I remember the first time I went there,” recalls soul/ funk pioneer Teena Marie of her earliest engagement with New Orleans. “All I could think was, ‘Why does it feel like I’ve been here before?’ Something in the air felt—I was connected to the air, and the people, the food. Everything. And I didn’t know why.”
She pauses a moment, her voice cinnamon in hot chocolate smooth, yet piquant. “I felt—inside—I was home. It felt like where I grew up in Venice Beach, like I’d been there many, many times. It was comforting, but the main word was mystical. I knew even then I would make lots of music out of there.”
Over the years, the woman who plays keyboards, rhythm guitar, writes, produces, howls and caresses songs with her flexible vocal chords has played “the Essence Festival, the Jazz Festival, the Zulu balls and every other festival imaginable,” as well as making 2004’s Grammy-nominated, gold-certified La Dona and 2006’s Sapphire for the Crescent City’s Cash Money label. But Marie’s roots connection to New Orleans wasn’t merely a cosmic manifestation.
“It was amazing to find out (about the ties), because I’d never known that,” reports the no-nonsense woman born Marie Christine Brockert. “I have a cousin who came down from Washington State, who was 11 years older, so we didn’t really see each other until her daughter started going to Loyola. Then she was down in L.A. Our fathers were brothers who’d come from the gulf part of Texas. I was telling her how I always felt so deeply connected to New Orleans, and she laughed.
“She told me, ‘Our great, great grandmother was married in St. Louis Cathedral. Her people were from New Orleans then migrated to Texas.’ That was so profound for me, so mystical. From that very first time, there was something about it. Suddenly, as I was getting ready to record (last year’s Stax/Concord release) Congo Square, I found out what it was.
“And of all the times, all the music that I’d made, this was the moment.”
Congo Square was certainly an album anchored in New Orleans and designed to celebrate Marie’s musical roots. The album serves as a historical celebration and the culmination of one of R&B’s most diverse careers as it pays homage to influences ranging from Louis Armstrong to Coretta Scott King, and Erykah Badu to Sarah Vaughan. Similarly, her musical guests reach across era and genres—nu soul diva Faith Evans, pioneering female rapper MC Lyte, Shalamar veteran Howard Hewitt, jazz vocalist Shirley Murdock, keyboardist George Duke and daughter Rose LaBeau.
“It evolved into that,” explains the woman who was signed to Motown as a wildly gifted teenager and quickly came under the tutelage of punk/funk groundbreaker Rick James. “I knew I wanted to make a good record that reminded me of the music I came up on.
“I was lucky enough to start out at Motown during a golden age. Everybody just about who came out of there’s a legend. Berry Gordy set the bar so high, you had to be great. You had to. You wouldn’t want to just be good, because that wouldn’t be good enough.
“As a young girl, being on Motown was beyond a blessing. It was amazing and enabled me to hone my craft; it pushed me to another level. Figure Steve Wonder is turning a corner, the Commodores would be in another office, Diana Ross was still signed there, so were the Jackson 5.
“I recorded my first album (1979’s Wild & Peaceful) in Marvin Gaye’s studio and Rick (James) produced it. It was crazy. Everybody was so supportive, but also so competitive. You start there, and you’re going to keep reaching.”
To that end, Marie learned to ignite hooks, to push her vocals, to slam a downstroke and coax shimmering subtlety from a melody. The woman who hit with “Square Biz,” “Lovergirl,” “Behind the Groove,” “Portuguese Love,” “Ooh La La,” “I’m a Sucker for Your Love” and “Fire & Desire”—the latter two featuring mentor James—is always looking to dig a little deeper, to offer a bit more truth about humanity with her songs.
Consequently Congo Square’s centerpiece is its title track, a rhythmically complex song designed to reflect on the original place of true Afro-American music. As she says, “This was the one place the slaves were allowed to dance and sing, to embrace who they were and where they came from. This was the only time—for a few hours each Sunday—they could forget the atrocities and the enslavement. What a powerful, joyful thing that must’ve been: dancing and singing out of their oppression. Even if it was only a few hours, for those hours, they were allowed to be who they really were.
“I thought about that, and how it fed into the way Louis Armstrong played, that whole jazz era he influenced. It’s how he influenced Billie Holiday, who patterned her vocal style after the way [Armstrong] played that horn. Think about how she sang: that was Billie doing Louis.
“And it was Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. They were very inspired by John Lee Hooker, those blues artists. It all came out of the Delta. People heard it, and they adopted it. Music recycles. It really does. It’s almost a reincarnation.”
Marie knows how to get to the core. Her voice is molten eroticism, which made her such a potent match for James, a mentor whose mark endures. But like the notion of “Congo Square,” which is a literal metaphor for anywhere the bondage of expectation is shaken off, Marie recognizes the depths rather than the reductionist truth of the visionary who infused Street Songs, the ghetto slice of the life most people denied, with urgency you couldn’t deny.
“I get real irritated at people when they talk about Rick and the thing they focus on is ‘Superfreak’,” Marie intones, voice suddenly getting dry. “This man wrote some amazingly beautiful music—‘Ebony Eyes,’ ‘Fire & Desire’ with me. And he was a storyteller like Tupac was a storyteller!
“Their stories, both of them, were amazing and real—about his life and the truth about the life that was going on around them. You listened to them and you knew how it was. It’s not ‘my gold chain;’ it’s real stories that help people figure out what’s going on.
“Because there’s more to it than bling bling and rims. Is that really the most important thing in society? Is that really, really what we care about? Because the longer this goes on, the further we get from where we need to be.”
Marie, who is mostly engaged but zen, has struck a nerve. A fierceness creeps into her voice that’s not anger, but passion for something critical to her sense of self, and the world. Without sounding strident, she continues, “You realize there’s a whole generation who don’t know how to play an instrument. They have lost that ability. It’s a whole generation of young people who have no idea, and no one really to teach them.
“When I was growing up, everybody had their own sound. That was the way: You knew when Earth, Wind & Fire or Curtis Mayfield were on the radio. You heard Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, it was obvious. That was across pop music, too. Crosby, Stills & Nash, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles. You wouldn’t want to sound like somebody else.
“There is now so much technology, you don’t have to use your mind like we did. We went outside, came up with our games. To us, a piece of paper and pencil showed you could be so creative. It opened up worlds.
“It’s funny. I was riding with my daughter the other day, and she was blessed, being around a lot of great musicians at such a young age. Bobby Womack came on the radio, ‘Across 110th Street.’ She let out a sigh, and looked at me and said, “You know, nothing I listen to is that. Nothing is Bobby Womack.’ You know, a pimp trying to catch a woman who’s weak. That’s real, and that’s worth reaching for. She gets that.”
She won’t say she’s piling up sand bags to preserve traditional soul, but she lets her music do the talking. “Pressure,” which opens Congo Square with MC Lyte, offers old school carnality and suggests her best entanglements with James, as does the lush Howard Hewett slow jam “Lovers Lane.” “Can’t Last a Day” is sweeping testimony to romantic need and recognition featuring Faith Evans.
“In The Bible, they talk about the chief musicians. They’re anointed. Their gift is to touch other people, to open the world to them. Look around; the really great entertainers, they got it: sing, have that voice, can dance, charisma.
“Rick was anointed. Definitely. We talked about it many, many times. He’d joke with me when I was on the road: ‘You gonna go out there and lay hands on ’em?’ I didn’t know if it was in the Christian sense, but it’s definitely spiritual.
“You can’t deny it. You look at Aretha, and you tell me that isn’t. Michael Jackson? Beyonce? That’s an anointing, and you can’t deny it.”
One listen to “Marry Me,” a song whose message is the antithesis of how Marie lives her life, is to hear the woman deemed “the Ivory Queen of Soul” invoke Franklin’s gospel-soul nexus with an invitation that is both strong and proud.
“I think if I’m going to do it, I want to be (married) for the rest of my life. I’ve been in love like that once in my life. It ended when I was real young. Everyone who came after, I probably compared and they couldn’t measure up. And I’m okay with that.
“But when I was thinking about Aretha, she’d be the kind who could tell someone how it was going to be. She has all the strength, all the power. The women on here are all strong. ‘Ms. Coretta’ is all about the dignity that Coretta Scott King had, while ‘The Rose N’ Thorn’ is dedicated to Sara Vaughan, the way she just sang a song! If I focused on anything, it would flow and make you feel so good. I try to bring that forward, to sing what’s in my heart and my soul.
“When the Cash Money people came to me, this hip-hop label that’s so cutting edge, they showed such great respect, ‘We just want you to do what you do.’ People know good music if that’s where their head is, even if it’s not what they’re doing. That was their attitude: ‘You don’t have to do us, you do what you do. We’re going to make this album around you.”
The results: La Dona was nominated for a Grammy and sold in excess of 500,000.
New Orleans. So interlaced in the California beach girl’s essence that her roots just had to be here. As she found out, those roots were real. Now they reach even higher as Rose LaBeau, her daughter, begins her journey on “Milk N’ Honey:” “With all the great musicians she been around, she knows good music. She’s a singer/ songwriter, who came to me a year ago and wanted to play something. It was really, really good, which made me nervous because there is so much bullshit people are making. But she came into my bedroom and played; she had the most awesome stories. She was keeping it real.”
Pay it forward. Keep what’s real. Don’t forget the foundation. Nourish the roots. It is not a stated recipe or learned equation for Marie; it is life and music and who she is. That simple, that profound.