Teena Marie, Ivory Queen of Soul, dies

Soul singer and songwriter Teena Marie, one of the few white musicians to scale the R&B charts, died on Sunday at the age of 54.

Soul singer was Motown's first white female act

Soul singer and songwriter Teena Marie, one of the few white musicians to scale the R&B charts and Motown's first white female act, died on Sunday at the age of 54.

Her manager, Mike Gardner, told CNN that she was found dead at her Pasadena home on Sunday afternoon, and apparently died in her sleep. A cause of death has not yet been given, but the singer suffered a grand mal seizure a month ago.

Born Mary Christine Brockert, Teena Marie grew up in a predominately black area of Los Angeles, and began singing and acting professionally at the age of eight.

After graduating from high school in 1976, she signed with Motown Records, the legendary label that had been a haven for black artists such as Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye.

But Motown didn't release any of her music until she teamed up with funk legend Rick James, who became her mentor, musical collaborator on hits such as Lovergirl and Fire and Desire, and lover.

James produced her 1979 debut album, Wild and Peaceful, which went gold and featured her first hit single, a duet with James called I'm a Sucker for Your Love

Teena Marie's photo did not appear on this album, as Motown apparently thought black audiences might not buy it if they knew the songstress was white. But her second album carried her picture after fears of a rejection of a white singer proved unfounded.

She subsequently won a huge following in the black community, and was dubbed the "Ivory Queen of Soul" by black fans.

"Overall my race hasn't been a problem. I'm a black artist with white skin," she said in an interview with Essence.com last year. "At the end of the day you have to sing what's in your own soul."

In 1982, Teena Marie quarrelled with Motown over royalties and fought to be released from her contract. She sued the label, and the legal battle resulted in the landmark Brockert Initiative, named for her, which makes it illegal for record labels to keep artists under contract without releasing their music.

"It wasn't something I set out to do," she told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. "I just wanted to get away from Motown and have a good life. But it helped a lot of people … to get out of their contracts."

She moved to Epic in the 1980s, and had hits such as Ooo La La La, her only U.S. R&B chart No. 1 hit single, but she left the spotlight in the 1990s after the birth of her daughter, Alia Rose.

She made a comeback in 2004 with La Dona, her first new album in a decade. The track Still in Love earned her a Grammy nomination for best R&B female vocal performer, one of her four Grammy nominations.

Devastated by James's death in 2004, Teena Marie became addicted to Vicodin, a prescription painkiller. But in an interview with The Associated Press last year, she said she had beaten the addiction.

Her last album, Congo Square, was released in 2009. It featured a tribute to Martin Luther King's widow, and Black Cool, a song written for President Barack Obama.

With files from The Associated Press