On Our Haute List
Celebrity Interview: Teena Marie
“Lester was there, so was Ms. Badu
Louie played trumpet on West End Blues
Ain’t that Jill Scott with my sweet aunt Nancy
Sassy and Ella start scattin’ now
They start a frenzy there in the crowd
Sistahs has always been so resilient”
–Teena Marie’s, ‘Congo Square’
Pop in Teena Marie’s new CD, ‘Congo Square’, and you will hear what sounds like a love letter; the music, lyrics, and melodies are reminders of great singers across generations: Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Minnie Riperton, Smokey Robinson, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin.
That’s not by accident. In fact, the songstress told us she dedicated each song on the album to somebody who has influenced her, most of them singers, “Back then, everybody had their own sound and you could turn on the radio and you knew that was Earth, Wind, and Fire; and you knew that was Minnie Riperton. I wanted to do a record that reflected all the inspiration that I got when I was growing up. The music back then was so inspired,” she said, “So every single song I did on the record was dedicated to somebody I loved.”
The title of the album, ‘Congo Square’, captures that love perfectly. Congo Square was the historical meeting place, just North of the French Quarter in New Orleans where, during slavery times, musicians from all walks of life gathered to create music.
This made it a perfect muse for her as she pieced the album together, “The majority of the slaves in New Orleans were from the West Indies, so I thought about how amazing that must have sounded, you know the drums and the chanting or a few hours on a Sunday day they could turn their pain into joy. Then I thought about the jazz era and I thought about Louis Armstrong being the father of jazz and I thought about Billie Holiday, who I just adore, and how she panned her whole style off of the way Louis plays horns.”
The album also features a number of duets. We asked her about the song, “Can’t Last A Day” featuring Faith Evans and how that duet came about:
The song was actually finished and we have friends in common…. So we were hanging out at a friend’s house, she heard the song and she really liked it; so I told her why don’t you take some of my vocals off it and put you on it. I love Faith….
Were you two able to bond over your shared experience, her with Biggie, yours with Rick James?
I talk about that with Faith all the time, as for the young soulful women, I love Faith the most. She’s my favorite. I think it’s very neat that there’s a correlation of Faith having her own career and me having my own career; but us having a career with someone else as well. We talked about that extensively.
You’ve called Rick your musical soulmate. What did you learn most from him?
I learned how to work with musicians and get what I needed out of a musician. I learned a lot about arranging. I don’t think I learned a lot about song writing; I was already writing songs myself. I always credit Smokey Robinson for that. But as far as like watching him in the studio and how he worked with musicians and the techniques he used in arranging and building a song; and that when you start a song and not just giving your all from the very first moment and holding back until it gets to the climactic period. He was brilliant.
I’ve heard that some people call you “Lil Smokey” after Smokey Robinson, one of your mentors. How has he inspired your work?
I studied him as a child. Everybody has somebody that they love more than anybody and he was the one that I loved. I loved his love songs, I loved the poetry; he was just a beautiful poet. And I wanted to write love songs like that. And my range and his was the same so everything that he sang I could sing coming up. So I would bring my guitar to the parties at 15 or 16 and somebody would tell me to sing his songs. That’s how my friends started calling me Lil Smokey. I wanted to grow up and write beautiful love songs; so I studied his music and studied his formulas and how he wrote music, hooks, verses and lyrics and clever rhymes.
You started out your career with Motown. What was it like to be with Motown during that time period?
Amazing. Imagine walking down the hall and you come around the corner and here comes Smokey Robinson, and you walk into Stevie’s office and he’s playing ‘Casanova Brown’ on his piano. Diana Ross was still there and The Jackson 5 was there; they left not too long after I came. And just all these incredible artists were in the building and we loved each other and it was like a competition, but it was a healthy competition because everyone was so excited for everybody else and I’ve never felt that since. No record company have I ever felt that from since then. Because you know you can be on a big label, but it wasn’t that same camaraderie and love and so many legends in one building.
How have you seen the music industry change over the course of the past 30 years that you’ve been in the industry?
It’s changed greatly. The lyrical content is to the birds. Back then there were just so many incredible artists and so many people that just had their own sound. You turned on the radio and you knew, that’s the queen of soul, that’s Marvin Gaye. Now you have a whole lot of cookie cutter singers that you can’t tell the difference between this voice and that voice.
Speaking of incredible artists, had you ever met or worked with Michael Jackson?
I met Michael many times. Both on Motown and when we were on Epic together. He came to my show at the Beverly Theater one time. He came with Nico Brando and he came incognito, he couldn’t even come back stage. He didn’t want the attention to come off me. He couldn’t go anywhere without attention. He would have to dress up and wear all these costumes, he had Nico bring me to the side of the stage to show me where he was sitting and he watched my show.
And I have a picture of him right now on my mantle. We had the same project manager and one day the project manager said I have a present for you. He gives me this beautiful signed picture of Michael Jackson and says, “Michael told me to give this to you.”
What does the loss of him mean to music?
It’s almost like this guy was everybody’s brother. He was everybody’s big brother or little brother, depending on how old you were. I grew up on the Jackson 5 and he meant so much to me, even as a kid. He was the greatest and I really feel like a part of our history is gone … and that’s sad. A part of us is gone and we’ll never ever have another [artist] like him.
I also want to talk to you about your daughter, Rose Le Beau. She not only appears on the album, but you’ve dedicated it to her, saying that you are passing the torch to her….
Yeah, because I’m getting tired. (laughs)
So does that mean no next album for you?
No, I don’t know if it means that, there are just other things that I want to do.
I just turned 53 in March and I’m not gonna be out there at 63 singing, “Square Biz.”
Tell me about your daughter.
I love watching her and the young woman she’s growing into and talented songwriter that she’s becoming.
How old is she?
She’s 17 and she was downstairs in the studio writing last night and she played me what she did and she’s just awesome. It’s just fun for me and I keep telling her hurry up and get rich because I want a place on the side of your house and she says she’s gonna buy me a black Bentley. And then I’m just gonna be the chill mom that comes in and says ‘Hi, you’re gonna go to the studio? I’m gonna go sit by the pool.’
I’m an artist, too…. and I love to draw and I’m writing my autobiography. I am working on an inspirational album and I may do an R&B album or a jazz album. I don’t have any aspirations beyond that. It’s not just 30 years. I’ve been performing since I was 8 years old. So it’s been a long time, I’ve had an amazing run.
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