R&B singer Teena Marie, best known for her 1980s hits “Lovergirl,” “Ooo La La La” and “Lead Me On,” died in her sleep last night of unknown causes in her Los Angeles home. She was 54.
Marie’s debut LP, 1979’s Wild and Peaceful, was written with her mentor Rick James, who dueted with Marie on her breakthrough single “I’m A Sucker For Your Love.” Motown, who rarely signed white artists, didn’t put her photo on the cover — leading to a longstanding belief that Marie was actually black.
Mary Christine Brockert was born in Santa Monica and began performing at a very young age, appearing as a tap dancer an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies when she was only eight years old. Marie was signed to Motown by Berry Gordy when she was 19, though no music was released for nearly three years while they figured out what kind of material to give her. “One day [Rick James] was walking down the hall and I was sitting in Stevie Wonder’s office,” Marie recalled in a 2009 interview. “I would always be in there playing his piano and singing. Rick popped his head in there and we started having a conversation and after that we just became really close friends.”
James contributed much to Marie’s disco-infused debut album, though they rarely worked together in the ensuing years. Marie released three more albums for Motown, but in 1982 she got into a legal battle with the label. In the end she won a landmark lawsuit that declared it illegal for labels to keep artists under contract while refusing to release their work. It became known as the “Brockert Initiative,” after Marie’s real name. “It wasn’t something I set out to do,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. “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.”
After the lawsuit Marie signed to Epic, and released a series of R&B hits including “Ooo La La La,” “Work It,” “Here’s Looking At You” and “Lovergirl” (watch Marie’s 1985 performance above), which hit Number Nine on the Billboard Hot 100. She took a long break in the 1990s to raise her daughter, but in 2004 she re-emerged with the album La Dona, which was released on Cash Money and featured contributions by Common, Birdman, Gerard Levert and Rick James. It was James’ final recording before his death.
Teena Marie’s most recent release was 2009’s Congo Square. She continued to tour until shortly before her sudden death.