That Time Teena Marie First Produced Herself And…
Teena Marie – Irons in the Fire – Teena Marie (Gordy/Motown – 1980)
by A. Scott Galloway (Special to RadioFacts)
“I have been colored in and faded out. My hand she quivers and yet my pen still writes. ‘If life is death and peace is wrath – or if you feel I have chosen to embark on a most precocious path – let me be the judge of my own cessation, for I am the only one who knows just how far or fast I go…’”
Independence Day had arrived along the sparkling shores of Venice…Venice, California that is. It was a hot summers day of sunny skies, crystal blue persuasion and salt songs – misting and ascending to the Most High. A home spun Vanilla Child was on the brink of shaking the chains that had not so much bound her but disciplined her – reigned her in to teach her a thing or three – for her level of excellence in the realm of songcraft was nothing short of sweet bitter destiny. She was born Mary Christine Brockert but she took “Teena Marie” as her nom de plume. And when she was really feeling herself, she butterflied into “Lady Tee.” The latter is clearly who was possessing her 5”1’ frame when she raised up the baton to conduct her first self-produced symphony: her third LP, Irons in the Fire.
When she arrived at Motown’s Sunset Boulevard offices in Hollywood by bus from beach town, she was a lump of clay…a young White girl in love with the rainbow of music all around her: Musicals, Rock, Jazz, Top 40 Pop and a whole lot of Soul. The world-wise veterans at Motown could see there was plenty within her to work with. It would be a combination of Tee’s tenacity and some empathetic in-house hearts that slowly began to piece her puzzle together.
Motown Founder and Chairman Berry Gordy was among the first to take her under his wing, producing an early 8-song demo session. She was also ushered in and out of the doors of several lesser-known producers such as Kenny Kerner, Richie Wise, and Winston Monesque – each zoning in on the part of Tee they could most relate to but never getting anywhere near the whole picture. Singer/Songwriter/Producer Ronnie McNeir got the closest. Years later, Tee would show her gratitude, bringing him back into the fold on her sixth album, Starchild, on which they sang the duet “We’ve Got to Stop Meeting Like This,” even performing it together on “Soul Train.” But that would be a long ways away. The biggest misstep Motown made was slotting her into the ill-fated sons of Gordy band Apollo. Notoriously, Teena left a session allegedly to run a quick errand and conveniently never returned.
It would be a rowdy upstart, stage name “Rick James,” who would fatefully peek his head into the writing room where Teena was working away, hearing something familiar in her voice and verses that connected to his youth. They were mirror opposite twins – he a Black man who originally wanted to be a folk rocker, dodging the draft, smoking pot, letting his hair grow long and hanging with White dudes that happened to include a young Neil Young and future Steppenwolf member Nick St. Nicholas. She was a White California beach girl, always with a song in her heart and upon her lips, whose “bestest friend named Mickey” (among many) was Black. When reborn Rick got red hot at Motown, fronting his Stone City Band and dropping the coldblooded Punk Funk on they ass via his Come Get It LP (Gordy/Motown – 1978) featuring “You and I” and “Mary Jane,” he was in a plum position to reach back and help another artist of his choosing. “Mack” that he was, Rick chose Teena, and launched her as the producer of her long-awaited debut album, Wild and Peaceful (Gordy/Motown – 1979). It was highlighted by two polar opposite instant classics: the party starter “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love” and the serenely introspective “Déjà vu (I’ve Been Here Before).”
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