The cover of her debut album, released by Motown in 1979, didn't feature her picture. The label was afraid, Teena Marie later said, of turning off its fan base. But it was her voice, not her appearance, that mattered most, and she was beloved by African-American audiences. "I'm a black artist with white skin," she said in 2009. "At the end of the day, you have to sing what's in your own soul."
Teena Marie, born Mary Christine Brockert but also known as Lady T and the Ivory Queen of Soul, was found dead Dec. 26 at 54. She had sung what was in her soul--funky hits such as "Lovergirl" and "Square Biz" and duets like "Fire and Desire" with mentor and onetime romantic partner Rick James--over the course of a successful recording career that spanned three decades.
In the early '80s she left Motown during a famous dispute that resulted in the Brockert Initiative (or Teena Marie law), an artists'-rights act aimed at keeping labels from holding musicians and their work hostage. A songwriter, a producer and an arranger as well as a Grammy-nominated singer, Teena Marie released many more albums over the ensuing years, most recently 2009's Congo Square. "She had so much soul," said Motown founder Berry Gordy after her death. "The only thing white about her was her skin."