Sisters Erica and Tina Atkins make up the gospel duo Mary Mary, which has broken the gospel barrier and found mainstream success. After working as backup singers and songwriters for leading R&B acts, the Atkins sisters struck out on their own. Their first album, Thankful, won a slew of awards for the duo, including a Grammy. Their second album, Incredible, was released in 2002. “Music has been in my heart for long time, so I knew I’d have a career in it,” Erica said in an interview with GospelCity.com. “I just never knew I’d be doing it at this level.”
The Atkins sisters grew up in Inglewood, near Los Angeles, in a large family—they have five other sisters and one brother. Their father, Eddie Atkins, was a preacher and their mother, Thomasina, played piano and was a choir director in their church. “We’re preacher’s kids, born and raised in church, basically seven days a week,” the sisters said in an interview on the Trinity Broadcasting Network website. “When we weren’t in church, we were at school, and when we weren’t sleeping, we were at church.” The family didn’t have much money, but they were very religious and musical—the Atkins children made up most of the choir’s soprano section. Gospel music was the only music allowed in the house, and both women cite gospel acts like Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, and the Clark Sisters among their leading influences. The sisters weren’t always on the same page about their singing aspirations: Erica first dreamed of being a singer at age two; plagued by shyness, Tina was a little slower to pursue the dream.
In 1995, after a turn singing on the Bobby Jones Gospel Show Black Entertainment Television (BET), the sisters joined Michael Matthews’s traveling gospel show called Mama I’m Sorry. They toured the United States, performing as many as eight shows per week. That tour led to parts in Matthews’s Sneaky, which kept them on the road for more than a year. They both returned home and tried to hold down retail jobs and attend college, but music soon had them back on the road.
Both Erica and Tina worked as backup singers for such R&B acts as Eric Benet, Brandy, Brian McKnight, Ray J, and Kenny Lattimore. Watching from behind the scenes and experiencing the demands those artists had to deal with prepared the sisters for what they would be up against once they went out on their own. When they did set out as Mary Mary, both sisters agree, they had a better understanding for what an artist has to deal with; beyond making it onstage every night, there are endless interviews, rehearsals, band conflicts, and management, lighting, and stylist issues to contend with, among countless other details. “I’m glad we were able to sing with those people,” Erica told GospelCity.com. “It did prep us for knowing how to deal with these audiences, how to bring your message to them, on their level and all that kind of stuff…. It’s amazing how God plans your life out for you and you
Members include Erica Atkins and Tina Atkins .
Began singing in church choir as girls; appeared on the Bobby Jones Gospel Show on Black Entertainment Television (BET); joined the traveling gospel show Mama I’m Sorry, 1995; toured individually as backup singers and songwriters for various R&B groups; single “Dance” appeared on Dr. Dolittle soundtrack, 1998; “Let Go, Let God” appeared on the Prince of Egypt soundtrack, 1998; released debut hit single “Shackles (Praise You),” on Columbia, 2000; released debut album, Thankful 2000; released Incredible, 2002.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album for Thankful, 2001; Dove Awards, Urban Album for Thankful, Urban Recorded Song for “Shackles,” 2001; three Stellar Awards: Group/Duo, Contemporary Group/Duo, and New Artist, 2001; Soul Train Award, Best Gospel Album for Thankful, 2001.
don’t even have a clue how all these pieces connect. God has a plan.”
The sisters formed Mary Mary after meeting producer Warryn Campbell in 1996. The name Mary Mary is taken from the two Marys in the Bible: the first Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, and the second is Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who is changed by Christ’s love and compassion. “The name represents the fact that no matter who you are or where you come from, [Jesus Christ] loves us,” Erica said in a CMCentral.com interview, “and we can all be changed by His love.” The partnership with Campbell resulted in two Mary Mary songs landing on high-profile soundtracks two years later. “Dance” appears on the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack, and “Let Go, Let God” appears on the soundtrack for Prince of Egypt The two also became songwriters for hire—their material was performed by such acts as Yolanda Adams, Woody of Dru Hill, and 702.
The sisters attracted many record company offers, signing with Columbia Records in 1999. They released their debut album, Thankful, in 2000. The single “Shackles” became a top-ten hit in the United States, United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Australia. The album earned a Grammy Award, two Dove Awards, three Stellar Awards, and a Soul Train Award. Although their lyrics are decidedly devotional, Mary Mary’s music has a more urban sound, with a hip-hop feel. Their songs are inspirational but also contemporary and danceable. “Shackles” was played on mainstream radio, an unlikely place to hear a gospel single with a clear, God-driven message. “I think they play that song because that song uplifts,” Tina said in an interview at Crosswalk.com. “I think that everyone wants to get uplifted[,] ... Christian or non-Christian. I think that’s why that song has mass appeal.” Erica told David Nathan in Billboard “Our music is for everybody. It’s especially for the people who may not come to church. That’s who we want to reach.” Mary Mary’s second full-length release, Incredible, came out in 2002.
When asked if they thought that gospel music had changed over its history, becoming watered-down or more secular with the ever-changing times, both sisters adamantly agreed: “No, gospel still means the message of Jesus,” Tina said on Crosswalk.com. “It did way back when and it still does now.” Erica concurred, “I think people’s presentation has changed, but the word itself, I don’t think it has changed.” If the message has remained the same, its fashion sense has not—the sisters of Mary Mary are attractive women who are always dressed stylishly. “We want people to know that people who love God are not old, fat, and boring,” Tina told Billy Johnson Jr. of Entertainment Weekly.
Mary Mary were part of a gospel crossover that included Yolanda Adams and Trin-l-Tee 5:7. Record companies invested heavily in these artists, hiring the best producers and making high-impact music videos. Columbia spent $600,000 on the video for “Shackles,” but it seemed like a wise investment: backed by hiphop and R&B-influenced music, the group’s inspirational songs broke onto R&B charts and reached a broad audience on mainstream radio. “Today’s gospel music is a far cry from what you may have grown up listening to,” Jazzy Jordan, a record company executive, told Lisa Collins in Billboard. “The thing that’s driving this is that young people want music that’s praising God but is closer to what they hear on the radio.” The bigger audience, the better, say Mary Mary. “My dream is singing in front of people with my eyes closed, and then opening my eyes and seeing people worshiping [God],” Erica told CMCentral.com. “This is the only reason I want to sing…. If people get saved and come to truly know God, if my singing brings change to people’s lives, if I can bring somebody to Christ, then that’s it. That is the only reason we’re here.”
Thankful, Columbia, 2000.
Incredible, Columbia, 2002.
Billboard, March 11, 2000, p. 29; May 6, 2000, p. 27; June 3, 2000, p. 51; July 29, 2000, p. 23.
Ebony, September 2000, p. 100.
Entertainment Weekly, May 26, 2000, p. 15.
Essence, February 2002, p. 78.
“Mary Mary,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 2, 2002).
“Mary Mary,” GospelCity.com, http://www.gospelcity.com/interviews/0207/mary_mary_int.php (July 2, 2002).
“Mary Mary,” Jamsline, http://www.jamsline.com/b_mmary.htm (July 2, 2002).
“Mary Mary,” Trinity Broadcasting Network, http://www.tbn.org/watch/interviews/MaryMary032201.html (July 2, 2002).
“Mary Mary Interview,” CMCentral.com, http://www.cmcentral.com (July 2, 2002).
Mary Mary Official Website, http://www.mary-mary.com (July 2, 2002).
“Mary Mary Talks about Success, Ministry, and Racism on Radio,” Crosswalk.com, http://entertainment.crosswalk.com/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID74989%7CCHID293182%7CCIID541552,00.html (July 2, 2002).
Gospel sister duo
Gospel music has often enriched itself with secular elements, and in the 1990s the music achieved a sharp increase in popularity when acts such as Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams incorporated elements of hip-hop and R&B styles into the gospel musical language. The contemporary gospel duo Mary Mary, which rocketed to the top of the charts in the year 2000 with their debut release, Thankful, went even further than those two pioneers in a secular direction. Indeed, in the words of J. D. Considine of the Baltimore Sun, that album “sounds like an R&B album that just happens to mention Jesus a lot.”
No matter how their music might be classified, the two women that make up Mary Mary have a strong sense of their own musical direction. Mary Mary consists of sisters Erica and Tina Atkins, who composed most of their material. The duo’s name is taken from the two women named Mary in the Bible—Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. “We wanted to give the world the gospel according to Mary Mary, which is different from how others have done,” Erica Atkins told Ebony.
The Atkins sisters grew up in Inglewood, California, outside of Los Angeles. “We heard the occasional gunshot,” Tina Atkins told Ebony. “But it was a good neighborhood. There were so many people who believed in God and were involved in church.” These pillars of the community included Erica and Tina’s mother, Thomasina, who was a choir director at the Evangelistic Church of God in Christ, and their father, Eddie, a youth minister. The atmosphere at home was strict—there were plenty of gospel records but no secular music. “We learned as we got older that it’s important for kids to have bylaws and some rules,” Erica told the Los Angeles Times.
There were nine Atkins siblings in total, and all but one brother sang as teenagers. Their church choir’s soprano section was almost exclusively stocked with Atkins sisters for a time, and Erica and Tina still put in occasional appearances there. The entire group of siblings once appeared on the Bobby Jones Gospel program on the BET cable television channel. But Erica and Tina, with their sights set on making music a career, enrolled at El Camino College to study voice. There they ran up against the divide between academic music studies and the popular musical world. “We had to study classical and sing arias, which was fine,” Erica told the Times, ” but the teachers would tell us if we sang anything else it would damage our instrument.”
At a Glance…
Born Erica Atkins ca, 1972; Tina Atkins born ca. 1975; both born in Inglewood, CA; father Eddie Atkins (a youth minister); mother Thomasina Atkins (choir director); Erica: married producer Warryn Campbell, 2001; Tina: married musician Teddy Campbell. Education: Studied classical voice at EI Camino College. Religion: Church of God in Christ.
Career: Performed in gospel musicals Mama I’m Sorry and Sneaky, wrote songs that appeared on various secular and sacred CDs and on Dr. Dolittle and The Prince of Egypt soundtracks; Mary Mary signed to Columbia label, 1999; released Thankful, 2000; single “Shackles (Praise Him)” reached top levels of R&B and gospel charts; released Incredible, 2002.
Awards: Four Stellar awards, including New Artist of the Year and Contemporary CD of the Year, for Thankful, 2001.
Addresses: Personal management—The Firm, 911 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 400W, Los Angeles, CA 90212; Booking— Green Light Talent Agency, P.O. Box 3172, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
So the sisters dropped out of school and joined the cast of the touring gospel musical Mama I’m Sorry, later extending their stage experience with another gospel show, Sneaky. In over a year on the road, the sisters received an education of a different kind, learning to move on stage and to grab the attention of an audience. “We had to find things that would make the crowd go” Awwww! Tina Atkins told the Times. “We had to act and sing and cry in a heartbeat.” Back in Los Angeles the sisters took more college classes and worked at retail jobs (Erica at Boyd’s Market, Tina as a makeup artist at Nordstrom’s), keeping an eye out for a way into the music industry.
Opportunities began to come when the Atkins sisters teamed themselves with Warryn Campbell, a bassist and aspiring producer whom they had met while performing on the gospel-show circuit—and whom Erica Atkins married in May of 2001. Campbell noticed the sisters’ songwriting skills and suggested that they all work together in composing secular as well as gospel music. The results were productive indeed: a publishing deal with the giant EMI music conglomerate and a series of songs that landed on the soundtracks of the films Dr. Dolittle and The Prince of Egypt, as well as an album by the female trio 702. At the same time, Mary Mary as a musical entity took shape. The sisters’ profile in the gospel industry was raised when they landed a pair of songs, “Time to Change” and “Yeah,” on the Mountain High, Valley Low CD by hot-selling gospel diva Yolanda Adams. Mary Mary signed with the Columbia label in 1999, becoming the first gospel act to record for that industry giant since Tramaine Hawkins in the mid-1990s. Their debut album, Thankful, was released in the year 2000, and even Mary Mary’s most enthusiastic backers in the industry may well have been surprised by its success.
Everything came together in the single “Shackles (Praise You),” released before the album itself hit the streets. The shower stall is widely known as a site of musical creativity, and it served as one in this case. “We wrote ‘Shackles’ in about 30 minutes,” Campbell told the Los Angeles Times. “I pulled up something that I had worked on to play the girls while I took a shower. But listening to them through the shower, I heard it as something completely different, and I started singing the hook … ‘take the shackles off my feet so I can dance.’ I sang it to them, and they just freaked on it.” Adorned with a big beat, the sisters’ note-perfect harmony, and an accompaniment of running hip-hop commentary, the song evolved into an irresistible dance hit. It became the first gospel song in five years to crack the R&B top ten, made the pop top 40, and gained wide exposure on the MTV video cable channel.
Meanwhile Mary Mary cultivated a connection with traditional gospel fans by touring with superstars Shirley Caesar and Yolanda Adams. Adams was a special influence. “That’s our girl,” Erica Atkins told USA Today. “She treats us like we were her little sisters and gives us advice and encourages us.” Together with its hip-hop influenced tracks, Thankful features the gospel standard “Wade in the Water,” and the Atkins sisters’ familiarity with gospel quartet recordings shows in their sound. The gospel industry recognized Mary Mary’s efforts with four Stellar Awards in 2001, including New Artist of the Year and Contemporary CD of the Year. Featuring guest appearances by the pop trio Destiny’s Child and other stars, Thankful was eventually certified platinum for sales of over one million copies.
“We are very much a part of the hip-hop culture, but, at the same time, gospel is a very important part of our lives,” Erica Atkins explained to Ebony in an interview that was accompanied by a photograph showing the Atkins sisters in bare-midriff outfits that confirmed their distance from gospel norms. Mary Mary’s second album, Incredible, was slated for release in June of 2002; advance reports indicated that it maintained the same balance of gospel and urban contemporary elements heard on its predecessor. The duo had already notched a major accomplishment: they had succeeded commercially with music that had a positive outlook. “People are searching for answers,” Tina Atkins told the Los Angeles Times. “They call Psychic Hotline and spend all this money on seeing psychiatrists. We just want to do our part.”
Thankful, Columbia, 2000.
Incredible, Columbia, 2002.
Baltimore Sun, May 4, 2000, p. Live-10.
Billboard, January 27, 2001, p. 6; June 30, 2001, p. 34.
Boston Globe, August 3, 2000, p. Calendar-8.
Ebony, September 2000, p. 55.
Jet, June 18, 2001, p. 27.
Los Angeles Times, July 9, 2000, p. Calendar-55.
USA Today, January 12, 2001, p. E8.
—James M. Manheim
Members: Erica Atkins (born Inglewood, California); Trecina (Tina) Atkins (born Inglewood, California).
Genre: Gospel, R&B
Best-selling album since 1990: Incredible (2002)
Hit songs since 1990: "Shackles (Praise You)," "In the Morning"
Building upon the success of 1990s artists such as Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams, the sister duo Mary Mary brought gospel music into the pop mainstream, using the sound of contemporary hip-hop and R&B to spread a message of religious salvation. A key factor in the sisters' appeal, beyond the catchy melodies and infectious beats of their records, is their emphasis on personal uplift. Avoiding harder-edged messages of repentance and judgment, Mary Mary embraces the lighter side of gospel, an approach that ensures acceptance among a wide-ranging audience.
Raised in a strict religious family in Inglewood, California, Erica and Tina Atkins spent their early years singing in church, influenced by the histrionic style of gospel legends such as the Clark Sisters and Shirley Caesar. By the mid-1990s, they were appearing on the popular television program "Bobby Jones Gospel," and touring in the gospel musical play, Mama I'm Sorry. Soon after, the sisters began writing songs for top gospel acts such as 702 and Yolanda Adams. Working with R&B producer Warryn Campbell, Mary Mary released its debut album, Thankful, in 2000. Spurred by the exuberant, driving hit, "Shackles (Praise You)," the album crossed over to the R&B charts, earning Mary Mary a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album. While most of Thankful is devoted to brash modern styles, a rousing version of the traditional gospel song "Wade in the Water" proves the sisters have not abandoned their roots.
In 2002 Mary Mary released its second album, Incredible, a more assured, well-rounded collection than its predecessor. While aggressive hip-hop rhythms still permeate the album, they are balanced with several songs that sport an appealing softer approach. Opening with an acoustic guitar intro that suggests the influence of folk music, "Trouble Ain't" coasts on a gentle bed of guitar, drums, and piano. Freed from the rigid hip-hop backing of their earlier work, the sisters reveal genuine vocal power and an astute understanding of harmony and collaboration. While their voices are perhaps too similar in quality to stand out from one another, both women use growls, high falsetto shouts, and other devices to give their performance variety. Like many of Mary Mary's finest songs, "Trouble Ain't" is a testament to perseverance and strength: "After you've done all that you know how / Just to keep from breaking down / Just believe it's gonna get much better after awhile." Although the song is interspersed with religious references, its inspirational message ensures a universal appeal. Incredible is further highlighted by the jumpy, dance-oriented title track and a warm, convincing update of 1970s gospel artist Walter Hawkins's "Thank You."
Since its 2000 debut, Mary Mary has merged gospel music with the modern styles of hip-hop and R&B, creating music that engages the body while appealing to the spirit. The duo's commercial success is a measure of the enduring power and flexibility of the gospel tradition.
Thankful (Columbia, 2000); Incredible (Columbia, 2002).