A Very Mary Christmas

Mary J. Blige covers Donny Hathaway and more

Since Mary J. Blige’s debut album What’s the 411 in 1992, the New York-bred singer has been at the forefront of popular culture. From her continuously critically acclaimed music releases to developing her own sunglasses line to starring in various film projects (including this week’s Black Nativity), Blige has never been afraid of trying something different.

Premiering Thanksgiving night at 8:00 EST, the beloved singer will unveil her first holiday special A Mary Christmas, on Sean “Diddy” Combs’s Revolt TV channel. “This is Mary like we’ve never seen her before,” executive producer and Revolt co-chairman Andre Harrell says via telephone from his west coast office. “We tried to do something that was jazzy and elegant. Watching her was like seeing a young Nancy Wilson; it’s very sophisticated.”

Harrell, who has known Blige since she was a wild teenager, signed the singer to her first recording contract with Uptown Records when she was 18. Revolt chairman Sean Combs also worked at Uptown in those early days, and aided Blige’s career in everything from helping to develop her “hip-hop soul” sound to the chic boots on her feet.

“The first thing that Mary said to me was, ‘If, me, you and Puff do something, you know a certain level has to be on.’ I assured her that Mary Christmas would be on the highest level of Black elegance television has ever seen.” In addition, Queen Latifah agreed to host the show. “Latifah and Mary are friends for real, so when we asked her, she signed on right away.”

Pulling the show together in a record amount of time, the production hired multi-Grammy Award winner David Foster as the musical director. (Foster also produced the Mary Christmas album on which the special was based.) Veteran director J. Kevin Swain, who’s worked with Mary in the past, was also recruited by the production.

“We had four days of prep and then got it all done,” Swain says. “The Revolt staff and crew were top-notch, and everybody dug deep to get the project done with no problems. I think this is a special that will live on for years because of the way Mary presents the songs—one of my favorites being her version of Donny Hathaway’s lovely ‘This Christmas,’ which she performs with Tyrese. Mary Christmas was meant to happen, it did happen and I’m glad in happened.”

Harrell has worked with both Blige and Combs since their early days at Uptown, the mid-1980s/’90s label that blessed us with new jack swingers Guy, overweight lover Heavy D, bad boy crooners Jodeci and the television show New York Undercover. Harrell sounds like a proud poppi talking about their considerable growth as both an artists and people.

Working with Mary is like you have the whole Black female race in your hands and you best to get it right.

“Mary is such a happier person now. She’s a woman, she’s matured and she doesn’t want to be involved in any bullsh*t. She knows that she represents women with hearts, minds and souls, and she doesn’t want to let them down.

“As for Puff, he’s the same dude he was 25 ago, except he got a whole lot of money now. He’s the same dude throwing tantrums when he gets upset, but he’s also the same dude who works harder than everybody else to get a project done.”

Revolt CEO Keith Clinkscales, formerly of ESPN and Vibe magazine, says, “While Mary is very glamorous, she is still the real girl that has always been her foundation. When you hear her singing these songs, she takes you back to your childhood with her beautiful flow. She and David Foster worked so well together.”

Having produced jazz-pop albums for Natalie Cole (Unforgettable) and Michael Bublé, Foster was the perfect choice to fulfill Blige’s vision. “I always wanted Mary to do jazz, so this was just so right,” says Harrell. “Foster took her voice and style to somewhere brand new.”

Very pleased with the outcome of Mary Christmas, the network is currently planning on meeting with other high-profile talent about hosting future specials, but for now it’s all about Blige. “Working with Mary is like you have the whole Black female race in your hands and you best to get it right,” Harrell says, laughing. “That was the approach we took with Mary Christmas.”

Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.