TEENA MARIE / “Casanova Brown”
If you were with us last week, you’ve already read everything I have to say about Teena Marie as a singer and black music icon. I also gave you my Teena Marie bench team (so to speak) – six players (i.e., songs) who don’t necessarily start the game, but are still talented and enjoyable enough to hold their own. (Y’all have to pardon me for the basketball metaphors, but it’s April ’08. The New Orleans Hornets are the #2 seed in the NBA playoffs and they are in the process of spanking the living hell out of the Dallas Mavericks. D-West, T.C. and CP3 are killing ‘em!) This week, I’m giving you my main rotation: five starters plus the all-important sixth man (i.e., the first player off the bench). … Actually, you know what? This is silly. I’m done with the basketball thing. Let’s just talk music. But before we get to the records themselves, I have to correct a mis-statement that Kalamu made (or at least implied) last week. He referred to Teena as “a soul singer who [doesn’t have] a major chart record.” Unless we’re defining “major” solely as a #1 hit, that’s not true at all. Teena’s career on the Billboard charts spans nearly three decades (27 years, to be exact) and includes scores of hits. She may have only had one #1 record (“Ooh La La La,” which we talked about last week), but she had seven other Top Ten hits and seventeen records (in total) that came in at #45 or higher. I don’t know about anybody else, but from where I’m sitting, eight Top Ten hits definitely counts as having a history of major chart records. Alright, on to the music. #6. “Dear Lover” – From Robbery (1983) As I listened through all of these great Teena Marie moments back-to-back, trying to decide what order to put them in, I noticed that almost all of them have great openings. It’s not just that they all have a certain pomp and circumstance in the opening instrumentation; it’s also that Teena’s first lines tend to really grab you — especially the way she sings them. Here’s how she starts this week’s #6 selection, “Dear Lover”: “If I could paint a picture of the love I have inside, it would paint all of me and all of you without [any] thought of pride.” Nice. That’s the way she starts the lyrics, at least. But Teena’s vocals actually begin before the words do. Before she gets to the story itself, Teena opens the proceedings with a spine-tingling series of oooh-oooh’s that lasts through the entire intro. Then, after getting down to lyrical business, Teena quotes poetry, elevates her man to Hall of Fame status and “dares” any other woman to try to take him away. That’s some heavy duty loving. BTW, is it just me or does this record have similar chord changes to the Emotions’ “What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas”? #5. “Aladdin’s Lamp” – From Lady T. (Gordy/Motown, 1980) This record has it all: great slow-jam vocal work on the verses, a lovely Minnie Riperton-esque chorus and several changes of pace. The Minnie Riperton vibe isn’t an accident. After Riperton died in 1979, Teena decided to dedicate the Lady T. album to the legendary singer. Not coincidentally, Minnie’s husband (lyricist, arranger and producer Richard Rudolph) produced the Lady T. album. After the intro on strings, the drum breakdown kicks in and then Teena begins: “We were rich and we were poor / Two children playing grown up games.” At which point you’re thinking, “Oh, OK. It’s going to be one of those records.” There’s a long tradition in R&B songwriting (and most ever other kind of popular music too) of records lamenting lost loves. Usually, these songs are written entirely in the past tense just to make sure that we realize we’re talking about something in the past as opposed to something that still has a chance—no matter how remote—of actually happening. The songs are so effective in part because we’ve all had someone (or at least something) that we could’ve chosen but didn’t, and now, years and years later, we regret it. Or, even if we don’t regret it, we at least wonder what would’ve happened if we’d taken that alternate road. In this version of the ‘road not taken’ love jam, Teena plays the ‘what if’ game. What if she had a magic lamp. And what if, when she rubbed the lamp, a genie came out and offered her a wish. What does she wish for? She wishes for the lamp (and the genie too) to turn into ol’ boy she broke up with all those years back. Funny. #4. “Déjà Vu (I’ve Been Here Before)” – From Wild And Peaceful (Motown, 1979) Now we’re getting into high, exalted ‘all time great records in the history of R&B’ type material. After a gentle flute and guitar intro, Teena comes in and once again, the opening lines are on point:
I’m young and I’m old I’m rich and I’m poor I feel like I’ve been on this Earth Many times beforeOnly this time, Teena didn’t write those words. Rick James did. Rick has been saddled with a rather unfortunate image—and in fairness, a lot of it is his own doing—of being a drug-fueled wild-man with a talent for writing big, catchy hooks and raunchy lyrics. There’s another side to Rick James though, and this sensitive, thoughtful and, dare I say, even elegant record shows that other side. I’ve seen Teena break into this one in concert and, trust me, actual tears have been shed. When Teena sings, “I used to be a queen, you know,” and then makes reference to a land “near the sea,” I can't help thinking about the Motherland. I seriously doubt that the vibe is accidental. Rick knew what he was doing when he wrote these words. I have to note that although this song is from Teena’s debut album, Wild And Peaceful, you hear none of the vocal immaturity that sometimes crops up on other tunes from the album. On songs like “I’m Gonna Have My Cake (And Eat It Too),” Teena sometimes seems hesitant. The record is so good though, that it survives Teena’s lack of confidence. “Déjà Vu” is different. She absolutely nails it. If Teena had never recorded another decent song after this one, her place in R&B history would’ve already been secure. Oh, one more thing. Even in a dream, how the hell does a “white gazelle” end up “riding horseback?” Just wondering. #3. “Square Biz” – From It Must Be Magic (Motown, 1981) I think of Teena primarily as a slow jam artist but she actually had a number of successful uptempo records, including her first Top Ten hit, 1979’s “I’m A Sucker For Your Love.” But none of her faster records were more successful—either artistically or commercially—than her Top Five R&B hit “Square Biz.” The album this song is taken from, 1981’s It Must Be Magic, eventually became the biggest seller of Teena’s career, peaking at #2 on Billboard’s R&B chart. Ironically, one reason Teena’s massively popular album didn’t make it all the way to #1 was that her mentor, one time lover and frequent writing and singing partner Rick James was firmly ensconced there with his even more massive LP Street Songs. If black people had any doubt about whether or not to accept Teena as one of their own, her rap on “Square Biz” must’ve sealed the deal. She starts off rapping about her high class tastes (Dom Perignon, filet mignon, caviar) but then admits she’s just talking “bunk.” What she really likes, she says, is chicken, corn bread and collard greens. Then she drops her physical dimensions (“Less than five foot one / a hundred pounds of fun”) and her aliases (‘Casper,’ ‘Shorty,’ ‘Little Bit,’ ‘Vanilla Child’ and ‘Lady T’). That’s all black shit. White folk don’t know nothing about high-siding, ghetto aliases, corn bread or collard greens. So then—because she’s not done yet—Teena breaks down her musical and lyrical inspirations. “Spirituals and rock,” she says. OK. “Sarah Vaughn, Johann Sebastian Bach, Shakespeare.” OK, we’re with you. Go on. “Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni.” Wait a second. Did that little white girl just say Nikki Giovanni? I’m pretty sure this was the precise moment that the doors to the ‘hood swung wide open and a brother wearing a black leather jacket and dark shades handed Teena her official lifetime ghetto pass. #2. “Portuguese Love” – From It Must Be Magic (Motown, 1981) “I ain’t gonna let you go that easy.” “You made love forever.” “Won’t you say you love me, baby.” “You know you had to be a hurricane.” “I’m gonna give it all to you.” “We made love until the morning.” “This must be paradise.” “A dream I’d never thought would come to pass came and went like sand through an hour glass.” In lesser hands, this fascinating exercise in slow jam perfection would’ve devolved into a tepid succession of meaningless cliché. As it is, it’s a standout moment in a career full of them. Teena’s vocals are on point, as usual, but this one is all about the arrangement. Even before the high-speed jazzy break, the record never stops shifting and moving. There are so many different elements working together that listening to this tune on headphones is a dizzying experience. Teena takes you up, out, back down, then waaaay up, then back down again. It’s a hell of a trip and, if it weren’t for the next tune were going to talk about, it’d be the best record of Teena Marie’s career. #1. “Casanova Brown” – From Robbery (Epic, 1983) I have a story about “Casanova Brown.” Back in the day in New Orleans, the leading R&B station (FM98 WYLD) used to hold an annual talent show at the Saenger Theater. The talent was usually good, if not overwhelming, although there were usually one or two singers or dancers who you could tell were destined for brighter lights and bigger stages. The same as any major talent show, I guess. Anyhow, I was there this one year when a young lady took the stage and, without accompaniment, began to sing the following:
My baby’s fine He always keeps me guessing But never keeps me guessing About his loveThe place went nuts. There were people screaming and yelling, falling out of their seats, waving their hands in the air — all kinds of foolishness. You would’ve thought it was ten in the morning on a Sunday and we were at church. The thing is, the girl didn’t actually sing the song all that well. If I remember correctly, she did a decent job — that is, she made it all the way through without getting booed off the stage. The place wasn’t going crazy for her. They were going crazy for the song. Teena Marie’s song. And, if rumor is to be believed (and in this case, the rumors are probably correct), it’s Teena’s song about no one other than Slick Rick, the Super Freak himself, Mr. Rick James. The clues are all right there in the record. First, there’s the name ‘Casanova Brown.’ Before we even hear a note, I think it’s safe to assume that Teena’s talking about a black man. (Although I just discovered that there’s a Gary Cooper movie from 1944 also called Casanova Brown. I have to assume that’s just a coincidence.) “He’s had more girls than Howard Hughes had money.” Rick’s prowess with groupies and other interested young women is well known and well documented. “It’s my command performance / My name is clairvoyance.” This sounds like Teena’s admission that she really should’ve know better. How’d ya girl Stevie Nicks put it? “Players only love you when they’re playing.” Exactly. Then, abruptly, the tune shifts to a swinging, big band jazz kind of arrangement and Teena starts to tell a story: “Standing room only,” she says. “The concert’s sold out.” So it sounds like we’re talking about entertainers. “Everyone’s got a piece of the pie of you and I.” Meaning, we’re talking about popular entertainers. People popular enough that it’s hard for them to find time for themselves. “But nobody knows,” Teena finishes, “That when the lights go down, the tears flow harder than the whole damn crowd.” That’s rough. And she’s not finished. It’s one of those extended endings where the end comes in parts. Part one is realization. “Wasn’t I the one,” Teena says, quoting one of her own past hits, “Who said I’ll have my cake and eat it too?” Teena may be admitting here that she tricked herself into believing she could somehow make a lover out of player, and not only that, she could do it while working, writing and performing with him. She could have her man and have her career with him too. Part two is anger and recrimination. “You pushed ‘til I was through.” “You didn’t have to make me cry.” But that’s what Casanova’s do, don’t they? They push you to make more and more of a fool or yourself until finally…. Part three — the decision. “I love you so, but I have to let you go.” And before going any further, let me note right here that the technical and emotional methodology Teena employs in dropping that one line (“but I had to let you go”) is right up there with the way Queen Aretha herself once sang, “That man sure makes me feel real good.” The words are simple, basic. We’ve heard them a million times before. But the way these women perform the words…. Man, oh man. If you can’t feel at least a little of what they were feeling when you listen to them sing these lines, maybe you ought to head over to the nearest psych doctor’s couch to find out if you even have feelings. It just doesn’t get much deeper. Part four is dejection. Teena asks over and over, “Did you hear me cry?” Then she goes into a long and wordless scatting, moaning emotional breakdown type of thing that finally, at long last leads to…. Part five — resolution. The music calms. Teena’s voice quiets down. “Before the love turns to hate,” she concludes, “Let’s let it end and still be friends.” I guess someone had to be the mature one, right? And there you have it. An entire hopelessly-flawed love affair in all its glory and futility, compressed into six minutes of sonic brilliance. God damn, what a record.
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