In 1983, Teena Marie released her fifth album Robbery, which was the first album for her new record label Epic. Robbery hadn’t matched the commercial success of her three previous albums for Motown, only reaching number 119 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirteen in the US R&B Charts. Undeterred, Teena Marie headed back to her Los Angeles home and set about writing songs for her next album. Little did she know that what would become Starchild, would become her most successful album. Starchild, which will be rereleased on SoulMusic.com on 16th April 2012, would surpass everything Teena had ever released, or would release in the future. Before I tell you about the music on Starchild, I’ll tell you about the background to, and making of Starchild.
After the commercial failure of Robbery, Teena Marie decided that it was time for a change in her sound and style. On Starchild, it was decided that the album would feature music tinged with a more rocky sound. To do this, bassist Allen McGrier recruited Texan guitarist David Taylor, to lay down some rocky guitar licks. With David Taylor onboard and eight songs ready to record, the band headed to the studio. The sessions took place at three studios in Los Angeles, Sound Castle, Ocean Way Recording Studio and A&M Recording Studios, while the band also recorded at The Automatt in San Francisco.
Then, whilst recording of the sessions were taking place, a tragedy that touched and affected Teena deeply, took place. Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father. This prompted Teena in conjunction with Rick James sister P.J. and Leon Ware, who often collaborated with Marvin to cowrite My Dear Mr Gaye. To record this track, Teena recruited three musicians who’d worked with Marvin. They were, saxophonist Ernie Watts, drummer James Gadson and guitarist David T. Walker. With Gene Page arranging the track, Teena recorded a moving and beautiful tribute to one of the greatest soul singers.
Of the other eight tracks that make up Starchild, Teena wrote six, while she cowrote two other tracks. During part of 1983 and much of 1984, the recording sessions took place. Eventually, with nine tracks recorded, Starchild was completed. All that was left was for Starchild to be released. At this time, Teena must have been nervous. She’d changed her trademark sound, adding a rockier edge. In the back of her mind must have been the fear of her second album for Epic being a commercial failure. Little did Teena know, but Starchild would be the biggest commercial success of her career.
Preceding the release of Starchild, was the release of a track that Epic felt would prove to be the perfect single, Lovergirl. Released in 1984, reached number four in the US Billboard 100, number nine in the US R&B Charts and number six in the Dance Music/Club Play Charts. This bode well for the release of Starchild, which on its release in November 1984, reached number thirty-one in the US Billboard 200 and number nineteen in the US R&B Charts. This resulted in the only platinum disc of Teena’s career. Two further singles were released, with Jammin’ reaching number eighty-one in the US Billboard 100 and number forty-five in the US R&B Charts. Out On A Limb was the final single released from Starchild, reaching number fifty-six in the US R&B Charts. Teena’s decision to change her sound and style on Starchild had paid-off, with a platinum certified album. However, what does the music on Starchild sound like, given the new Teena Marie sound?
Opening Starchild is Lovergirl, the most successful single released from the album. Straight away, you realize just why this was chosen as the lead single from Starchild, with its fusion of funk and rock. It’s the type of track that would’ve appealed to radio in 1984. With its combination of whooping vocal, funky rhythm section, wash of synths and chiming guitars the track gets underway. Teena’s quick, emotive delivery, is accompanied by screaming, rocky guitars while the rhythm section concentrate on laying down a funky backdrop for Teena’s powerful vocal. This much more powerful fusion of genres works well, especially when combined a tempo of 123 beats per minute and the emotion and passion in Teena’s delivery.
Rocky guitars get Help Youngblood Get To the Party underway, but give no indication of what’s to follow. After the entrance of rocky guitars, comes stabs of synth and the rhythm section. Key to the funk of the rhythm section is the slap bass of Allan McGrier, who later is called upon to lay down a rap during verses. He was replacing Eddie Murphy, who’d originally agreed to do the rap. Later, Teena takes her turn to rap, which is a change from her powerful style. Together with a backdrop rock tinged guitars, synths and the tightest of rhythm sections, a compelling and intriguing track unfolds mixing rap, rock and R&B.
Out On A Limb is very different to the previous two tracks. It’s a ballad, with a pleading vocal full of insecurity from Teena. She delivers it against a slow arrangement, where drums provide the heartbeat, while a wash of synths and guitars combine. It demonstrates a different side to Teena, allowing us to hear just how talented she was when singing ballads. Her delivery is a combination of insecurity, neediness and passion, while the arrangement is slow, subtle and sometimes dramatic. When all this is combined, the result is one of Starchild’s most beautiful tracks and one of its highlights.
After the beauty of the previous track, Teena ups the tempo, while showing she’s just as comfortable rocking out on Alibi. It’s a tale of infidelity, delivered quickly and with a sense of urgency. Behind her, the rhythm section drive the track along, while synths and guitars combine to create the sense of urgency in Teena’s vocal. Again, rocky guitars are added, here to add to the track’s drama. This works really well, as they gradually take the track reach its dramatic and emotive crescendo.
Jammin’ was another of the singles released from Starchild, but never reached the heights of Lovergirl. Given the track’s quality, this is surprising. Teena’s band provide a backdrop that fuses funk and rock, while Teena’s vocal is laden with emotion. Stabs of synths, a funky bass and rocky guitars are key to the tracks sound. Mostly, the sound is funky, with occasionally, guitars adding their rocky influence. Not only is this one of the funkiest tracks on Starchild, where Teena delivers one of her best vocals, but this to me, is one the best and most hook laden tracks on the album,
Starchild the title-track, was the B-side of the third single Jammin.’ This was one of the six tracks Teena wrote herself. It’s an intriguing mid-tempo track, with a space-age sound, that gradually, reveals its secrets. Opening with the rhythm section and synths combining, Teena’s emotive punchy vocal enters. Her voice becomes impassioned as the track progresses. Later, a vocoder makes an appearance, and with the synths and crisp drums give the track an eighties electronic sound. While this is quite different from the previous tracks, it demonstrates the eclectic nature of style of music that make up Starchild.
We’ve Got To Stop (Meeting Like This) features soul singer Ronnie McNeir. They sing a duet against a slow, lush sounding arrangement where cascading strings, keyboards and a gentle rhythm section combine. Both Teena and Ronnie’s vocal are impassioned and drenched in emotion. The arrangement flows beautifully along, with percussion and occasional drums adding short bursts of drama. However, what makes this such a beautiful and romantic track are Teena and Ronnie’s heartfelt, impassioned vocals.
Teena’s tribute to Marvin Gaye, My Dear Mr. Gaye is a fitting and moving tribute penned by Teena, P.J. and Leon Ware, featuring three musicians who regularly played with Marvin. They’re saxophonist Ernie Watts, drummer James Gadson and guitarist David T. Walker, while Gene Page arranges the track. The song has a very different sound to other tracks on Starchild. This may be due to Gene Page’s beautiful arrangement. He uses swathes of the lushest strings, piano and backing vocalists to accompany Teena’s impassioned and sincere vocal. She delivers the track with feeling, reserving one of her best vocals for this song. Later, in the track the saxophone signals all change, and the track wanders of in a jazz-funk direction, With Ernie’s saxophone and David’s jazz guitar combining with the piano, while Teena’s vocal dances above the arrangement, this truly is a fitting and quite brilliant tribute to one of the greatest soul singers, Marvin Gaye.
Closing Starchild is a track that demonstrates Teena’s gospel roots, Light. Although only seventy-five seconds long, it’s a revealing insight into the music that shaped Teena as a singer. With just a piano accompanying her, Teena’s vocal is both spiritual and beautiful as she gives thanks for her music. Having heard this short track, it makes you want to hear much of Teena singing gospel music.
Although Starchild was released just over a year after Robbery, the turnaround in Teena Marie’s fortunes were remarkable. After the commercial failure of Robbery, Starchild would sell over one-million copies, being certified platinum in the process. The reason for this was Teena’s decision to change her sound. This was a risky gamble, but one that paid off handsomely. If it hadn’t paid off, how would Epic, her record company have reacted? They had backed her gamble, and would share in the reward. Changing a sound or style for any artist can prove a huge gamble, especially if like Teena you’re an established artist. While some fans maybe were disappointed in this change in sound, many more adored it. Although Teena’s decision to fuse her usual style of music with a rockier sound, apart from Alibi and Jammin,’ the tracks that are among Starchild’s highlights are very different from this rock-tinged sound. Out On A Limb is a beautiful ballad, while Ronnie McNeir duets on the love song We’ve Got To Stop (Meeting Like This). My Dear Mr. Gaye, Teena’s tribute to Marvin Gaye, which was arranged by Gene Page is indeed a fitting, sincere and ultimately heartfelt song, that’s one of Starchild’s real gems. Light was a tantalizing taste of Teena’s gospel roots and demonstrates the eclectic nature of Starchild. Whether it’s ballads, love songs, jazz or a fusion of funk and rock, there’s all this and much more on Starchild which will be rereleased on SoulMusic.com on 16th April 2012. The remastered rerelease features five bonus tracks, with alternate versions of the three singles released from Starchild. For anyone wanting to discover the music of Teena Marie, the rerelease of Starchild will allow you to once again, hear the biggest selling album of her career. Standout Tracks: Out On A Limb, Jammin,’ We’ve Got To Stop (Meeting Like This) and My Dear Mr. Gaye.