The year is 1980, and Teena Marie is breaking a sweat on national television. It’s the singer’s second appearance on Soul Train, and she’s well-versed in the show’s electric, stylish theater, wearing a belted yellow turtleneck and high-waisted bell-bottoms. A corona of curly hair bounces along as she gyrates across the stage, performing the slinky R&B hit “I Need Your Lovin’,” the opening track from that year’s Irons in the Fire. She resembles an infinitely cooler version of Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing: Marie is always on the move, two-stepping across the stage between verses before hitting the sustained, sky-high note at song’s end with the gusto of an opera queen. When she bounces over to chat with Don Cornelius afterward, he chuckles, obviously impressed.
“No,” she answers. “Want me to do it again?”
That performance—plus the next “nine, ten, eleven” times she appeared on Soul Train over the course of her career, as she remembered it—is testament to many facts about Teena Marie: her tireless brio onstage; her robust and layered vocal talents; her infectious, easygoing personality. Marie’s music was steeped in the gospel, R&B, and soul traditions she heard growing up in “Venice Harlem,” a melting-pot, working-class neighborhood in west Los Angeles. It was a street cred she carried through her entire life, even name-checking the locale by name on the title track to Irons in the Fire. By the time she made the album, her third, and the first over which she had full creative control, the singer had secured a rarified place that no white entertainer in R&B had ever reached, before or since. “My skin is white, but I’m not looked at like that,” she said in a posthumous 2012 documentary on her life. “I’m a Black entertainer, and I always have been.”
Before all of the success that led to Soul Train, however, Teena Marie was simply Mary Christine Brockert. At 8, she began singing in church and at local functions, growing up with parents who played jazz staples like Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan at home. They encouraged her hobby early on, and as a youth in Venice her love for soul and R&B ran deep. She would haul her battery-powered turntable and Smokey Robinson 45s outside to play and sing along while she and her friends ran track, earning her the nickname Lil’ Smokey for how closely she could mimic the timbre of his voice.
Marie knew even then that she wanted to write love songs modeled after her favorites from Smokey, the Dells, and Al Green, whose lush, heartbroken “Tired of Being Alone” stopped her in her tracks as a sophomore in high school. You can hear the seeds of Marie’s swooning music in Green’s vocals especially, the way he holds his breath for a beat before letting loose a maelstrom of emotion.
Marie attended Santa Monica College and wrote music on the side with friends, eventually landing her first break with Motown, which had expanded from Detroit to Hollywood. Despite earning Berry Gordy’s approval, she worked with an assortment of songwriters over nearly three years with no luck. While rehearsing at the label’s L.A. studio one day, Marie finally got the right person’s attention: Rick James, fresh off 1978’s Come Get It!, his debut Top-10 R&B album that would launch his outrageous, sequin-studded “Super Freak” era. The funk-rock svengali took an instant shine to Marie. “I expected to see a writer-producer,” James told People years later. “And instead I found this short, tiny white body sitting at the piano, singing like the gods had come into her spirit.”
Marie wasn’t Motown’s only white artist, but she was the first at the label to write music that was undeniably made for Black listeners, especially once James stepped in. He produced her debut, 1979’s Wild & Peaceful, a set of silky R&B punctuated with James’ signature horns and percussive guitars. The album art featured a drippy, pastel painting of the sea, a marketing bet by Motown brass to mask Marie’s race that paid off: the album netted her first top-ten R&B hit, the buoyant, call-and-response James duet “I’m a Sucker for Your Love.”
On Lady T, her follow-up a year later, Richard Rudolph stepped in on production duty. Marie dedicated it to Rudolph’s late wife Minnie Riperton, one of her idols, and the album resembles some of Riperton’s most nimble music as driven by a disco polish and Marie’s vibrant enthusiasm. Released on Valentine’s Day 1980 and emblazoned with regal cover art that put Marie’s face front and center, Lady T was the first time many people had seen the woman behind the music. “I tell them I’m white but they think I’m Black and I’m trying to pass for white,” she said in an interview that year. “This is white skin. I’m not trying to fool anybody.”
Lady T’s swinging glamor set the stage for the passionate Irons in the Fire, recorded immediately afterward and released within the year. Having closely studied both James and Rudolph at work, Marie was now prepared to take total control over hiring, arrangements, and production, with the full support of Gordy and Motown label head Hal Davis behind her (“Mr. Gordy just gave me a shot at producing and turned me loose,” she said). She recruited fellow Motown groups Ozone and Rick James’ Stone City Band to provide the rhythm and horn section, allowing for her sturdy, bottom-heavy arrangements to flourish. Marie played keyboards and recorded most of the album’s backing vocals herself. “Being a woman or being a young woman doesn’t matter if you can do the job,” she told The Los Angeles Times around the album’s release, her confidence on full, fabulous display. “People ask me, ‘How do you handle men in the studio and tell them what to do?’ That’s not a problem. Being in charge is natural for me and I do it well.”
The proof is spread all across the album. Irons in the Fire is an exercise in sleek early-’80s excess, but it feels completely natural in Marie’s hands. The album’s come-ons and recriminations are bound in synthy R&B songs (“First Class Love”) that sit comfortably beside straight jazz standards (“Tune in Tomorrow”). On the irrepressible “I Need Your Lovin’,” small details come together like a tapestry: the rubbery bassline guides Marie’s ascending backing vocals, which melt into a robust, double-tracked chorus as Ray Woodard’s saxophone flit in and out for solos. The effusive “whoo!” that opens the song became something like her equivalent of a producer tag, reoccurring most famously on her successful 1981 rap single “Square Biz.”
Every bespoke choice turns Irons in the Fire into a decadent listening experience, but the smoldering title track, with plucked harp and gentle percussion, is Marie’s most moving performance. Where “I Need Your Lovin’” and the bounding “You Make Love Like Springtime” rely on over-the-top exuberance, here she sounds utterly relaxed, tearing through high vocal runs and then back down with olympic agility. The song presages some of her stormier ballads and collaborations, especially “Fire & Desire,” her 1981 Rick James duet that stands as one of the most heart-rending, soulful collaborations of all time.
Irons in the Fire was Marie’s first record to break into the R&B Top 10, which is inextricable from her involvement with every aspect of the record. Her production and songwriting prowess has been instructive for generations of musicians Marie has influenced over the years: Faith Evans, who collaborated with Marie on her 2009 album Congo Square, recalled admiring seeing her name listed as a producer and writer in the liner notes when she would look through her mother’s LPs as a child. Marie’s reach extended to hip-hop, too: Missy Elliott adopted Marie’s “Square Biz” flow for her guest feature on Ciara’s “1,2 Step,” and the Fugees sampled 1988’s “Ooo La La La” for The Score’s “Fu-Gee-La,” the group’s highest-selling single. Mary J. Blige, another powerhouse of R&B, cites her as a formative influence constantly. “It bugs me out that only 1 out of 20 people knows about Teena Marie,” she protested to Entertainment Weekly in 2004.
After one more album for Motown, 1981’s It Must Be Magic, Marie split from the label, disclosing that they were holding her to her contract while simultaneously withholding her from releasing music. When she signed with Epic, Motown sued, so her legal team countersued citing a state law that required record companies to pay their artists a $6,000 minimum per year. She won the case, resulting in a legal statute that gave artists more power when negotiating contracts with labels known as “the Brockert Initiative.” Artists like Luther Vandross and Mary Jane Girls cited the statute to get out of their contracts afterward; by standing up for herself, Marie had changed the entire landscape for recording artists going forward.
Marie’s career places a singular emphasis on authenticity that fortified her both personally and with audiences. She earned respect because of her pure dedication and respect for the craft, which simply can’t be faked. Irons in the Fire captured the singer at a moment that still feels rare and unprecedented today: a woman in her early 20s taking full control in the studio to establish her personal vision of soul and R&B music. “I think people have embraced me because they really can feel that I’m real,” she said in an interview in 2004. “And that I’m who I am and I play the music that I love.”
Get the Sunday Review in your inbox every weekend. Sign up for the Sunday Review newsletter here.