R&B Greats – Mary J Blige
Called, “the pioneer of contemporary R&B” by the Guardian newspaper, Mary J Blige has come a long way from the Bronx, where she was born.
Her early life story is a sad one. After moving out of New York, she grew up in Georgia where she had to face her father, a jazz musician and Vietnam veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, regularly abusing her mother. Mary herself was sexually abused at the age of 5 after her father had abandoned her. Singing was her solace, especially in church, which she considered her safe place. At age 7, her musical talent was already starting to shine through when she won a talent contest singing Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’. By 16, though, things weren’t looking so bright for her. She admitted, years later, that during that time of her life she had lost herself to sex and drugs. Self-esteem issues were to blame, she said and it was only when she met her future husband, Kendu Isaacs, that she finally resolved these issues.
In 1992, after a track she recorded in a karaoke booth at a shopping mall ended up in the hands of Uptown Records CEO Andre Harrell, she became the youngest and only female artist signed to that label. She was 18 years old. The album she realised, What’s the 411?, was described as “fusing hip hop and R&B melodies” by the BBC who also went on to state that “Mary’s sweet soulful vocals sung over Puff Daddy’s rough, jagged, hip hop beats made for a winning combination”. It sold over 3 million copies.
Mary attributes her distinctive sound to listening to her mother’s records as a child. Those records included Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Al Green and Donny Hathaway. Her lyrics, which have been compared to ‘something out of a self-help book’ by the Guardian, were inspired by her traumatic childhood and troubled adolescence.
Since those early days, Mary J Blige has won 9 Grammy awards, sold over 50 million albums worldwide and is recognised as one of the greatest R&B artists of all time. Her latest album, The London Sessions comes out later this year.