Singer Teena Marie is white but . . .. Close your eyes when you're talking to her and, because of her inflections and diction, you'd most likely think she's black. Especially on her records, she sounds like a black singer.
In fact some people even refuse to believe she's white. "I tell them I'm white, but they think I'm black and I'm trying to pass for white," Marie explained, feigning exasperation as she pounded her fist on the table in a Hollywood cocktail lounge. She laughed as she carefully examined the backs of her hands and then ran her fingers all over her face. "This is white skin. I'm not trying to fool anybody."
She laughed again. "I've got to keep a sense of humor about this," said the tiny (five foot), talkative, 23-year-old performer.
Summing up what it's like to be a white person whom many regard as a black, she said matter-of-factly: "I'm a different kind of person. Blacks and whites don't really react in any special way to me. I don't get anything negative from blacks and not really anything negative from whites now. But I will say it was different before I started getting some popularity. I don't think it was prejudice from whites as much as ignorance of something they didn't know much about. You know, I wish I was colorless sometimes."
This racial confusion about Marie, who is co-starring with Stevie Wonder in an Inglewood Forum benefit Thursday, is important because, to some degree, it's retarding the progress of her career. First of all it's not unusual for a white singer to have a black style. However, such performers stick to rock and pop mostly aimed at white audiences. Marie -- who's an excellent singer by the way -- is unique not only because she sings rhythm and blues but because her music is geared primarily to black audiences.
Consequently she's treated by radio stations as a black artist. Her records are played extensively on black stations and rarely crossover to the white pop stations.
To Marie, it's an honor for her music to be played almost exclusively on black stations. "That's flattering to me," she boasted. "They tell me I'm the only white woman singer in this kind of position."
It may be flattering but it's also limiting. The only way to become a big recording star is to get exposure on pop stations and sell records to the mass pop audience. Even though her audience is limited, Marie has done quite well. Her first two Motown albums, Wild & Peaceful and Lady T went gold (500,000 sold), and her latest --and best-- Irons in the Fire probably will too.
Motown, however, thinks she can appeal to more than a black audience and is now trying to expose her to the pop masses. A big move in that direction was signing her as the opening act on the Shaun Cassidy tour last year. It was one of the year's most unlikely bills. His audience consists mostly of females who are white and barely pubescent. Her audience is black teenagers and young adults. The crowds were composed almost entirely of his fans.
"It wasn't publicized that I was on the show, so no blacks knew I was there so they didn't come," she explained. "They wouldn't want to see Shaun Cassidy anyway. It was a rough situation for me given the way I sing and with my band being black. Those young girls didn't know my music and they couldn't really relate to me or the band."
While Marie wants to attract a pop audience, she made it clear she's unwilling to whitewash her style. "I'll never go all the way pop," she said emphatically. "It'd be nice to appeal to pop fans too, but I want to keep my black audience."
What's most remarkable about this singer-songwriter is that she's accomplished at producing, an aspect of the music business few women bother to explore. It's even more remarkable that she's become a producer while still in her early 20s. She had no burning desire to produce until she made her first album, which Rick James produced.
"I saw how Rick handled the musicians and put songs together," she said. "I learned so much from him that he told me I should produce my own album."
Marie didn't produce her next album, Lady T, but worked so closely with producer Dick Rudolph that she earned a co-producing credit. However, she did produce her current album.
"Mr. Gordy (Berry, Motown's head man) just gave me a shot at producing and turned me loose," she said. "They knew I could do it by myself because of what I'd done on the second album."
"Being a woman or being a young woman doesn't matter if you can do the job. People ask me, 'How do you handle men in the studio and tell them what to do?' That's not a problem. Being in charge is natural for me and I do it well."
Marie grew up in Venice, two blocks from a black neighborhood called Venice Harlem. "I had a lot of black friends and I learned a lot about blacks and black music," she recalled. "All the kids used to call me Off White because I acted sort of black and I was comfortable with the black kids."
Straddling two cultures was fun but Marie found out that it had its drawbacks. "I can remember being chased home a couple of times and being called nigger lover. I was only about 13 or 14 and to a young mind that's heartbreaking. I can remember going in my house and sitting in my room and crying."
A primary reason for Marie's immersion in the black culture is the most influential friendship of her life. "My very best friend is Mickey," she explained. "She's a black girl. I've known her for 13 years. I met her in the fifth grade. We had been friends for three years when something funny happened. One day my mother came to school to pick me up. Mickey had never seen her. Mickey looked at me and said, 'I didn't know you were white.' What it boiled down to was that it didn't matter."
Marie began singing at 8 and developed her R&B style through working with numerous bands --often on the chitlin' (black band) circuit -- during her years in Venice Hight School. In 1975, not long after graduation, she was signed by Motown. Marie had auditioned for a TV pilot that Gordy was assembling. The pilot was eventually shelved but he was so impressed with her singing and writing that he offered her a contract.
That's when her problems began. Her debut album wasn't released until about 3 1/2 years after she signed. Marie worked with several producers and came up with nothing satisfactory until she decided to work with Rick James. She met him in the nick of time.
"I was beginning to think I would never make an album," Marie recalled. "The frustration, the tension of waiting and the various pressures were getting to me. But in this business you've got to learn to handle pressure. You've got to be cool."
While Marie was calm and cool that afternoon in the cocktail lounge, she lamented that she's not always that way. "I'm usually pretty intense. It gets so bad sometimes that people tell me, 'You must be on cocaine.' Not me."
Sometimes she's such a bundle of nerves that nothing can relax her. In the last few years since she's been recording, Marie has been an insomniac. Her record, she said, is eight days with virtually no sleep. "Sometimes I'm up until 6 a.m. and I don't want to do that. I don't like to be up alone at that hour. It's lonely. Thoughts and ideas run through my head that only come at that hour. It can be very unpleasant."
What would happen if the pressure from her writing, singing and producing became overwhelming?
"I'd just have to deal with it," she replied. "I couldn't give up music. I'd go without sleep for eight weeks or eight months before I'd give it up. What else would I do?"