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Teena Marie: Remembering Rick James

Editors note: Teena Marie unfortunately passed away last night. Here is an interview we did with her one year ago.

Teena Marie, the first lady of funk, was the yin to Rick James’s yang. Lady Tee sat down with us to reminisce about her former mentor/ lover/friend, the man she knew as Rick “Motherfucking” James.

HUSTLER: When did you first meet Rick James?

TEENA MARIE: I was playing piano in Stevie Wonder’s office. I used to go in there and write songs. I had been hearing about him from my manager. He walked in with his hair halfbraided under a Hendrix hat. He had on platform sandals and a lot of turquoise jewelry. He looked the part of a star already.

Tell us about being James’s protégée.

I’m the first person that he produced other than himself. I worked on his Bustin’ Out album. I did all the background vocals on that while he was producing my first album, Wild and Peaceful.

What was the creative process like?

We were friends and very close. Rick really loved my lyrics. He asked me if he could take my poetry book, which had about 200 pieces in it. He wanted to read it and see what I was into. Days later we were rehearsing at his house. He said, “I want you to hear this song ‘Déjà Vu’ that I wrote for you.” It was this beautiful song. The band was playing, and he was singing it to me. Tears were just streaming down my face because it was so amazing, so deeply spiritual and so me. It’s funny because a year later, when I got my poetry book back, I realized that they were my lyrics! No wonder it sounded like me!

It was me! Is it true your first hit, “Sucka for Love,” wasn’t written for you?

It was originally written for Diana Ross. Motown [Records] wanted Rick to produce her, but he wanted to do the whole album, and they wanted him to do just one song. When he realized that, he said,“I don’t wanna do that.Matter of fact, I would rather produce her—the little white girl.”

When did you and Rick become lovers?

About three and a half years after we started working together. It would have started before that because he was hitting on me all the time. It lasted maybe a year.

What did Rick think about the attention he got from the Chappelle show?

He loved it. He thought it was funny. The whole “I’m Rick James, bitch!” thing wasn’t really true. What he used to say was, “I’m Rick ‘Motherfucking’ James!” But I guess they couldn’t say that on TV. ”

Did his death in 2004 shock you?

No.We were on tour for that whole year before he died. We were singing to each other every night. I was looking in his eyes, and he in my eyes. It hurt because I didn’t want to see it, but I could actually see him going somewhere else.

Did he want to go?

I really feel he did. He was a big-bang person. His health wasn’t really good, and one night when he was onstage with me, he started breathing really bad while singing “Fire and Desire.” He dropped down to his knees to make it really dramatic like it was part of the show. But I knew something was wrong, so I had his back and went down there with him. After he went off the stage, Rick couldn’t even breathe. They had to get him an oxygen tank. He looked at me and said, “Wouldn’t that have made a great ending to the movie? If I would have died in your arms onstage?”

What is Rick James’s legacy?

I’m wearing a “Super Freak” T-shirt, but his legacy really wasn’t just that. He did write some beautiful music, not just “Super Freak.” He was a deeply spiritual man. He was also intelligent, intriguing and charming. We used to ride around in Buffalo listening to Aretha Franklin. I like to think that when Rick got to heaven, Aretha Franklin was playing to welcome him. Teena Marie’s new CD, Congo Square , is out now.

Keith Valcourt

Photo Credit: Ladi Von Jansky

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