Teena Marie, Motown Star Recalls Her Musical Heritage in “Congo Square”


Teena Marie, “Lady T” to her devoted fans, burst on the R&B scene in 1979 with her debut album, “Wild and Peaceful,” followed by “Lady T.” Thirteen albums later, the come-hither voice revels in rhythm and romantic lyrics plucked from her heart.

The Grammy Award-nominated singer/songwriter/producer surpasses herself with “Congo Square,” her latest CD with a mystical connection to her past through the voice that defines her Motown roots. The album title comes from the plaza in the French Quarter of New Orleans where the slaves were allowed to dance and sing on Sundays.

She had always loved everything about the city but had no idea of her connection there until she was about to finish the album and her cousin from Washington state came to visit. When Teena Marie remarked about her inexplicable attraction to the city, her cousin showed no surprise. Their family, she explained, originated there and the city’s magical aura permeated later generations. Teena Marie was stunned. She had believed that their fathers – brothers – were native of Texas. In truth, they were born in Louisiana and did not move to Texas until they were adults. The connection was cemented when she discovered that her great-great grandmother was married in St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter.

Teena Marie has been a magnetic entertainer and songwriter since childhood. She quickly mastered the ten guitar lessons her father paid for, then proceeded to teach herself. Not yet a teenager, she acted in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and sang at every opportunity, even the wedding of Jerry Lewis’s son. By the time she hit Motown at its beginning and became the prot�g� of Rick James, she was the total professional.

Once she was established as a star, she stopped recording for several years to stay home and raise her daughter. She recalls one low point when finances were so strained that she sold two guitars worth $5,000 to a man on the corner for $1,000 in order to provide Christmas for her child and family.

Even while she struggled, she wrote continuously, no more effectively than during the despair she was undergoing while turning out the gems in “Congo Square.” Just as the title song pays homage to the ghosts of slaves and the city’s fabled musicians who congregate there, so do other numbers tap the past. Her inspirations were artists like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes who touched her through their distinctive styles.

“Milk and Honey” refers to John Lennon’s final album, “Soldier” is a tribute to those serving overseas, “Ms. Coretta” honors the wife of Martin Luther King and “The Rose and the Thorn” recognizes life’s trials and the eternal hope for a new dawn. Perhaps the most beautiful is “Milk ‘N’ Honey,” a duet with her talented daughter, Rose LeBeau, whose own career is soaring.

Few young performers today know that Teena Marie is responsible for improving the artists’ rights they enjoy. The Brockert (her surname) Initiative prohibits record companies from holding unreleased creative materials and barring the artist from taking them to another company.

“My father, who passed when I was 20, would have been proud that I stood my ground and accomplished this for my fellow artists,” she says.

Today her primary responsibility is as caregiver to her 86-year-old mother. The tour dates and recording sessions are few and far between, but Teena Marie remains the bundle of energy that marked her Motown days. As she points out, you can’t keep a good woman down.

 

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