During a Hurricane Katrina charity telethon in September last year, hip-hop diva Mary J Blige joined the Irish band U2 for a performance of their classic single One. It was one of those unlikely combinations that television entertainment thrives on, rock meets soul with two superstars on the mic.
Bono kicked off proceedings, delivering his tortured lyrics with typical passion and commitment. At the end of the first verse, he said "Mary" and stepped back from the mic. And the soul singer just let it rip. It might have been a duet rather than a competition, but for the most part all Bono could do was play his guitar and look on in admiration.
The performance was so powerful that it was released as a single last week, with some added strings and vocal touches. If you can imagine someone spitting out a lyric and caressing it at the same time, you might begin to get some idea of the intensity this most personal of vocalists brings to lines like: "Did I disappoint you, or leave a bad taste in your mouth? / You act like you never had love and you want me to go without." And it just goes on, building into a towering "we're one but we're not the same / We hurt each other, then we do it again".
"It was around the time of 9/11 when the song touched me," says Blige. "I listened to it over and over again. It made me cry because we live in a world where we don't recognise that we live here together no matter what race or colour, and because of our separation we blame things on each other."
Blige has never performed with a rock band before, but says: 'I don't discriminate - when it's hot, it's hot.' The technical standards demanded in the soul, gospel and R & B genres are so high that one might imagine a diva like Blige would be disparaging about the limitations of rock singers, but what she responds to is emotion: "What I love about rock and roll is, the only rule is that it has to be for real. Whether they can sing or not, they're delivering from their passion, from their honesty. Janis Joplin made my hair stand up on my skin singing Piece of My Heart. To always think about hitting a note puts you in a box where you can't bring people in. You bring people in with emotion, fire, passion. It's not an act. It's almost like throwing up. You can't control it."
U2 and Blige have repeated the performance of One at live shows and at the Grammys. Recording a video, Bono was astonished by how much the soul singer put into it. "We were miming to playback but she sang every take full blast, as if her life depended on it," he recalls. "I don't know what is going through her mind when she sings 'You say love is a temple, love is a higher law / You ask me to enter but then you make me crawl', but it obviously takes her somewhere very personal. Most singers hold back when they are not in front of an audience, but not Mary J. I don't know what that costs her emotionally, but it is as if it is the only way she can do it."
"It costs nothing to sing like that," is Blige's response. "I'm just having a ball, wailing through it. If you have to struggle, that means it's not taking you away. All that stuff in that song related to all the things I was dealing with, going through the growing pains of fixing and changing my life - all my so-called friends were falling by the wayside. The first time I ever sang it, by myself, maybe three-and-a-half years ago, I had the realisation that it was just me and my husband, basically, against the world."
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