Philly-connected music legends were among those paying tribute yesterday to Grammy-nominated R&B performer Teena Marie. The perennial L.A. (and frequently local) concert favorite died in her sleep Sunday at her California home. She was 54.
"We're shocked and deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Teena Marie," Philly soul producers Gamble & Huff said in a statement. "She was one of the most memorable, soulful and unique R&B vocalists to come out of Motown."
Eddie Levert, co-founder of the Gamble & Huff-produced O'Jays, praised her, too. "There are a lot of black people who swore by her and believed in her, as far as her music was concerned," he told CNN's Roland Martin. "She was a good mom, and to me that is saying a lot."
Levert's late son, Gerald, recorded a duet with Teena Marie - "A Rose by Any Other Name" - for her 2004, Grammy-nominated album "La Dona."
According to her publicist Lynn Jeter, a month ago the singer-songwriter-producer reportedly suffered a grand mal seizure, a neurological event marked by a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions.
"Luckily, someone was there," Jeter told CNN. "The ambulance took her to the hospital, and on the way she had another seizure." However, she was believed to be feeling better and preparing for a show this week in Atlanta when her daughter, Alia Rose (aka singer Rose Le Beau), found her earlier Sunday.
In what had become something of a Valentine's Day season tradition in Southern California, Marie was slated to appear Feb. 12 at Nokia Theatre with Keith Sweat and the Whispers. That show has been canceled; refunds are available at point of purchase.
Marie made a memorable Philly appearance with Sweat last August, marking the first sellout concert for the recently refurbished, 7,000-seat Robin Hood Dell East. Philly fans also might have caught her during Atlantic City's annual Mother's Day Festival in May.
She was a headliner at the 2009 West Oak Lane Jazz & Arts Festival, too.
Born Mary Christine Brockert in Santa Monica, Calif., Marie initially shot to stardom as a protege of funk legend Rick James, who wrote all but two of the six songs on her 1979 debut for Motown Records, "Wild and Peaceful."
Berry Gordy, suspecting soul audiences at the time might reject the budding ingenue if they knew she was white, chose not to put a picture of her on the cover.
Yet Marie, also known to fans as Lady T (after her 1980 album of the same name), was among the first non-African American artists to routinely chart high on the R&B charts, something that has become more common in this era of Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke. Indeed, Marie's synthed-up sound served a crucial role in the development of modern urban-soul.
"Teena was a black voice trapped in a white body," Cathy Hughes, founder of Radio One, told CNN. "I would always tell her that she was one of the greatest vocalists of our time."
By the end of the '80s, having topped the R&B countdown with "Ooo La La La" and nearly done the same on Billboard's all-inclusive pop chart with the 1984 smash "Lovergirl," which reached No. 4, the sexpot-with-chops had helped pave the way for the likes of both lasting pop icons like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, as well as a host of also-rans (Klymaxx, Expose, the Mary Jane Girls).
With her third disc, "Irons in the Fire" (also from 1980), Marie, already adept at guitar and keyboards, began to write and produce her albums herself, scoring again with "Portuguese Love," from 1981's "It Must Be Magic."
The next year, she wound up in a heated legal battle with Motown honcho Berry Gordy Jr. over her contract and disagreements regarding releasing new material, resulting in what's called "The Brockert Initiative," making it illegal for a record company to keep an artist under contract without issuing new material. Artists held back by such ploys would be able to sign and release with another label.
"It wasn't something I set out to do," she said of the ruling at the time. "I just wanted to get away from Motown and have a good life. But it helped a lot of people, like Luther Vandross and the Mary Jane Girls and a lot of different artists, to be able to get out of their contracts."
She would go on to record for various labels, including Epic, Cash Money Classics and famed Southern haven Stax, which issued her lengthy, guest-laden final album, "Congo Square," in June 2009. Marie eventually racked up four Grammy nominations but never scored a win.
"The enduring influence of Teena's inspirational, trailblazing career could only have been made possible through her brilliant songwriting, showmanship and high-energy passion, which laid the groundwork for the future generations of R&B, hip-hop and soul," said Concord Music Group chief label officer Gene Rumsey, whose empire oversees Stax. "We feel extremely fortunate to have worked with a visionary who changed music in indelible ways."