Over the past decade and a half, contemporary Gospel has been one of the fastest growing segments of popular music, and, along with Kirk Franklin, no act is more responsible for popular acceptance of the genre than Mary Mary. Consisting of sisters Erica Atkins-Campbell and Tina Atkins-Campbell, Mary Mary has brought a fusion of gospel themes with soul and hip-hop sounds that has resulted in exceptional music that has crossed not only the Gospel/Soul boundary, but has even brought a level of pop radio acceptance to God-based music.
The Atkins sisters were raised in Inglewood, California, the middle daughters of an Evangelical minister and part of a well-known singing clan locally. They began singing in the church choir as young children, while learning about the progression of Gospel music beyond traditional boundaries by listening to albums by the Winans, Commissioned, and others.
Their first break came when they and their siblings appeared on BET's "Bobby Jones Gospel" show. Soon, they were seeking additional performing opportunities, and scored spots in the mid-90s in Gospel road shows "Mama I'm Sorry" and "Sneaky." They then separately landed gigs as backing vocalists for various Soul and Gospel performers, including Brian McKnight and Kenny Lattimore.
While they were known mostly as singers, the two were also developing their songwriting skills, and a chance meeting with hot young producer Warryn Campbell (Brandy, Boyz II Men) helped them to land a publishing contract (Erica Atkins would later marry Campbell while Tina married unrelated drummer Teddy Campbell). Their song "Dance" was included on the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack, and they wrote and performed "Let Go, Let God" for the movie The Prince of Egypt. Deciding that they would be forthright and uncompromising about their purpose -- to preach the Gospel through their music -- they chose the group name Mary Mary in honor of two women in the Bible: Mary Magdeline and Mary the mother of Jesus.
With their star rising in the Gospel world, they signed with Columbia and began working on their debut with Warryn Campbell producing. Their 2000 album, Thankful, was a smash, breaking the invisible barrier that kept Gospel music off of popular radio. The first single, the jubilant dance cut "Shackles," scored on the Gospel, Soul and Pop charts and established the duo as a hot commodity. The rest of the album was equally engaging, as the combination of the sisters' strong lyrics and killer tunes with Warryn Campbell's exquisite production created the best Gospel disc of the year, and one that would earn them a Grammy for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel album. To further cement their growing reputation, the Atkins sisters also contributed the two best songs ("Time to Change" and "Yeah") from Yolanda Adams' groundbreaking 2000 album Mountain High...Valley Low. They also wrote for or appeared on the albums of a number of other artists, including Kelly Price and Dru Hill's Woody Rock.
Mary Mary returned in 2002 with Incredible, another solid disc of soulful Gospel that featured the dance hit "In The Morning" and a nice cover of Stevie Wonder's "You Will Know." Amazingly, it hit the Top 20 on the pop album charts, a rare feat for a Gospel album, and again showed that this duo was capable of writing and singing great music that appealed beyond traditional Gospel boundaries.
In late 2003, Mary Mary contributed the song "Dance Dance Dance" to the Gotta Have Gospel CD and were subsequently nominated for a 2004 Dove Award. The sisters also began their families in 2004, with the birth in September of Erica's daughter Krista. Mary Mary returned in 2005 with their third album, a self-titled gem that went gold and landed a hit with "Heaven." They followed in 2006 with a Christmas album.
In 2007, Erica's husband and the duo's producer, Warryn Campbell, was diagnosed with cancer, and the group's fans began a prayer chain for his health. He went through successful surgery within a week and recovered fully. Warryn's illness served as a backdrop for the work on the duo's fifth album, The Sound, and increased their commitment to issue their best work yet.
The Sound, which was released in the Fall of 2008, was an unquestioned triumph, the duo's finest disc and one of the best albums of the year in any genre. It yielded the hit "Get Up" and the smash collaboration with Kiki Sheard, "God In Me," and has stayed near the top of both the Gospel and R&B charts for over a year. When asked about the continued success of the album, particularly with non-traditional gospel audiences, Erica said there was no magic: "Our job is to sing Gospel music for people who are not all Gospel fans. We have to sing it and perform it in a way that speaks to them. Our first agenda is not to get on this chart or that chart. Our real agenda is to share God's love with people. If we do that right, everything else will fall in place."
The Campbell sisters each expanded their families following The Sound. Tina has a baby in October 2009 and Erica had one in early 2010. But they returned to the studio and, in March 2011, returned with Something Big, another solid album.
When asked what message she wanted to deliver to SoulTracks readers, Erica didn't mention the albums or the merchandise. Her message was simple: "We want them to know about the love of God. He really does love; he really does heal; he really does save; he really does care about what's going on in your life. And when you're going through a hard time and you're looking for help, there really is a remedy."
By Chris Rizik