Gordy era (1979–1982)
In 1976, Brockert (as the lead singer member of a band she assembled which included long-time friend Mickey Boyce) gained an introduction to Motown Records staff producer Hal Davis (best known for his work with Brenda Holloway and the Jackson 5). It led to an audition for a film about orphans being developed by Motown. The project was shelved, but label boss Berry Gordy decided to sign her as a solo act, impressed with her singing but having no need for a musical group. She recorded unreleased material with a number of different producers over the next few years, before being spotted by labelmate Rick James who was immediately impressed with her sound. Some of the earlier, unreleased material has since been made available on the compilation album First Class Love: Rare Tee. At the time, James, already established as a successful recording artist, was on tap to produce for Diana Ross but changed his mind and decided to work with Brockert. The result was debut album release, Wild and Peaceful. The album was, at one point, due to be credited to “Teena Tryson”, but ultimately was put out under “Teena Marie”, the name by which she would be known throughout her career. It scored Teena Marie her first top-ten R&B hit, “I’m a Sucker for Your Love” (#8 Black Singles Chart), a duet with James. Neither the album nor its packaging had her picture on it, and many radio programmers assumed she was African-American during the earliest months of her career. This myth was disproved when she performed her debut hit with James on Soul Train in 1979, becoming the show’s first white female guest (she would appear on the show eight more times, more than any other white act).
In 1980, her second album, Lady T, would have her portrait on the cover upon its release. It’s also noted for having production from Richard Rudolph (the widower of R&B singer Minnie Riperton). Teena Marie had asked Berry Gordy to contact Rudolph and secure his input as Rick James was unavailable and she felt unprepared to be sole producer of her own material. Rudolph intended for the song he penned, “Now That I Have You”, to be sung by his wife, but it was later given to Teena Marie. Rudolph also co-composed the single “Behind The Groove”, which reached number 21 on the black singles chart and No. 6 on the U.K. singles chart in 1980. The song would also be included on the soundtrack of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on the Fever 105 soundtrack. Another notable track, “Too Many Colors”, featured Rudolph’s and Riperton’s then 7-year-old daughter, Maya Rudolph, who became Teena Marie’s god-daughter.
Also in 1980, Teena Marie released her third LP, Irons in the Fire, for which she handled all writing and production herself, including the horn and rhythm arrangements of her band and all backing vocals, all considered rare at the time for a female artist. The single “I Need Your Lovin'” (#37 Pop, No. 9 Black Singles) brought Teena Marie her first top 40 hit. This single also peaked at No. 28 in the UK chart. That same year, Teena Marie appeared on James’s hugely successful album, Street Songs, with the duet “Fire and Desire”. In an interview, Teena Marie said she had a fever at the time yet managed to record her vocals in one take. After the session, she was driven to a hospital. The two would perform the single at the 2004 BET Awards, which would be their last TV appearance with one another as Rick James died later that year.
Teena Marie continued her success with Motown in 1981, with the release of It Must Be Magic (#2 Black Albums Chart), her first gold record, which included her then biggest hit on R&B, “Square Biz” (#3 Black Singles). Other notable tracks include “Portuguese Love” (featuring a brief, uncredited cameo by James, No. 54 Black Singles), the title track “It Must be Magic” (#30 Black Singles), and album only track “Yes Indeed”, which she cited as a personal favorite.
In 1982, Teena Marie got into a heated legal battle with Motown Records over her contract and disagreements about releasing her new material. The lawsuit resulted in “The Brockert Initiative”, which made it illegal for a record company to keep an artist under contract without releasing new material for that artist. In such instances, artists are able to sign and release with another label instead of being held back by an unsupportive one. Teena Marie commented on the law in an LA Times article, saying, “It wasn’t something I set out to do. 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.” She left Motown as the label’s most successful white solo act.