LOS ANGELES – R&B singer Teena Marie died at age 54, it was reported Sunday night, and the news spread by e-mail and by social-media tools such as Twitter before the mainstream media had a chance to catch up.
But it was old-school reporting that enabled Roland Martin, the analyst for CNN, TV One and the “Tom Joyner Morning Show,” to tell the e-mail list of the National Association of Black Journalists at 8:19 p.m. Eastern, “It is true. I just confirmed it with her manager and publicist. I will have details in a moment.” He was simultaneously keeping his Twitter followers up to date. Marie’s daughter, Alia Rose, found the entertainer’s body earlier Sunday at Marie’s California home.
The Associated Press reported later that a statement from Pasadena police said the death appeared to be from natural causes. “The police and fire department were called to her home after family members found her unresponsive.”
“I got a bunch of tweets and Facebook comments asking about it. I saw comedian Kym Whitley tweet that the story wasn’t true of her death. I called Kym. Kym put me on the three-way with Teena’s publicist, Lynn Jeter. Lynn said it wasn’t true, but for me to call Teena’s manager, Mike Gardner. She gave me his cell. Jeter had been trying to call Teena all day about it and had no luck getting through. I called Gardner immediately and he said, ‘It’s true.’
“I called Jeter back, she said she had just gotten through to the house, and talked to the folks there who said the coroner had just left with Teena’s body.”
For those unfamiliar with Marie, born Marie Christine Brockert, this is how she was described for a fall 2009 episode of “Unsung!,” a TV One series that chronicles R&B stars of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s:
“There may never be a more soulful, sexy, funky combination of voice and music like that which emanates from the ‘Ivory Queen of Soul,’ Teena Marie. Signed by Motown at 17, and teamed up musically — and for a time, romantically — with funk master Rick James, who produced her debut album, ‘Wild and Peaceful’, and later put together their steamy duet, ‘Fire and Desire,’ one of the all time stage show-stoppers. That, and Teena’s robust sound and powerful delivery, helped to overcome long standing racial barriers between Black audiences and white singers.
“Under the auspices of James, she launched a ground-breaking initiative that allowed her to leave Motown at the height of her career, and also revolutionized the relationship between musicians and record labels throughout the industry. Teena went on to solely produce every subsequent album in her career, while earning four Grammy nominations, and recording a host of classic R&B hit singles, including ‘Square Biz,’ ‘Lover Girl,’ ‘Oh La La La’ and ‘Portuguese Love.’ She also shared a poignant reunion on stage with her friend and mentor Rick James, shortly before his passing in 2005. It’s all part of an inspirational story, still unfolding, of a woman who poured her life into music, and whose music has enriched our lives.” An early version of an Associated Press story mistakenly said Marie was Motown’s first white act, and that line was repeated in news stories even after AP corrected it.
TV One tweeted Sunday night that it was re-running the “Unsung” episode Monday at 9 p.m. and midnight Eastern and Pacific times. Kevin Ross, editor and contributing writer of Radio Facts, a Los Angeles-based site covering urban radio, claimed to be first with the story, posting at 5:09 p.m. Pacific time, and later updating:
“It has been confirmed Teena has died. WDAS stole the story from a link that we sent them and they are claiming she died of a heart attack, this has not been confirmed. They are in Philly and we are in Los Angeles where Teena lived. I was confident since Radio Facts broke the story that the source was a good one. Several people who are close to Teena and her family have called and emailed me to confirm it’s true. Sorry to report this sad news a day after Christmas. Ironically, I JUST finished the page on the Deaths for 2010 for a Radio Facts review of 2010 this afternoon. I guess I will have to edit it now. Still no word on the cause of her death. I will keep you posted. Kevin.”
A Twitter report from Philadelphia’s WDAS-FM sometime before 8:11 p.m. Eastern time said, “We regret to inform you that Music Legend Teena Marie has died at the age of 54. Tributes and further details soon at http://WDASfm. com.” However, there were no details on the website until 9:01 p.m., when the station linked to Twitter messages from singer Ronald Isley and a drummer for singer-drummer Sheila E.
Meanwhile, at 7:50 p.m. Eastern, Denise Clay, a Philadelphia journalist who saw the news on the WDAS website, asked colleagues on the National Association of Black Journalists e-mail list, “Does anyone have any information confirming or denying a report that R n B singer Teena Marie is dead?”
“The source wasn’t one I recognized and I’m a part of the ‘If your mama says she loves you, have it verified by three sources’ school,” she later told Journal-isms.
“There’s nothing on Google News …” one journalist wrote back at 8:07 p.m.
“Twitter is going nuts right now, but I’ve got nothing,” an entertainment writer added. “twitter has killed tons of folks off this year — so this could be some nasty hoax, too. . . . Also: folks are citing a blurb from a radio station. That same radio station also killed Luther off years before he died, so there’s that …,”a reference to Luther Vandross. Twitterers went back and forth.
One with the handle “questlove” wrote, “something is telling me my hacked instincts are right. im not accepting this. im sorry. until CNN says it. its not true…”
There was indeed bad information. As Martin explained, referring to comedian Kym Whitley, “Teena Marie’s publicist told her, & me, that the news wasn’t true. Then she finally got through 2 Marie’s home.” And then he tweeted, “the manager of @teenamarie, just told me that it is true: the legendary R&B singer has indeed died.”
The CNN news blog followed with a brief report at 8:43 p.m. Eastern. And CNN anchor Don Lemon tweeted then, “cnn has confirmed from Teena Marie’s manager that she has died.”