Of course blue-eyed soul existed before Teena Marie came onto the scene. After all, what the hell was Elvis other than a blue-eyed soul singer? That said, though, the singer/producer/multi-instrumentalist is one of the rare white artists to achieve near-constant R&B success while only making a couple of sporadic blips onto the pop chart (she’s hit the Top 40 twice in her career). Originally a protégé of Rick James, Teena has become a legend in her own right-and she just might have Diana Ross to thank for the kickoff to her career.

Teena was signed to Motown in the late 1970s, but as legend has it, no one was able to come up with the right material for her. Rick heard her singing and playing piano in a Motown rehearsal room and immediately signed up to work with the young upstart. Rick had at the time been working on material for Diana Ross. When Miss Ross rejected the material (which was far more funky and risqué than Diana would ever allow her to be), Rick gave the material to Teena. “I’m a Sucker for Your Love” became a Top 10 R&B hit in 1978 and started a decade-long run of soul hits.

Teena’s voice was alternately seductive and rambunctious. Over the next few years, she scored hit singles with disco jams (“Behind the Groove” and “I Need Your Lovin’”), proto rap (“Square Biz”), steamy slow jams (“Fire & Desire”, the classic duet with mentor/lover James), and even stuck a toe in genres ranging from Latin music (“Portuguese Love”) and rock (1981’s “Revolution”-inspired by the murder of John Lennon’s murder). The album featuring the latter two songs, “It Must Be Magic”, became the biggest of her career, soaring to #2 on the R&B albums chart and staying there (ironically, behind Rick’s “Street Songs” album) for 4 months.

Unfortunately, trouble loomed right around the corner. After “It Must Be Magic”’s success, Teena started thinking her money was funny and sued Motown, an action that took her out of commission for 2 years. After returning on Epic Records with 1983’s “Robbery”, she spent the rest of the 80s as a near-constant on the R&B charts with hits like “Lovergirl” (her only Top 10 pop hit) and the #1 smash “Ooh La La La”. Marie also recorded the rock/funk classic “Emerald City”, an album that was unjustly ignored upon it’s release and is now looked on as sort of an unsung classic amongst folks who like their soul music to have a little bit of rock ‘n roll edge.

Teena then faded from view, only releasing two albums in the Nineties (including the very rare “Passion Play”, released independently). However, anyone who counted her out was very wrong, as her comeback album, 2003’s “La Dona”, became the highest-charting album of her career, spawned two hit singles, earned a Grammy nomination, and went Gold, sticking Teena straight in the middle of a list of 70s and 80s soul icons who’d made some of the best music of their career long after they’d been counted out professionally (Chaka Khan is another example). She’s released one album since (and has another one scheduled for release this summer), and is climbing the charts again with a duet, “Can’t Last a Day”, featuring Faith Evans, one of many singers today who have been influenced by Marie’s dramatic vocals and musical adventurousness.

Lady T deserves props just by virtue of her staying power. She’s part of that small club of female R&B/funk artists (Patti, Chaka), who has managed to stay relevant for thirty years now. Extra props are due for being one of the few female artists to write, produce and perform her own material. Mostly, though, props are due to Teena just for being one bad ass chick.