Teena Marie ‘Ooh La La: The Epic Anthology’ 2CD (Soul Music) 4/5

Californian born singer Teena Marie Brockert is best known for her work at Motown and funk-tinged numbers such as ‘Square biz’ and ‘Behind the groove’. In addition, her collaborative work with Rick James and the unforgettable ballad, ‘Portugese love’, is a long-time soul boy favourite, and she repaid her dues with a second duet, ‘Fire and desire’, on James’ own seminal ‘Street Songs’ album from 1981. However, in reality the tenure at Motown was short-lived lasting but a four-five year period. Thereafter, Marie embarked upon a longer contract with Epic records and it this recording period spanning almost a decade that is the main focus of this excellent anthology. While the Motown era would have to be included for any package to be truly comprehensive, this 2CD set covers all the rest and offers bonus 12″ versions that are hard to find, with lesser known album tracks that are worth the investment alone.
Teena Marie made her Epic debut in 1983 with the album, ‘Robbers’, and although it did not result in a major hit, it featured some of the very top session musicians and was a clear indication of the high esteem in which her new label viewed her. Clearly Marie was listening to other up and coming singers. Prince for example springs to mind when one hears the pared down funk of, ‘Fix it’. Keyboardist-sing Patrice Rushen, Average White Band drummer Steve Ferrone participate throughout and the album included what would become a Quiet Storm radio classic in, ‘Dear lover’. It is important to stress that Marie was more than anything else an old-school R & B singer who was equally adept with uptempo or balladry material. In fact, during her teens, Marie’s family moved to Oakwood, California. a predominantly black neighbourhood and it was this exposure to African-American language, culture, and above all else music, that equipped the singer with the tools to handle R & B influenced songs. Her own ethnicity was initially concealed since the cover of her debut album, ‘Wild and peaceful’, from 1979, contained no picture of her. It therefore came as a something of a shock to the wider public to discover that the booming voice was that of a petite young white woman, albeit one who was as schooled in the black music tradition, as any of her contemporaries.

For the second Epic album, ‘Starchild’, from 1984, and this writer’s personal favourite because of the tremendous depth of the quality of the songs contained within, Marie excelled on a variety of tempi, but mid-tempo grooves nonetheless were a marked feature of this particular album. Interestingly, the album as a whole fared better than the individual single releases. Outstanding songs here include the uptempo, ‘Jammin’, the quality ballad, ‘Out on a limb’, and the wonderful title track. A break of two years ensued, and then a return to recording in 1986 with the Caribbean-flavoured, ‘Batucada suite’. This revealed, like ‘Portugese love’ before it, that Marie had a a greater awareness of the world and was adept at depicting exotic far away places and this imaginative creativity was a hallmark of the songs that Teena Marie performed and thrilled her loyal fans. Of course, Marie’s greatest ever popular hit and one that propelled her to an altogether different audience, was the title track of the 1988 album, ‘Ooo la la’, a stereotypical utterance of what a French native speaker might express (they do not!), and this was the lead single. Almost a decade later in 1996, the Fugees revisited the song and scored their own hit with a barely disguised remake in, ‘Fu-gee-la’.

Teena Marie has influenced countless younger singers of all hues. In the UK Lisa Stansfield cites her as a key influence in her decision to pursue a career in the music business. Groups such as the Fugees and others have paid Teena Marie the major compliment of sampling her songs. Perhaps beyond even strictly musical parameters, Teena Marie stands in what is still a deeply divided United States along racial grounds, as a beacon of hope as someone who, in her own profession at least, broke down pre-established barriers of what could and could not be achieved, and gives us all reason to be optimistic, even if in the opposite direction one has to immediately acknowledge the obstacles facing African-Americans in white dominated professions. She opined thus, ‘I’m a black artist with a white skin.(…) At the end of the day you have to sing what’s in your soul’. Teena Marie. RIP.

Tim Stenhouse