will be missed, your come back was done with class. Your smooth sexy voice was best showcased in your awesome ballads. Peace and Blessings

tlm Says:
December 27th, 2010 at 4:44 pm

“Lady T”, you will be truly missed. Your vocals will never be duplicated. I have followed you from the beginning and you never failed to always have me in AW!!!! Rest in Peace my dear LADY.

Another one of your #1 fans
Love ya!!!!!!!!!!!!

Robin Adams Says:
December 27th, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Teena, I’ve loved your music, ever since I was a little girl. Your music, has inspired and been one of the most important things to me, throughout my entire life. You came along and hipped everyone to ‘The T’. Rest In Peace, Lady T. We love you.

Robin Adams Says:
December 27th, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Teena, I’ve loved your music, ever since I was a little girl. Your music, has inspired and been one of the most important things to me, throughout my entire life. You came along and hipped everyone to ‘The T’. Rest In Peace, Lady T. We love you.

NoDoz Says:
December 28th, 2010 at 10:38 am

RIP Teena,
Im a living testament that your music has helped intergrate black and whites socially in this country. Im bi-racial and both my parents LOVED you. You were inspirational to them and me a like, you are one who will live on FOREVER in many aspects of American society (race relations, music industry conduct and HipHop).

Vee Weaver Says:
December 28th, 2010 at 1:01 pm

The voice of , my sister of soul.”Fire and Desire” may have gone , but in my heart , you’d live on , RIP Teena Marie

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