THE ARTIST AT WORK
In Boston spring comes slowly, and 1979 was no exception. I was a 19 year old freshman at Northeastern University when the winter thaw was prematurely induced by the release of a slice of disco funk, on Motown’s Gordy label called “I’m Just A Sucker For Your Love”. The track featured the high pitched, P-Funk influenced backing vocals that were popular at the time, the familiar, playful and husky lead of Rick James and a brash and soulful performance by a newcomer named Teena Marie. I didn’t realize then that this would be the debut of Motown’s last great act.
I had been indifferent to James’ recordings, as well as a good deal of what was passing for commercial music at the time. Disco had sucked up most of the budgets at both the major, and important independent recording companies. As a result of this trend, I’d immersed myself in the jazz/funk fusion area and the recordings of various George Clinton backed acts. Looking back, like many of my generation (without knowing it) I was waiting for hip hop to come and bring the soul back to the game. But I connected with the newcomer’s vocal instantly and bought the album. A somewhat forgettable collection with the same title of a big Kool and The Gang joint called “Wild and Peaceful”.
Despite the overall thinness of the material, there were two outstanding tracks included; “Deja Vu”- a soulful contemplation on reincarnation, and “I’m Gonna Have My Cake and Eat It Too”- a jazzy funky mid-tempo swinger that revealed Teena’s ability to communicate sensuality through her music. She got me with the last one and never let me go.
News of her death last week was stunning, like so many across the Black Music community, it caused deep pain. How could a heart so big ever stop beating? How could the singer/writer/producer of “Square Biz” “Behind The Groove” “I Need Your Lovin’ ” “Ooh La La” and “Lovergirl” be gone? I immediately began to listen to recordings from her Motown period, and let the music begin to wash over my soul with it’s healing properties.
Her name had been coming up recently in conversations with a good friend who’d made plans to move from New York to LA and start all over again as Teena’s housemate. The friend has had as much of New York as she can stand, and she was prepared to trade the hustle, noise and chaos of Funkytown for the serenity of Pasadena, Ca., closeness to her only child and the comfort of living with one of the most soulful artists/writer/performers that the American recording business has produced in my lifetime. I applauded my friend’s courage to begin anew, and felt certain that the daily exposure to such greatness would get her back on track, and then, the news came: the Vanilla Child was gone, and there would be no new soaring vocal performances, funky tracks or thumping bass lines. Rest In Peace, Mary Christine Brockert. Thanks for the memories.