By Nekesa Mumbi Moody
LOS ANGELES – Teena Marie, the “Ivory Queen of Soul” who developed a lasting legacy with her silky soul pipes and with hits like “Lovergirl,” “Square Biz,” and “Fire and Desire” with mentor Rick James, has died. She was 54.
The confirmation came from a publicist, Jasmine Vega, who worked with Teena Marie on her last album, 2009’s “Congo Square.” Her manager, Mike Gardner, also confirmed her death to CNN.
The singer continued performing in recent years after overcoming an addiction to prescription drugs. It was unclear late Sunday where and how she died.
Marie certainly wasn’t the first white act to sing soul music, but she was arguably among the most gifted and respected, and was thoroughly embraced by the Black audience.
Even before she started her musical career, she had a strong bond with the Black community, which she credited to her godmother. She gravitated to soul music and in her youth decided to make it her career.
Marie made her debut on the legendary Motown label back in 1979, becoming one of the very few white acts to break the race barrier of the groundbreaking Black-owned record label that had been a haven for Black artists like Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye.
Marie was the protege of the masterful funk wizard James, with whom she would have a long, turbulent but musically magical relationship.
The cover of her debut album, “Wild and Peaceful,” did not feature her image, with Motown apparently fearing Black audiences might not buy it if they found out the songstress with the dynamic, gospel-inflected voice was white.
But Marie notched her first hit, “I’m A Sucker for Your Love,” and was on her way to becoming one of R&B’s most revered queens. During her tenure with Motown, the singer-songwriter and musician produced passionate love songs and funk jam songs like “Need Your Lovin’,” “Behind the Groove” and “Ooh La La La.”
Marie’s voice was the main draw of her music: Pitch-perfect, piercing in its clarity and wrought with emotion, whether it was drawing from the highs of romance or the mournful moments of a love lost. But her songs, most of which she had a hand in writing, were the other major component of her success.
Tunes like “Cassanova Brown” “Portuguese Love” and “Deja Vu (I’ve Been Here Before)” featured more than typical platitudes on love and life, but complex thoughts with rich lyricism.
And “Fire and Desire,” a duet with Rick James that featured the former couple musing about their past love, was considered a musical masterpiece and a staple of the romance block on radio stations across the country.
Marie left Motown in 1982 and her split became historic: She sued the label and the legal battle led to a law preventing record labels from holding an artist without releasing any of their music.
She went to Epic in the 1980s and had hits like “Lovergirl” but her lasting musical legacy would be her Motown years.
Still, she continued to record music and perform. In 2004 and 2006 she put out two well-received albums on the traditional rap label Cash Money Records, “La Dona” and “Sapphire.”
In 2008, she talked about her excitement of being honored by the R&B Foundation.
“All in all, it’s been a wonderful, wonderful ride,” she told The Associated Press at the time. “I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”