|LP cover photograph by Laura Rossingol|
With Marie's passing two years ago, her music and legacy has come into sharper focus. An astonishing truth that materializes when discussing Teena Marie is how atypical said discussions on her music and impact are. Here is the woman who put the previous model of blue-eyed soul singers on their head, pushed R&B past its borders in her prime and remained a force into her veteran days. Yet, a generous search or reading into Teena Marie will find the same responses about her discography and history: Irons in the Fire (1980), It Must Be Magic (1981), Rick James, "Square Biz," "Fire & Desire," and "Lovergirl."
This is not to say these albums, songs, or one individual do not play integral roles in Marie's lore, but that isn't all of her story. Yes, James was Marie's friend, flame, and mentor. Yes Marie took creative control on Irons in the Fire and produced, arranged, wrote, and composed every record that followed. But what about everything else? The narrative of Teena Marie needs exploration and the maligned Emerald City is the perfect starting point.
|Teena, Circa 1985/1986|
Marie's Motown exodus hadn't been gentle, though her time there was successful. A misappropriation of trust had made Marie a freedom fighter for artists everywhere and gave us "The Brockert Initiative." Afterwards she hit Epic with her tour de force, 1983's Robbery. The album song cycled her tumultuous on-again-off-again courtship to the late punk-funker Rick James and was equal amounts of heartbreak, funk, and confessional poetry. It also wasn't a hit: (#13 U.S. R&B, #119 U.S. pop). Rather, the accessible Starchild (1984) claimed sales glory with its lead single "Lovergirl," a likable fusion of (then) current rock-R&B-pop-new wave fizziness that gave Marie her first pop hit (#4 U.S. Pop) but kept her firmly entrenched in R&B's good graces (#9 U.S. R&B). Starchild did have other highlights to share ("Help Youngblood Get to the Funky Party," "Starchild," "My Dear Mr. Gaye") but they were obscured by banal numbers like "Jammin'" and "Out on a Limb."
|"Emerald City" as depicted in the 1939 film adaption of Wizard of Oz|
There, Marie herself became "Pity," a character created for one of her many poem stories that accompanied each record. Pity became an allegory for Marie's racial frustration of being accepted into black culture, with all its pros and cons when it came to her other musical interests. She revealed via an excerpt from the Emerald City poem, her feelings:
Of course she wanted to be green because she'd been all the other colors before, I mean, with her past lives and all. Now that people were saying she couldn't possibly be white, it seemed to be the natural thing to do. And anyways, since she hadn't seen any green people before, maybe she wouldn't run into any stereotypes and prejudices this time.
While R&B in the '70's and '80's was known for its multi-racial/gender bands, Marie was still a white woman in a predominantly male oriented field. Teena Marie didn't know how not to dare and so she went about assembling the crew to bring Emerald City to life.
Amid Marie's own primary writing, arranging, and producing, the players included: Bendrix (additional songwriting, bass), Allan McGrier, Stanley Clarke, Abraham Labanel Sr., Bootsy Collins, Gerry Brown (bass), Gary Grant (trumpet), Branford Marsalis (saxophone), Fred Mirza (horn arranger), Maxine and Julia Waters (background vocals), Randy Kerber (keyboards), John Bokowski (acoustic piano), John "JR" Robinson (drums), Brian Kilgore (timbales), James Allen (drum programming), Paulinho Da Costa (percussion), Michael Landau, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Nikki Slikk (guitar).
The mentioned cityscape of Emerald City's urban sprawl gone mad is compelling when looking at the first side of the long player. Three songs in claim Marie's affinity to black dance: the title track, "Once Is Not Enough," and "Lips to Find You". The title cut, with spoken word introduction by Bootsy Collins, spun in fits like a manic carnival groove. Marie's voice jammed all over the place and maintained a controlled pace.
|Single cover to "Lips to Find You"|
Marie shattered any competition that lay in wait when it came to her unparalleled lyricism. That lyricism drove home the booming drama of "You So Heavy," dedicated to her longtime muse Rick James in the liner notes, and the arid, Canto-soul of "Shangri-La". The former made analogies to love in withdrawal, while the latter used cuisine and spiritual references to present Marie in her darkest, most sensual moment (still) committed to record. The tropical "Batucada Suite," which upon first visit seemed out of place among the heavier dance and mid-tempo bedroom fare, refreshed. When taken literally from its words ("Mary's into new things, got a brand new bag. Superficial living has made her life a drag...) it played integral to the rediscovery Marie meant for Emerald City. The polished finish of the big ballad "Love Me Down Easy" hummed to be picked up at urban radio, while the closer "Sunny Skies" was a true classic. In the vein of her jazz jewels "You Make Love Like Springtime," "Portuguese Love," and "Shadow Boxing" the mournful track was the last of its kind until her recent jazz boomerang returned on Congo Square (2009).
Emerald City wasn't wholly dissimilar from any of the work she'd cut up to that point. The general public didn't see it that way and the record met a cold reception. The album placed at #20 U.S. R&B, whereas the U.S. Pop #81 placement professed that pop audiences had returned to their dismissive opinion of Teena Marie. Two singles were pulled from the project: "Lips to Find You" (U.S. R&B #28) and "Love Me Down Easy" (U.S. R&B #76). The dance charts (surprisingly) showed no affection to "Lips," while R&B was stiff to the genuinely appealing "Love."
Promotional Video for "Lips to Find You"
Reasons? There were a few. Though R&B tended to embrace their acts eras aside, the genre still had a youth driven market. At 30, Teena Marie seemed old hat to some new ears. The urban danceability of Emerald City was slightly behind the ball in 1986. Black music had started another of its inexorable turns to broader dance characterized in freestyle, hip-hop, and house pioneered by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Janet Jackson, LL Cool J, etc. Emerald City book ended the mighty Minneapolis sound in its first incarnation. Had it arrived a year after Starchild in 1985, it may have found a wider audience.
Guitar factored into Emerald City more than any other Marie album, but not so much that it earned the stature critic Chuck Eddy bestowed on it in his book, '91's Stairway to Hell. There, it was tagged with ninth place as "The Greatest Heavy Metal Album of All Time." All because of a scorching guitar solo by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn that closed "You So Heavy?" Electric as that solo was, it was tame compared to the heights scaled by the usual suspects in heavy metal.
|Backside of "Love Me Down Easy" 45" Single Sleeve|
The follow-up, Naked to the World (1988), delivered the commercial goods to Teena Marie in her first R&B chart topper "Ooo La La La." The album owned a few tricks, but overall it was dreck done up designer. New Jack Swing had hit and Marie acclimated to it, the results varied from good ("Trick Bag") to messy ("Surrealistic Pillow"). The somewhat improved Ivory (1990) fell from the sales perch of Naked to the World and ended Marie's eight year run at Epic. Barring the independently issued Passion Play (1994), Teena Marie remained quiet for majority of the '90's. She returned in the '00's with a stream of safe recordings starting with the blasé La Doña (2004) and Sapphire (2006) on the Cash Money Classics imprint. Later, Marie signed to Stax/Concord for 2009's Congo Square that bore a stronger artistically aware vibe.
This year, via music critic mogul David Nathan's Soul Music label, Emerald City saw life again in remastered form in June. Featuring liner notes, several instrumentals and 12" mixes, it tacked on two soundtrack gems from before and after Emerald City's genesis: "14k" from The Goonies (1985) and "Lead Me On" from Top Gun (1987). With that reissue, Emerald City is finally getting a chance to let listeners journey to a city where skin color didn't shut out the universal themes of unrequited love, unrelenting desire, and freedom. Five out of five stars.-QH
[Editor's Note: The standard version of Emerald City is out of print, but as stated, the reissued version can be purchased from Soul Music Records directly or Amazon. It is also available digitally.-QH]