The February 1980 release of Lady T, Teena Marie’s sophomore album, was a quantum leap in her career. The unveiling of her face on the cover raised questions: Wait!! She’s white!? For those who missed her premiere Soul Train appearance with Rick James in 1979, her 1980 performance of “Behind The Groove” on the show confirmed that she was, indeed, the woman on the cover. But, by that time, she was a bona fide soul star.
After the triumph of Lady T, Berry Gordy assured her she was ready to produce herself, and she immediately entered the studio to begin Irons in the Fire, the first album that would proclaim “written and produced by Teena Marie” on the back cover. Ozone, the Nashville funk band that complemented Lady T, was front and center, along with bass player Allen McGrier who joined Teena’s touring unit in 1979 fresh from The Dells’ band. At the core of the background vocals were godsister Jill Jones and Mickey Boyce, a childhood friend and lifelong collaborator. The icing on the cake was the warmth of Paul Riser’s string arrangements which added a heightened sophistication to Teena’s wise-beyond-her-years compositions.
The album’s first single, “I Need Your Lovin’,” initially didn’t pass the Gordy test. He insisted the song didn’t have a hook – and Teena argued that it had three: the bass line, the M-O-N-E-Y pre-chorus, and the chorus itself. He listened again and agreed. The single would hit the Top 10 on Billboard’s R&B chart, #2 on their disco chart, and #37 on the pop chart.
The album’s second single, “Young Love,” just missed the R&B Top 40, but Teena, like Marvin Gaye, was an album artist. “Young Love,” the title track, the Latin-flavored “You Make Love Like Springtime,” and the jazz triumph “Tune In Tomorrow” all became Quiet Storm classics, making Teena just as renowned for her ballads that didn’t chart as the dance cuts that did. Released just six months after Lady T, Irons In the Fire became Teena’s first Top 10 R&B album.
With Irons, Teena established herself not just as a composer of love songs, but as a spiritual seeker. The first single’s subtle reference to her “third eye,” the title track’s prayerful introspection, and the liner notes’ Ntozake Shange-esque poem communicated Teena’s depth. The increasingly curious and engaged audience she was amassing was drawn into the world she inhabited.