In 1999, Mary J. Blige released a superior album titled Mary. It featured contributions from a cast of music greats, from Sir Elton John to Lauryn Hill to Eric Clapton to George Michael to K-Ci Hailey.
One of the biggest names of all was the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, whose acclaimed 2021 biopic, Respect, starred Blige as the Queen of Blues Dinah Washington, who was a close family friend and Franklin’s early mentor.
Kirk Burrowes, Blige’s former manager, recalled to Rated R&B, in an unpublished 2019 interview, about a form of torch-passing from Franklin’s then-husband Ted White initiated following Washington’s unfortunate death.
“He did something that managers would do — a little bit tricky, but he did it. He announced, ‘The queen is dead,’ and then he turned around [to Franklin] and said, ‘Long live the queen.’ They then did an album in tribute to Dinah Washington, 1964’s Unforgettable. So what they did, they passed on the baton and involved music.”
Franklin was still a thriving artist when Blige began work on Mary. She had released 1998’s A Rose Is Still a Rose, her first studio album in years that restored her status as the premier singer.
Though Burrowes had been aggressively booking Blige to tribute Franklin, he had other plans for pairing his hip-hop talent with another successful female artist. He used his existing relationship with legendary music executive Clive Davis as leverage from his time at Bad Boy Entertainment.
“I wanted Mary to do a duet with Whitney [Houston],” Burrowes said. “He had Whitney and Aretha Franklin, but what Clive did was cut the baby in half. So he set it up for me and Mary to do the Whitney duet on Divas Live, so I could get the Whitney duet that I wanted.”
For this reason, Houston introduced Blige as the special guest, joining her for a memorable rendition of Franklin’s 1968 tune “Ain’t No Way” at the Divas Live ‘99 special.
Davis declined the idea of Blige and Houston collaborating on Mary, and opted for a Blige and Franklin song instead. “I was disappointed because Whitney and Mary at that time would have been, ‘Wow,’” said Burrowes.
In the end, Burrowes still got his wish. “But when he said, Ms. Aretha Franklin. I was like, ‘This is legendary. This is that moment to pass the baton.’”
The results yielded “Don’t Waste Your Time,” a Grammy-nominated collaboration that Burrowes said was recorded in New York in the summer months.
Dripping in sweat and anticipation for the arrival of Franklin from Detroit, Burrowes remembered standing in the studio lobby area before stepping inside the actual studio, showering Franklin with love. He reminisced about a humorous story, emphasizing the respect Franklin commanded then and forever.
“We’re standing there awkwardly for a minute, and I’m thinking, ‘What to do now, you’re in charge of this. You need to know what to do now.’ So, Ms. Franklin says, ‘Are there any gentlemen around?’ I said, ‘Oh my God, she wants someone to open the door for her.’ That started it (laughs). She’s a fantastic woman — a wonderful person and a queen at the same time.”