Teena Marie, The Blackest White Girl Of Them All: A Personal Account
One of VIBE's most adept OG journalists—and super duper Teena Marie stan—Keith Murphy reflects on his personal history with the lost luminary.
It was inconceivable really.
Just how did a bantam white girl from Santa Monica, California go on to become one of the most respected R&B voices of her era? Teena Marie, who passed away in her sleep Sunday (Dec. 26) at the age of 54, was indeed an anomaly: a free-spirited, blue-eyed soul act who never traded in her ethnicity to garner praise or record sales. For the multi-skilled vocalist, songwriter, musician and producer, the well-worn cliché of she-sounds-pretty-good-for-a-white-girl simply did not apply. To be real about it, Teena Marie was black.
True story. At the age of 10, I remember watching an episode of Soul Train over my grandmother’s house on the Southside of Chicago in 1980. We were in the kitchen and on the TV was Lady T herself performing her saucy-yet-elegant come-on "I Need Your Lovin’.” Of course, being an obsessed, opinionated, and obnoxious music head even at that young and impressionable age (an affliction I’m still trying to shake) I was up on Teena Marie.
My older cousin Aaron—the coolest dude on the planet at least in my eyes—played bass and introduced me to her music. I knew that Teena’s mentor funk superhero Rick James co-signed her, which was good enough for me. She was signed to Motown (another plus!!!!) and I loved the cartoon like hook that drove her early 1979 workout “I’m a Sucker For Your Love.” I recall my cuz wearing out Teena’s first album Wild and Peaceful and later re-playing the stank-face bass line to her 1980 floor-burner “Behind The Groove.”
Teena sung (scratch that…she SANG) like a sister who just got kicked out of a Baptist church because she outshined the choir director. She played rhythm-guitar as nasty as a dirty-minded kid from Minneapolis named Prince. So I was more than aware of her. However, to grandma Teena Marie was a revelation; an alien. “Who is that little white girl lip-syncing to that black voice,” she asked? “That’s Teena Marie,” I said confidently.
“That’s her real voice.”