The concert was a secret, the guest list small and exclusive.
But when Mary J. Blige opened up behind the mic, it began to feel a lot like Christmas.
The R&B icon slipped into St. Petersburg on Nov. 6 to record a concert special promoting her new holiday album, A Mary Christmas, that will air at 6 p.m. Sunday on HSN.
Backed by uber-producer David Foster and a 13-piece band, including string and horn sections, Blige belted out 10 holiday classics plucked, she said, from her childhood Christmas memories, including the silky, funky This Christmas and an intensely dramatic Mary Did You Know, backed by a gospel choir of local musicians.
Blige has appeared on the former Home Shopping Network before, selling her fragrance My Life. So when it came time to sell a holiday album, a concert special for the network's burgeoning HSN Live concert series made sense.
It was probably inevitable that the nine-time Grammy winner, would release a Christmas album, as that's simply what pop stars do these days. "I don't think this is a stretch or a reach," she said, and sure enough, her famously dramatic voice — toughened by life, yet vulnerable — suits the Broadway style of My Favorite Things, from The Sound of Music.
"The Sound of Music was one of my favorite musicals as a child," she said. "I used to watch it faithfully."
But the songs really became her own when she let a little hip-hop flair seep in. Do You Hear What I Hear began with a soft bed of piano, strings and acoustic guitar before kicking into a funky beat midway through — a suggestion, Foster said, of Blige's husband, music executive Martin Kendu Isaacs.
Blige's rendition of the oft-derided Little Drummer Boy was surprising, in that it was a version you could actually dance to, a syncopated swinger with a few accented hip-thrusts throughout. "We needed to get this groove right, because this is Little Drummer Boy, and we need to march to the beat, not off the beat," Blige said.
But the undisputed highlight of the set was a runaway-sleigh version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Blige's jazzy take showcased her scatting alongside a sax solo over a bed of skittering snares and finger-snapping stand-up bass. By far the jolliest jingle-bell jaunt on the album, it prompted cheers from the crowd when it ended.
"This is the first time she's ever performed this," Foster said afterward. "That's going to get that reaction everywhere."