James and Marie are together again, without the turmoil

Music

December 04, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

It's been a long time, and so much has changed since those two shared a stage. Back in the late '70s and early '80s, Rick James and Teena Marie were two of the hottest acts in black pop. James was the self-proclaimed "supafreak," rocking sequin-studded spandex suits and slinging his regal braids as he delivered tough, uncut funk. You know the hits: "You and I," "Mary Jane," "Give It To Me Baby" and, well, "Super Freak."

His protege and one-time lover, Marie, was (and still is) an anomaly of sorts: a white female singer whose soul-rich sound and gospel-jazz approach never really crossed over. "Lady T" was simply too black for most whites. Middle-class African-Americans -- the same folks who grew up on Switch, Slave, the Gap Band, the Dazz Band -- make up Marie's core audience. You know her classics, too: "I Need Your Lovin'," "Portuguese Love," "Square Biz," "Aladdin's Lamp." When Marie and James sang together on "Happy" and "Fire and Desire," the passion smoldered. Their voices soared over pine trees, over clouds, into space and swooped back to Earth. The chemistry was undeniable.

Now, the two -- older and more centered -- have been touring together, garnering enthusiastic responses nationwide, over the past two months. James and Marie will play 1st Mariner Arena Sunday night.

Calling from his hotel suite in Los Angeles, James says, "A Rick James / Teena Marie show has always been like a party. We're just masters of ceremony. It's like a tag team match. We have one band -- Teena's band and a few from my band. And you're getting some good music. You don't come to sit down; you get up."

(Marie, 47, was unavailable for an interview.)

Neither artist has been on the pop radar in a while, and neither has generated much chart activity in more than a decade. James' career cooled after "Loosey's Rap," a 1988 No. 1 smash featuring Roxanne Shante. But his personal life was all over the news in the early '90s. Known for years as a hard-living addict (his 1978 jam, "Mary Jane," was a funk-slathered ode to reefer), James plummeted. He missed shows and was often belligerent during the ones he managed to get to. The Buffalo, N.Y., native was arrested several times on drug charges. And from '94 to '96, he was locked up in California's Folsom Prison for an assault charge.

During all this, James' relationship with Marie was strained. They had long stopped singing together by 1994, and the two were no longer lovers.

"She was standing in the background, watching my demise," says James, 55. "But with time, there's change, you know. We're both older now and we went our separate ways and went through our changes. We have children now: I have a 10-year-old son, and Teena has a young daughter. So, our priorities are different. We're not as volatile with each other now, snapping at each other. Back then, we were like two tornadoes."

Rewind the tape to 1978. James and Marie are signed to Motown. He's riding on the success of Come Get It!, his gold-selling debut. Though signed to the label for nearly two years, she hasn't released anything. One day in a rehearsal room at the label, James overhears Marie belting at a piano. He walks in and is surprised to find "this short munchkin white girl." James introduces himself and they chat a while.

But it's Marie's manager at the time, Winnie Martin, who later suggests that the two get together in the studio. James produces Wild and Peaceful, Marie's 1979 debut, which features the party gem "I'm a Sucker For Your Love." After that album takes off, Marie asserts herself in the studio, writing, producing and playing guitar and percussion on subsequent LPs: Lady T, Irons in the Fire, It Must Be Magic and others.

"I knew she could do all that, man," James says. "I had to let her go, like a bird, and watch the growth. When I heard her sing for the first time, it took me to strange places. I felt like I had known her before. I do believe in reincarnation, and previously Teena was a black woman. Had to be. Her poetry is black, her soul is black, her music is black. She just has white skin."

Despite suffering a stroke and undergoing a hip replacement four years ago, James is focused and sober these days. Next year, he will publish a tell-all, Confessions of a Super Freak, and release an album (still untitled) to celebrate 25 years in the business.

As for his reunion with his old friend, James says, "We're both gentler to each other now. Time has refined us and mellowed us. We have a relationship. It's past music. It's in the spirit."

Teena Marie and Rick James' "You and I Reunion Tour" stops at 1st Mariner Arena Sunday night at 7:30. Tickets are $44.50-$49.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-481-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

'Back then, we were like two tornadoes.'

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