The first thing that strikes you about Teena Marie is her realness. Sure, setting up an interview with the singer required several days of phone tag with her management team. But two minutes into a conversation with a perfect stranger, she drops all pretense of being an R&B diva. Her voice, seasoned with a touch of twang, is honest and sincere, and she’s so down to earth, you’d think you’ve known her for a long time.
Which, in a sense, you have. Marie’s gift for making inspiring soul music first became apparent to the world on the ’80s romantic ballad “Fire and Desire,” sung with onetime paramour Rick James — an old-school classic that still gets a lot of play after the midnight hour. Her 25-year recording career has also produced such hits as “Ooh La La” (which provided the hook for the Fugees’ “Fugee-La”), “Square Biz,” and “Lovergirl.” Last year, just prior to James’ death, she released La Doña, her first album of all-new material in six years. Asked how she feels about her “OG” status, she says, “I never really thought about it so much like that, but, it’s a beautiful thing. To see little thirteen-year-old girls come up to me and be like, ŒMan, I love that song “Still in Love,” and my momma has a bunch of stuff by you from back in the day, and you just have a beautiful voice’ … it’s a blessing.”
Marie puts her lengthy career in perspective by noting that 90 percent of her audience is black women, a boast it’s doubtful any other contemporary white singer, R&B or otherwise, could make. Her fans — and her creative drive — are what keep her going. “I’m just still really, really passionate about the music,” she says. “I’ve never really lost my passion for writing, working in the studio, performing. I still really enjoy it.” She reveals that she was excited about the recent opportunity to work with A-list producer and labelmate Mannie Fresh, but when she got to the studio, Fresh was nowhere to be found. Instead of taking it as a dis, she says, “I took control of the track and did what I wanted to do to it. Put the vocals on it, wrote the melody, wrote the lyrics, did all the backgrounds, put another guitar on it, mixed it, mastered it, and sent it back.” That’s Teena Marie in a nutshell. Sweet as a pound of sugar, but determined as a mule when put to the test.
No wonder she proved such a capable foil for James, who toured with her as recently as last year. Tough as Marie is, her emotion at the mere mention of his name is palpable, as she relates that it’s hard for her these days to sing “Fire and Desire” — she has performed it only three times since James’ passing — knowing that “Rick won’t be coming out to sing it with me.” Still, you can expect her to sing “Fire and Desire” and all her other favorites this Monday at noon at Pioneer Amphitheater for Stone Soul Picnic, KBLX’ annual old-school shindig, also featuring the Whispers, Ledisi, and the Gap Band. Tickets: $52.50 from 510-762-2277.
Marie’s style these days may be more Evian and Pellegrino than “incense, wine, and candles,” but she isn’t quite ready to stop performing yet. She says she’ll continue to record as long as her voice holds up, and plans on touring for five more years. Someday she envisions passing the torch to her teenage daughter (a singer herself), and moving into a jazz mode, something she has always wanted to do. Repeating a phrase that has become her mantra, she says, “God has such an amazing destiny for me.”