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Teena Marie's talent set her apart from pop divas

Teena Marie proved that the music doesn't care what color your skin happens to be.

Throughout her career, the influential R&B singer and musician crafted funky hits that acknowledged no color barriers, and appealed to listeners from what were conventionally considered opposing corners of pop culture.

To the point where her first hit, "I'm Just A Sucker For Your Love," was often considered to be the work of an African-American artist. The fact that it was issued without a picture of its creator adorning it did nothing to disabuse listeners of such a notion.

Marie -- born Mary Christine Brockert -- passed away on Sunday at the age of 54. She'd suffered a grand mal seizure a week previous, according to an Associated Press report, and had commented publicly on an ongoing battle with prescription drugs over the last few years, but authorities Monday were attributing her death to natural causes.

What was never natural was the magnitude of Marie's talent.

Though her influence is most present and accounted for in the work of contemporary R&B/pop/hip-hop divas who are much more singers, performers and stars than they are musicians, the former Mary Brockert was an able guitarist, keyboardist and percussionist who could also write, arrange and produce records with consummate skill. She is now celebrated for her singing abilities, and rightly so. But Marie had much more in common with self-contained music machines like Prince than she did with any of her peers in the disco era from which she emerged.

This set her apart at the time, and continues to do so now.

The late funk/soul icon and Buffalonian Rick James was one of the first prominent musicians to take note of Marie's abundant talent -- despite the fact she'd signed a development deal with Berry Gordy's Motown Records in 1976, and had been demoing songs in obscurity for a few years by the time James happened upon her. James took Marie under his wing, produced her debut, "Wild and Peaceful," and dueted with her on that album's "I'm Just A Sucker For Your Love," which made it to No. 8 on what was then called the "Black" Top 40 chart. Until she showed up in the flesh with James on a 1979 episode of television's immensely popular "Soul Train" to perform the song, very few listeners knew the color of her skin.

Once they heard what Marie was capable of, few of those listeners seemed to care what color she was. For them, Marie was the perfect blend of soul, funk, a slightly lascivious sexuality, and the counterpoint of silky smooth vocals and rough, raunchy rhythms that would come to define hip-hop some 20 years later.

Marie dueted with James again, on the latter's massively successful "Street Songs" album (1980) and its hit single "Fire and Desire." Then she set off on her own, releasing a string of adventurous pop-funk-R&B albums to varying degrees of commercial success, until she embarked on a hiatus in the '90s. During that time, her work started cropping up as sampled material in hip-hop songs, and was name-checked as an influence by artists as diverse as Sheila E. and the Fugees.

Marie should be remembered as an irreverent, proud, deeply talented and immensely groundbreaking artist. Much is likely to be made of the fact that she refused to acknowledge color barriers, and rightly so -- Marie was one of the first white singers to land a contract on Motown, previously the proud home of African--American soul and R&B alone.

Later, she'd become one of the most outspoken female artists in pop when she left Motown on the grounds that they were holding her to her contract while simultaneously refusing to release her new music. When the label sued her, she countersued, and won. The resulting new limits on recording artist contract-length, and concurrent increase in wage caps, became known as "The Brocket Initiative."

Today, you can hear Marie's influence in the work of pop divas like Beyonce, Rhianna and Keri Hilson; you can spot her significance in the soul-pop offerings of Mary J. Blige and Christina Aguilera; the marriage of pop melody and hip-hop groove that defines today's commercial pop owes a debt of gratitude to Marie's collected works, which prefigured such a development.

None of this is as important as the simple fact that Teena Marie was a serious musician who seized control of every aspect of record-making with equal measures of zeal and talent. In an era when singers often leave production, performance and composition to a team of industry professionals, she stands as an icon of hands-on artistry and a monument to the spirit of the independent musician.

jmiers@buffnews.com

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