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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

(Soundbite of song, "Ooo La La La")

TEENA MARIE (Singer): (Singing) Every time you come around, I feel my world starts turning topsy-turvy.

CORNISH: Lady T., Vanilla Child, Ivory Queen of Soul. Mary Christine Brockert earned all kinds of nicknames over the course of her career, but her stage name was Teena Marie.

(Soundbite of song, "Ooo La La La")

TEENA MARIE: (Singing) Oh, you've got me singing ooh la-la-la...

CORNISH: And her death yesterday at age 54 turns the page on a certain bit of music history. Marie was one of the first white acts to sign with Motown. The company was so skittish about her debut record that they didn't put her face on the cover. But she'd captured the ear and the heart of funk super artist Rick James. He became her producer, mentor, lover and collaborator.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm A Sucker For Your Love")

TEENA MARIE: (Singing) I'm just a...

Mr. RICK JAMES (Singer): (Singing) Well, all right, you freaks, give it up...

TEENA MARIE: (Singing) I'm just a...

Mr. JAMES: (Singing) ...for Lady T.

CORNISH: Guthrie Ramsey is a professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania. He joins us to talk about Teena Marie. Guthrie, welcome to the program.

Professor GUTHRIE RAMSEY (Department of Music, University of Pennsylvania): Thanks.

CORNISH: So what made her voice different?

Prof. RAMSEY: What's really striking about her voice is that it is a huge range for a pop singer. She sings with a very robust chest voice, but she also has what we call a coloratura range, and she moves effortlessly through the range of her voice. And although her voice had a naturally wide vibrato, there was a sense that she was still very much in control of it.

(Soundbite of song, "Square Biz")

TEENA MARIE: (Singing) I'm talking square biz to you, baby. Square, square biz. I'm talking love that is square, square biz.

CORNISH: Guthrie, when Teena Marie was signed to Motown, it was sort of late '70s. It was 1976 when she first joined the label. What was going on in popular culture and popular music?

Prof. RAMSEY: Well, I think about that moment as having two major movements going on at that time. You have the Black Power movement is really in full swing at that time, whereas in the '60s, it was pretty much about civil rights and integration and coming together. But during the '70s, it was really about black artists, black cultural workers coming into their own and demanding their fair share of the culture.

And coupled with this idea, the music corporations were beginning to buy up the smaller ma-and-pa black record labels that were the originators and the keepers of this R&B music. So you have a really kind of a perfect storm for someone like Teena Marie to come in and make everybody nervous.

CORNISH: She once said to a reporter, as recently as 1980, she said, I wish I was colorless. And I mean, I thought that was really interesting because how did race complicate her career?

Prof. RAMSEY: I think that it was the record label's assumption that they had to be nervous about someone who was hugely talented as she was and who didn't fit the female type for the kind of music that she did so well.

CORNISH: And, Guthrie, what exactly is going to be Teena Marie's legacy?

Prof. RAMSEY: I think that the kind of fire and sense of when she was on stage or when she was in the recording studio that you were getting 300 percent of her energy and focus. I think that you almost have to go to the gospel singers to get that kind of fervor. And let's hope that, you know, future singers learn their lessons from her.

CORNISH: Guthrie Ramsey, thank you so much.

Prof. RAMSEY: Thank you.

CORNISH: That's Guthrie Ramsey, a professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop." We were talking about R&B singer-songwriter Teena Marie, who died at her Pasadena home this past weekend. She was 54.

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