Teena Marie was first recognized as an R&B talent in the 1970s when she signed a recording deal with Motown at the tender age of 19.
Now, the self-proclaimed “Ivory Queen of Soul” is being recognized for a nearly 30-year career that has included collaborations with industry giants from Rick James to Smokey Robinson, as well as a Grammy-nominated solo repertoire.
Teena Marie is one of nine artists receiving a Pioneer Award from the Philadelphia-based Rhythm & Blues Foundation at a gala ceremony Tuesday night.
“I’m very, very excited,” Marie said in a phone interview. “All my idols that I grew up on are going to be there.”
The other honorees are Chaka Khan, Kool & The Gang, Bill Withers, The Whispers, The Funk Brothers, Donny Hathaway, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Al Bell. The awards were last given in 2006 by the R&B Foundation, which is dedicated to celebrating and preserving the genre, and to assisting artists in need.
Teena Marie, 52, has been a pioneer in more than one sense. Besides being a white woman in a mostly black genre, she also won a precedent-setting lawsuit against Motown in 1982.
But her robust, soulful voice is what put her on the R&B map – and what has kept her there for nearly three decades. Admirers also cite her versatility; some of her later work includes a pairing with hip-hop star Kurupt, and her songs have been sampled by artists including Ludacris and The Fugees.
“I guess you could really call her a true soul sister,” said R&B Foundation chairman Kendall Minter.
Born Mary Christine Brockert, Teena Marie began singing as a child in Los Angeles. She put out her first album, “Wild and Peaceful,” in 1979 under the tutelage of funk legend James. In addition to producing the debut, James and Marie sang a duet called “I’m a Sucker for Your Love,” which hit No. 8 on the R&B charts.
But the album did not feature Marie’s picture – the only one of her records 12 without it. Marie said officials at Motown did not want people to know she was white; they wanted the record judged on its merits.
“I’ll never really know what difference it made. I guess it worked,” she said.
After three more albums with Motown, Marie wanted to jump to another label. Motown sued to stop her, but a California court ruled that a label cannot prevent an artist from recording for a competitor unless it guarantees the artist a certain amount of money per year. Marie then signed with Epic.
Her biggest hit, the Grammy-nominated “Lovergirl,” crossed over from the R&B to the pop charts and peaked at No. 4 in 1985. She earned another nomination for the song “I’m Still in Love,” released on her comeback album “La Dona” in 2004.
Teena Marie, who lives with her 16-year-old daughter in Pasadena, Calif., still tours frequently. Her 13th album, tentatively titled “Congo Square,” is slated for release next year and will feature duets with her daughter and Nancy Wilson, Marie said.
Since being notified of the Pioneer Award, she’s been thinking a lot about James, with whom she had an often tumultuous relationship until his death four years ago.
“I feel like he’s a part of this,” Marie said. “I know he would be very, very proud of me.”
Marie is scheduled to perform “Casanova Brown,” which she calls her “masterpiece,” at the award ceremony at the Kimmel Center. She’ll be accompanied by an orchestra, a career first for her.
“All in all, it’s been a wonderful, wonderful ride,” Marie said. “I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”