It has always been part of my curious nature to want to learn more about the lives and experiences of figures I respect and admire. The smallest, everyday detail can sometimes provide the most vivid piece of evidence that someone was actually a human being. His or her success was not simply a fluke or stroke of luck, but a successful singer, car designer, writer, etc. very often had a very real set of life circumstances over which they triumphed before managing to make their broader mark on the world. In many instances, the cars they drove while on the road (literally and figuratively) to their eventual success were a tangible part of their day-to-day lives.
It’s really not that hard for me to get lost in researching things online, in general. I have always loved popular music across many diverse formats, and there is a lot of biographical content on YouTube. I’m often busy creating content of my own in the realm of pictures and words, so I don’t always have the time to sit down and read a book, though I am nearly all the way through Mariah Carey’s recent autobiography (which is fascinating, insightful, and well-written). Sometimes, though, I just want to find something to watch online and get comfortable on the couch for an hour or so.
I’ve referenced my love of the artistry of Teena Marie here at Curbside a few times before, the first instance of which was probably an essay I had written several years back about a ’79 Buick Electra found near one of my former neighborhoods in Flint, Michigan. Born Mary Christine Brockert, she not only wrote and sang her own material, but she eventually produced it as well, starting with her third album, 1980’s Irons In The Fire. I have included a brief list of some of my favorite songs of hers at the end of this post, for those who are unfamiliar and interested. I can remember dancing as a young boy with joy and abandon to her rich, celebratory R&B sound (to “Square Biz”) with other kids in a basement without knowing her name, who she was, or even that she was as white as my own mother.
It was during the second part of an interview she had given with cable channel TV One that I had made a fascinating discovery. At around the 2:56 mark of this clip, Teena makes reference to driving her Vega from Burbank to Palm Springs, following one particularly unsatisfying early rehearsal session with a budding group called “Apollo”, one of her labelmates on Motown. I immediately hit “rewind” in a puzzled moment after I thought I had heard her say what she actually did say. “Vega…” “Vega…” “Got in my Vega…” I must have listened to her say that word and phrase for a full minute on repeat with a huge grin on my face before moving on with the rest of the interview with my mind blown like an original 2300 head gasket.
There were no other clues provided as to the model year of Teena’s Vega, but by the point in the mid-’70s around the time of her rehearsals with Apollo, any Vega could have been well on its way to beaterdom even if only a few years old. Both Apollo and Teena Marie would release albums on the Motown label in 1979, with that of the former being their only release, and with Marie on her way to major stardom with Wild And Peaceful, which featured her breakout single and duet with Rick James (her mentor), “I’m Just A Sucker For Your Love”. This song would peak at No. 8 on Billboard’s R&B chart, and would be just the start of a huge career on Black urban contemporary radio and in record stores across the country.
Just imagine, though, what would have happened had her Vega broken down on the road in some tragic fashion after that disastrous rehearsal session with Apollo which prompted her to drive off. This all happened decades before the modern prevalence of cell phones, and though there were call boxes or pay phones in existence, the distance she might have had to walk or ride to get to one might have presented its own challenges. Even outside the context of this one, specific drive between Burbank and Palm Springs, that Vega’s inborn unpredictability might have been a liability in many situations before Teena Marie’s career was on solid footing (and before she was driving something else).
I’ve long been a fan of the Vega’s styling, and I’m usually that contrarian in the comments on Curbside posts about Vegas who proclaims his devotion to the “very fine styling efforts” of GM, or however I felt like wording it that day. After watching this interview with Teena Marie, I suddenly felt a little bit of hostility toward the woefully under-engineered, small Chevy at the thought that it might have cost me, and the rest of the R&B-loving world, the artistry and exceptional body of work of Ms. Marie had she missed some crucial deadline with Motown or legendary label founder Berry Gordy due to the unreliability of her example of one of GM’s nicest looking and plentiful (with almost two million sold) “deadly sins“.
It’s true that in playing the game of hypotheticals, there might have been some other person around, some other car she could have borrowed, or the miraculous presence of a policeman who came to her rescue after seeing the forward-hinged hood of her Vega tilted upward, and pillars of steam billowing upward from its overheated motor. It still seems like it was too much of a dice game that she was behind the wheel of a Vega in the first place. Sadly, her untimely passing was at the end of 2010, so no one will ever have the chance to direct message her to ask her what she remembered about that car. In the meantime, I may have to have a little, one-person listening party. Thankfully, Teena Marie’s career eventually blew up in a way I hope her Vega’s engine didn’t.
My current top-five Teena Marie songs, in no specific order:
- “Square Biz” (1981)
- “I Need Your Lovin'” (1980)
- “It Must Be Magic” (1981)
- “Ooo La La La” (1988)
- “Portuguese Love” (1981)
(The above list is subject to change by next week.)