Teena Marie: ‘They Don’t Sing R&B Like I Do’


“Well I can’t speak about Paloma Faith because I haven’t heard of her, but as far as comparisons to Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone are concerned… those artists are pop singers, not R&B singers; they don’t sing R&B like I do” says US soul legend Teena Marie, dismissing the UK’s two biggest white skinned soul exports of the last decade. Singers who like Ms. Marie have achieved record buying success with black American punters and UK authentic soul music fans, “crossing over” despite the colour of their skin (in Teena’s case pinkie white).

Had Teena (aka ‘Lady T’ aka ‘The Queen of Ivory Soul’) not blazed a trail, it’s arguable that the UK-led white soul invasion wouldn’t have occurred on the scale it has. It’s a debt not lost on Winehouse in particular, who thanked Teena Marie in the sleeve notes to her debut album Frank. Teena, who is sitting comfortably on a settee, situated in a penthouse suite of a swanky St. Paul’s based London Hotel, elaborates…

“I was really the only white performer to be accepted by the black audience because it was who I was, it (Singing R&B) wasn’t contrived, and it was just something I was able to do. I believe it came from God; I first started singing when I was 2 years old, at Church along with the priest and on that song that went (she sings) “Dayo, Day-ee-ay-yo” (better known as The Banana Boat Song).

“God gave me this skin colour he also made us who we are. So in Junior High School, I could do two things, I was an athlete so I could run real fast and I could sing which helped me mix with the black Americans, the sisters – who accepted me for who I was.  When they heard me sing they were like “woh, is that you!?” It’s something I think God gave me to help me break down that divide. Someone said to me ‘I never had a white friend until I met you’.”


Motown Records owner Berry Gordy noticed her voice too, signing a young Teena to the label in 1979. “He put the first record out (Wild & Peaceful produced by Rick James) without me anywhere on the cover,” explains Teena, “Berry wanted the music to speak for itself” Which it did, proving hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and building a career that would include numerous awards, Grammy nods & the ’80s hits ‘Behind The Groove’, ‘I Need Your Lovin’’ and ‘Portuguese Love’. Songs which will all be heard no doubt at the Indigo2 in Greenwich as Teena Marie is back here performing in the UK for first time in 20 years – a show which sold out within days of first being announced over the www.

Teena still recalls the first time she appeared in Britain in 1980, “I remember I performed in Hammersmith but had the worst case of jet lag ever! I was excited to be over here, because I love the Beatles and John Lennon in particular, so I visited Liverpool when I was here and wrote the song Where’s California’ based on that experience.” A classic song (from the It Must Be Magic album) about pining for a loved one back home, it features the lyric “Manchester, England looks a lot like me today. Ain’t no sunshine in the feelin‘” (Oh yeah Teena we can talk about weather, we know exactly what you’re talking about there. Imagine living here.) She continues, “You know I really love John Lennon, and I dedicated the song Milk N’ Honey (from the new album) to him.”

Her new record Congo Square is her first for the revitalized Stax label. Like Milk N Honey, every song on the album is dedicated to someone in particular. ‘Black Cool’ takes its name from a headline on the US edition of Ebony Magazine that featured President Barack Obama. ‘Can’t Last A Day’ is a homage to the music of Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International and (the now sadly departed) Teddy Pendergrass with the Notorious BIG’s ex, Faith Evans, providing vocals on the track.

Teena can see similarities in Faith’s career path to the one she followed, “Faith Evans and I, whilst we both had a careers alongside our partners, Faith with Biggie Smalls and me with Rick James [punk funk legend and her mentor], we also both had to step out and make a career of our own. Faith is my favourite singer of the younger ladies.”

Title track ‘Congo Square’ is the centrepiece of the album, named after the open space in the Tremé district of New Orleans, Louisiana, just north of the French Quarter. The square is located in the aptly named Louis Armstrong Park, famed for its rich tradition of African American music. Being the place where historically, on their Sunday’s day off the slaves use to congregate and sing, play music, dance and get down during Colonial French and Spanish rule. The tradition has carried on until the present day.

“I live in Los Angeles but I spent a lot of time in New Orleans (Teena’s previous 2 albums were released on the Ca$h Money label which was based there), though I got out just before Hurricane Katrina struck. I felt such a connection to that place but couldn’t understand why. The music of Congo Square, you had Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Led Zeppelin in their painted style, even the little guy on the corner, all these people that were inspired by that place through their music. It wasn’t until I finished that record that my cousin told me that my great, great grandma used to be from New Orleans, that’s why it felt like home.”

Whilst most of the songs are dedicated to a celebrity or public figure, like No Pressure’ which is for Rick James or ‘Miss. Coretta’ which is about Mrs. Coretta Scott King (the late wife of Dr. Martin Luther King), one song in particular – the brilliant soul ballad ‘Marry Me’ – is of a more personal nature.

Teena remains gracefully tight lipped as to the identity of the person it’s dedicated to; “I thought it was an amazing concept for a song, people that are together for a long time and then decide to get married. I nearly got married three times, but on each occasion I couldn’t go through with it because honestly I couldn’t promise that I would still be with them for the rest of my life. Marriage is a very sacred thing to me; it’s more than about having a piece a paper.”

Teena Marie’s Congo Square is out now on Stax/Universal.
Please check her website for more details: www.concordmusicgroup.com/artists/Teena-Marie/

— Soul Jones

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