That Time Teena Marie First Produced Herself And…
Teena Marie – Irons in the Fire – Teena Marie (Gordy/Motown – 1980)
by A. Scott Galloway (Special to RadioFacts)
“I have been colored in and faded out. My hand she quivers and yet my pen still writes. ‘If life is death and peace is wrath – or if you feel I have chosen to embark on a most precocious path – let me be the judge of my own cessation, for I am the only one who knows just how far or fast I go…’”
Independence Day had arrived along the sparkling shores of Venice…Venice, California that is. It was a hot summers day of sunny skies, crystal blue persuasion and salt songs – misting and ascending to the Most High. A home spun Vanilla Child was on the brink of shaking the chains that had not so much bound her but disciplined her – reigned her in to teach her a thing or three – for her level of excellence in the realm of songcraft was nothing short of sweet bitter destiny. She was born Mary Christine Brockert but she took “Teena Marie” as her nom de plume. And when she was really feeling herself, she butterflied into “Lady Tee.” The latter is clearly who was possessing her 5”1’ frame when she raised up the baton to conduct her first self-produced symphony: her third LP, Irons in the Fire.
When she arrived at Motown’s Sunset Boulevard offices in Hollywood by bus from beach town, she was a lump of clay…a young White girl in love with the rainbow of music all around her: Musicals, Rock, Jazz, Top 40 Pop and a whole lot of Soul. The world-wise veterans at Motown could see there was plenty within her to work with. It would be a combination of Tee’s tenacity and some empathetic in-house hearts that slowly began to piece her puzzle together.
Motown Founder and Chairman Berry Gordy was among the first to take her under his wing, producing an early 8-song demo session. She was also ushered in and out of the doors of several lesser-known producers such as Kenny Kerner, Richie Wise, and Winston Monesque – each zoning in on the part of Tee they could most relate to but never getting anywhere near the whole picture. Singer/Songwriter/Producer Ronnie McNeir got the closest. Years later, Tee would show her gratitude, bringing him back into the fold on her sixth album, Starchild, on which they sang the duet “We’ve Got to Stop Meeting Like This,” even performing it together on “Soul Train.” But that would be a long ways away. The biggest misstep Motown made was slotting her into the ill-fated sons of Gordy band Apollo. Notoriously, Teena left a session allegedly to run a quick errand and conveniently never returned.
It would be a rowdy upstart, stage name “Rick James,” who would fatefully peek his head into the writing room where Teena was working away, hearing something familiar in her voice and verses that connected to his youth. They were mirror opposite twins – he a Black man who originally wanted to be a folk rocker, dodging the draft, smoking pot, letting his hair grow long and hanging with White dudes that happened to include a young Neil Young and future Steppenwolf member Nick St. Nicholas. She was a White California beach girl, always with a song in her heart and upon her lips, whose “bestest friend named Mickey” (among many) was Black. When reborn Rick got red hot at Motown, fronting his Stone City Band and dropping the coldblooded Punk Funk on they ass via his Come Get It LP (Gordy/Motown – 1978) featuring “You and I” and “Mary Jane,” he was in a plum position to reach back and help another artist of his choosing. “Mack” that he was, Rick chose Teena, and launched her as the producer of her long-awaited debut album, Wild and Peaceful (Gordy/Motown – 1979). It was highlighted by two polar opposite instant classics: the party starter “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love” and the serenely introspective “Déjà vu (I’ve Been Here Before).”
Following a tour where Teena accompanied Rick as a protégé and off and on lover, she switched from the devil incarnate to a perfect angel named Richard Rudolph, a songwriter/producer and soon-to-be publishing magnate who also happened to be the husband of one of Teena’s greatest inspirations, Minnie Riperton, the sensual and unique singer/songwriter who had just succumbed following a courageous battle with breast cancer. The two of them were already acquainted and the timing was perfect for “Dick” to lose himself in the labor of love Teena’s sophomore LP, Lady T (Gordy/Motown – March 1980). Where Rick put the raw sizzle in Teena, Richard polished her with gems such as the funky disco fantasia “Behind the Groove,” the Rufus & Chaka nick “Why Did I Fall in Love with You,” and the Quiet Storm classics “Aladdin’s Lamp” and “Now That I Have You,” the latter a gift originally intended for Minnie. The result was a roundly fine if not spectacular album that was more important for Teena as a close-up look into the finer art of album-making. Beyond a few promotional appearances, she did not tour. Instead, she was granted her wings to produce her third LP, the appropriately titled Irons in the Fire (Gordy/Motown – Late Summer 1980) – among her finest.
Key to the magic of Irons in the Fire was a close-knit group of studio conspirators made up of musician friends that Teena implicitly trusted, including members of a veteran band called Ozone. Their tightness would serve Teena well not only creatively but in getting the project done in the timely fashion execs demanded.
Drama queen to the max, Teena opens her magnum opus with a moment that is all about that bass…bassist Allen McGrier running the voodoo down on a melodic bottom line to which Gregory Hargrove answers with some teasing guitar before the whole thing erupts with a second rhythm guitar by Wali Ali and a Paul Riser string arrangement for the Gods, christened with what would become one of Teena’s vocal signatures: a resounding “Whoooooooo” that translated as “…and away we go!” That song, “I Need Your Lovin’” is a supremely pocketed, four-on-the-floor, love-funk jam. It grabbed women and men alike with a groove that would not quit plus lyrics penned and sung from a poetic funkstress who had a flair for expressing girl thoughts with young womanly wile…plus tried-and-true spelling hooks. Ray Woodard takes the clean and tasty tenor solo.
Previous ballads such as the jazzy “Déjà vu” (a poem lifted from her diary by Rick who made it a song) and the aforementioned highlights of Lady T paved the way for the luxuriant and nostalgic “Young Love” which laid the dynamic arc template for so much silken Tee balladry to come. With shades of Smokey Robinson rising, Teena sings this one directly to a lover she does not intend to lose. Extremely key are her girls who have her back. Teena’s female backup vocalists and arrangements always rock your world. Teena rarely did solo layered backgrounds on ballads. She brought in an assembly of sisters to lay them, in this case friends Mickey Hearn, Jill Jones (future Prince prodigy) and Shirley Mattison, all joining Teena.
Teena always had a lil’ Rock N’ Roll in her Soul…
… which is manifested in the flirty, horn-fueled “First Class Love,” co-arranged with Allen McGrier (gettin’ his Louis Johnson on with his thumbed bass parts and breakdown), a crunchin’ guitar solo, and the percussion of the indispensable Paulinho Da Costa. “First Class Love” dates back to demos originally cut produced by Ronnie McNeir with the Detroit dream team of Ray Parker Jr. on guitar, “Billy Bass” Nelson of Funkadelic on his namesake and Ollie Brown on drums. Ozone gave Tee a funky update that cooked.
Side 1 of Irons in the Fire closes with the prophetic and prayerful title track – Teena at the piano with the harp of Lloyd Lindroth and the strings of Paul Riser.
Side 2 of Irons in the Fire opens with an attention-arresting courtroom scenario – interestingly a Motown tradition from Shorty Long’s comedic “Here Come the Judge” to Stevie Wonder’s heavy mid-song interlude from “Living for the City.” Teena’s is unique with her layered and looped vocal hook that telegraphs the madness one feels when shackled in a maddening love affair. Then drummer supreme Paul Hines, who cops co-arranging credit here, drops the beat off into an intricate, ice-cold rhythm pattern so oxymoronically hot it could warp yo wax. The rhythm section, the horn section AND the vocal section all get caught up in the feverish, trance-inducing, runaway train of thought of the track, peaking with a blistering synthesizer solo by Michael Boddicker an ancient-future percussion by Paulinho. The vocal bass part is an obvious yet uncredited Melvin Franklin of the Temptations, prominent and name-checked on Teena’s next album, It Must Be Magic. Tracks as sophisticated as this set Teena apart from most female peers.
The same can be said of “You Make Love Like Springtime,” a sexy Brazilian Jazz romp that’s the cat’s meow for slickness. Teena dives head first into that Marvin Gaye yin yang of ‘bomb sex as healing blessing’ she so beautifully describes as “an adventure in the raw, a phantasm for two.” By verse 2, her pen is dripping.
Poetry in motion, teach me, Spirit Dove
No words need be spoken, I know what you’re dreaming of
Like this song I wear your love like Heaven on my breast
Rainbow colors all so pure, I feel like I’ve been blessed
Up to here, all of “Irons”’ songs are exclusively penned by Teena Marie. The next one would be a collaboration with her dear friend, Mickey “Boyce” Hearn. Entitled “Tune in Tomorrow,” it’s a clever, pure jazz take on the ups and downs of love as like a soap opera in real time – a jazz suite in three tempos. To pull this off authentically, Teena picked a seasoned quartet of musicians: pianist Bobby Lyle, guitarist Wali Ali, drummer Earl Palmer, Sr. and upright bassist James Jameson, Jr. Teena’s adoring indebtedness to Sarah Vaughn (in her delivery of the verses) and Ella Fitzgerald (in the dizzying tempo shifting scatting) is on magnificent display as the instrumentalists serve her exquisitely. “Tune in Tomorrow” made much good on the promise of “I’m Gonna Have My Cake (And Eat It, Too)” back on her debut, Wild and Peaceful, foreshadowing more ever-anticipated Jazz to come.
As Teena takes her fiercely earned bow for her inaugural self-production (complete with a warm, inviting cover photo lensed by Ron Slenzak), the finale of Irons in the Fire unfolds – a luxuriant reprise of “Springtime” on which Teena blissfully riffs in vocal ecstasy as Nick Brown goes to town on acoustic guitar with some tasty piano by James S. Stewart, Jr. over a thoroughly warm and lubricated rhythm section. Vinyl victory has rarely been so spicy and sweet.
– A. Scott Galloway
(The writer dedicates this essay to the memory of dearly departed friend Ms. Teena Marie and all the Cat Daddies and Kittens that make it such a treat to revisit.)