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Soul music, within the last year, said goodbye to two of its most beautiful angels. As the gloaming settled in on a Sunday afternoon last December, friends called with the news that Teena Marie was no longer with us. At the still young age of 53, the woman that seemed to understand a lot of my own every hurt and pain and the joy that love could bring, was gone much too soon.

Teena came up at a time when soul music was in a much healthier state; an artist working in the soul music genre could reach gold and platinum status without crossing over to the pop charts. Teena was beloved by the black and latino community, though she was white, and had earned several gold and platinum albums, but was virtually unknown to a white audience.

There was a time when an artist could have a lucrative recording and touring career with only urban radio support. By 2011, that was a near impossible feat. Songs like “I Need Your Lovin’,” “Square Biz,” “Fire and Desire,” and “Portugese Love” were staples at urban radio. Only 1984’s “Lovergirl” would cross over to the pop charts. Teena toured arenas with her mentor, Rick James, as well as headlined big urban tours like the Budweiser Superfest.

There had never been an artist quite like her. (Lisa Stansfield, also white, would hit the summit of the Billboard R&B charts no less than three separate times. However, she was more of a pop/dance artist with soul leanings, than a pure R&B artist.) Teena’s vocal chops were as celebrated as Aretha’s or Gladys’.

Virtually absent from the charts in the ‘90s, Teena made a huge commercial resurgence in the early 00s. Once again, with urban hits like “Still in Love” and “Ooh Wee,” Teena clocked in more gold records. By 2011, her legacy was secure. It was still far too early to have to bid farewell.

Pedal forward to September 2011, a voice, Vesta Williams, that we had not heard from in a while would also be taken away from us, at the still young age of 53. Vesta came from the school of Chaka Khan, with pipes reminiscent of that legendary diva. Her commercial success had not been as vibrant as Teena’s,
but from her self-titled debut in 1986, Vesta had the makings of a dedicated fan base. Her sophomore album, “Vesta 4 U” posted three Top 10 urban singles.

For much of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Vesta was able to tour successfully from singular exposure at urban radio. However, by the millennium, opportunities seemed few and far between. Several of her peers, like Meli’sa Morgan, Regina Belle, and Angela Winbush found it increasingly more difficult to survive with only exposure at urban radio. Urban radio had become dominated by hip-hop artists and music. It proved quite challenging for an R&B diva to survive under such circumstances.

Vesta had not quite developed a repertoire like Teena Marie. She augmented her solo work with guest appearances on various smooth jazz projects. But by 2011, even that work became increasingly difficult to come by. Before her transitioning, she had just released one of her best singles in years, “Dedicated.”
Unfortunately, it was on an indie label that appeared to lack the support to bring it to a wider audience.

By 2011, seasoned R&B artists saw limited exposure at only one radio format--Urban Adult radio. Though many of the urban adult stations were in large markets, its maximum reach was still under 20 million listeners. In comparison, T40 Rhythm/Crossover, the domain of hip-hop music, could potentially reach 100 million-plus listeners. Coupled with that, the typical listeners to these types of stations were not very active music buyers or concert goers.

So as we bid farewell to two of the most potent voices in urban radio, one treasured by millions, the other not fully reaching her potential, the landscape has changed dramatically from when these artists first started out on the scene. In Billboard’s Top Hip-Hop/Urban Songs of 2011, only Marsha Ambrosius, Jill Scott, and Fantasia posted songs that could be deemed classic urban music. Billboard didn’t even bother creating a list of the Best Urban Adult songs of 2011.

Ironically, both Teena and Vesta bid farewell at the same age. They both had left their mark on those who love soul music. The year 2011 may be the year when two beautiful angels flew away. It was also a year, wherein the very vehicle that helped these ladies blossom was struggling to survive. Their debut singles seemed a bit prophetic, “I’m a Sucker for Your Love” and “Don’t Blow a Good Thing”. At a time where Adele stands as the most important pop/soul singer of the year, saying goodbye to Teena and Vesta is that much more difficult. Each of their near final singles, “Can’t Last a Day” (Teena) and “Dedicated” (Vesta) speaks volumes.

While, arguably, one of the most beautiful R&B songs of the year, and the highest ranking in 2011, “Far Away” (Marsha Ambrosius), also says a lot about these two angels, and the state of Soul Music in 2011:

“So sad to see you go so soon, I know that you ain’t coming back. In the beginning, everything was
cool. Toward the end of it all, it’s all bad.”

Goodbye Vanilla Child. Goodbye Vesta. Come back soul music; we miss you all.

About the Writer
K. Bonin has worked in the music industry for the last three decades. He describes himself as "a child of Motown and the classic rock era." Having spent the balance of his career at Arista Records, his experience and passion gives him a unique perspective on music and the music industry.

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