by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Known as “The Ivory Queen of Soul,” the late, great Teena Marie has the noteworthy distinction of having appeared on Soul Train more times – nine in all – than any other white performer, and yet her success on the pop charts was strangely minimal at best. [Only one of her singles – the 1985 Top Five hit “Lovergirl” – would even so much as crack the Top Thirty, while the #37-peaking “I Need Your Lovin’” from 1980 would be her only other single to dent the Top Forty. In contrast, Teena has seven R&B Top Ten hits to her name (including 1988’s chart-topping “Ooh La La La”) and an additional eight singles that reached the R&B Top 40.] And while much has been written over the years about the unusual nature of her being a white artist in the world of R&B (and one who spent half of her commercial prime as a member of the Motown family, at that!), much less attention is paid to how unusually self-contained her records were; truly, the more control she was allowed to exert over her own records, the more she flourished, both artistically and commercially. Far from merely being a fiery and surprisingly soulful vocalist, Teena was both a gifted lyricist and composer, typically writing most of her own material without the aid of any collaborators, even often crafting the rhythm, string, and horn arrangements herself as well, and a multi-instrumentalist who regularly played both keyboards and guitar, both onstage and on record. Her influence on other recording artists even goes beyond just her music: the lawsuit she filed against Gordy during her final days with the label would prove to have a revolutionary effect on the entire music industry and prevent a record label from being able to keep one of their roster artists under contract if the label was unwilling to issue the records the artist made and handed over for release.
Although she would find her biggest crossover success after signing with Epic in 1982 and going gold with her second album for the label, 1984’s Starchild (which contains “Lovergirl”), it’s the four albums Teena recorded for the Gordy label between 1979 and 1981 that truly cemented her reputation in the R&B world and remain her warmest-sounding albums.
Just as Diana Ross didn’t technically discover the Jackson 5 as was regularly reported in Motown’s earliest marketing efforts for the group, Rick James – in spite of common misconception – didn’t technically discover Teena Marie, either. Teena, in fact, had already been signed to Motown by Berry Gordy by the time the funk icon behind Street Songs met her. But he did still nonetheless serve as an early mentor to the young talent, and her debut album Wild and Peaceful – the packaging of which noticeably excludes any image of the artist, a deliberate move on the part of Gordy to introduce the world to Teena without her race diverting people’s attention from the music contained within – is as much a showcase for James’ own talents as her own. Not only did James arrange and produce the disc, but he plays most of the instruments (including guitar, piano, and drums), wrote all but two of the songs, and even serves as Teena’s duet partner on the opening cut, the brass-heavy disco-funk of “I’m a Sucker for Your Love” (with a great rollicking bass line courtesy of Oscar Alston). [Ironically, though Rick kicks off the cut by imploring listeners to “give it up for Lady T,” a nickname that would not only stick but would serve as the title of her next LP, it’s James himself who takes the first verse, Teena’s vocal not kicking in until fifty seconds into the track.] Though the duet would be the biggest hit on the record, giving Teena her first R&B Top Ten single, it’s not even the best track here, and there are still greater songs later on in the disc.
The ballad “Turnin’ Me On” is an appealing slow jam that calls to mind a more velvety - though not necessarily superior - version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” even distinctly echoing that song’s famous opening chords in the four-note stuttered lick that recurs throughout the song. The tempo kicks back up again for the first side’s closing cut, a disco-style reworking of the Temptations song “Don’t Look Back,” highlighted by James’ great guitar work and a shimmering extensive instrumental break in the back half of the track that allows the song’s many horn players to cut loose to fun effect. [Rick James’ horn arrangements on the song are a work of genius.]
But it’s not until the album’s all-ballads second side where the album truly begins to feel more Teena Marie than Rick James and where Teena truly starts to establish an identity for herself. The sound of crashing waves ushers in the flute-and-harp-laden lite soul of “Déjà Vu (I’ve Been Here Before),” which vaguely recalls Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” in its mellow opening moments before the drums kick in and Teena lets loose with a powerfully passionate vocal. The album-closing piano ballad “I Can’t Love Anymore” is just as emotionally devastating and builds to a thunderous climax. It’s the album’s penultimate cut, however, that leaves the biggest impression of all on the listener, and not merely because it’s the sole Teena original included here; “I’m Gonna Have My Cake (and Eat It Too)” – featuring an ace rhythm section of pianist Clarence Sims, drummer Earl Palmer, and sax player Daniel LeMelle – is the closest that Teena’s ever come to cutting a pure jazz side, and any listener who’s only familiar with Teena through “Lovergirl” will likely be astounded at how incredible and how completely at home she sounds in this setting. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s a shame Teena never experimented with cutting an entire full-length of jazz tunes.
Teena’s sophomore outing, 1980's Lady T, musically feels slightly less revealing than its predecessor, both due to an absence of any jazz-tinged sides like “I’m Gonna Have My Cake (and Eat It Too)” and a more pronounced disco vibe (particularly on “You’re All the Boogie I Need” and “Young Girl in Love”) that makes the album feel just a tad more dated than Wild and Peaceful. But Teena gets to exert herself a bit more here creatively, and she’s co-written all but one of the nine tracks here. Rick James is completely absent this time around, his role as producer having been taken over by Richard Rudolph, best known for co-writing and co-producing his late wife Minnie Riperton’s Number One smash “Lovin’ You.” [In fact, the lone cut here that Teena had no hand in writing, the lovely, gentle acoustic ballad “Now That I Found You,” written by Richard, had originally been intended for Riperton.]
The synth-stomp of “Lonely Desire” recalls Amii Stewart’s chart-topping disco remake of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” while the up-tempo lite-disco sound of “Why Did I Fall in Love with You” is even more appealing. The album’s most inventive cut is arguably the balladry of “Aladdin’s Lamp,” which changes tempos entirely for each chorus, the song speeding up considerably, but it works surprisingly well. But the best and most famous song here is the opener “Behind the Groove,” which remains Teena’s biggest hit in the U.K. (rocketing all the way to #6) and also became Teena’s first Top Ten song on Billboard’s dance charts. Not only does the sound boast a fabulous rhythm track, but the vocal hook is cleverly quite literally placed just behind the groove, resulting in a slightly off-kilter effect that works to the song’s advantage.
Also worth noting is the song’s closing cut, “Too Many Colors,” which features a spoken cameo towards song’s end from Teena’s then-seven-year-old goddaughter (and the daughter of Lady T producer Richard Rudolph), Maya, who would become a superstar herself decades later as a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 2000 to 2007.
(NOTE: Part 2 of this column - showcasing Irons in the Fire and It Must Be Magic - will be posted Friday alongside the second half of our Discog Fever feature on Rick James!)