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  Mary: “When I first started, there were various disc jockeys, who used to hear me sing, and they started calling me that. They said ‘your voice is different. It has a certain richness to it, and yet it’s cool. When you hear it, it sounds like you could be called The Mother of Cool Smoke. You have a unique sound.’ It was just a way of describing me, I guess.”


  “I was born on March 31st at a Catholic hospital in Camden, New Jersey. My maiden name was Mary Smith, and when I got married I became Cross.” Interestingly, in our music genre there’s also another Mary Cross, and she is the Stax soul artist known as Wendy Rene (1947-2014). Her real name was Mary Frierson and later Mary Cross. Some of the other music luminaries coming from Camden include two Sweethearts of Sigma, Barbara Ingram and Carla Benson ( ) and also the dancer/singer/actress Lola Falana.

  Mary: “I was given up at birth, so I was in foster care, and I didn’t find out until I was 12 years old that my birthmother had given me up. I didn’t know why. I made unsuccessful attempts to find her when I got married but to no avail. I had a very challenging upbringing as the foster home wasn’t a very good environment when I was a child. Searching for an escape, identity, belonging is how I kind of connected with Phyllis Hyman. I would watch TV and glance at magazine covers and read articles about Ms. Hyman that would an escape from the life I was dealing with in my personal life.  She was the first iconic figure I ever saw that who was statuesque and sounded different than other celebrity artists from that era and it made a lasting impression on me. That was Phyllis. I often times wanted to have a distraction to take my mind off my reality and environment, so I connected with her.  Funny thing is, I had no idea I could sing let alone that I had low registry vocal tonalities.  Those discoveries came afterwards.”

    Phyllis Linda Hyman (1949-95) is a highly esteemed singer, actress and musical star, who was born in Philadelphia but raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She started out her professional career in 1971 with the New Direction, and some of her biggest solo hits later include You Know How to Love Me (1979), Can’t We Fall in Love Again with Michael Henderson (1981), Old Friend (1986), Living All Alone (1986) and Don’t Wanna Change the World (1991). Her life ended in a suicide in New York in January 1995 at the age of only 45 ( ).


  Mary: “The ironic part was that right at the height of the pandemic, when everything was closed down here in the U.S., I had done a DNA test and, when I got the results, I actually found a distant cousin in Florida, and HE found my birthmother. It was amazing that she was still alive and living nearby. She was married to Frank Bey, who was a blues artist. The only reason she didn’t reach out to me was because the state had told her I would be adopted and my name would be changed as the records would be sealed (which they were) and there would be no way to trace me.” Sadly, Mary’s stepfather, Frank Bey, passed in June 2020. Please read my short feature on him in my Porretta Soul Festival 2015 report at (please scroll down a bit).

  None of Mary’s relatives are involved in music. Her husband, Jeffrey D. Cross, works in a lead capacity for a fiberglass bearing company. They’ve been married for 28 years and have two daughters and two sons and 8 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. In her adolescent years Mary’s biggest favourites in music included Gladys Knight, Oleta Adams, Deniece Williams, Nancy Wilson and Nina Simone.

  “My birthmother lives not far away from New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, and I also have a half sister!  The reception from my new family has been awesome as they have been very receptive from day one.  This new extended family has embraced me wholeheartedly and initially, it was a bit overwhelming but the LOVE is some kind of wonderful.  I cannot express how grateful I am to experience such kindness from them all – and the thought that they all know who I am just want to establish and build on our time together is great.   The support by wearing Mary Cross Music merchandise (t-shirts/hats, etc) and attend my performances.  I have met with them in intimate settings and recently attended my first family reunion, which was awesome.”

  At the age of twelve Mary began singing in church. “The choir director, Felicia Beverly, was a dear mentor and beloved friend of mine. She was a little older than I was, and she also sang and played. She took me under her wing and we ministered in song as a duet for my first solo in church.  I remained active in church ministry all my life.  About 10 years ago, I had a strong interest in singing and hearing other music - some called it secular music - as I love all types of music, but it was challenging to try to do both.

I love many genres of music and singing is soothing to the soul and brings me great Joy. But I had to get used to the different environment and audiences for venues is far removed from the church congregants.   There was a season I also participated with the New Jersey Mass Choir, whenever my schedule permitted. I just always sang in church until 2019, when I recorded and released my first single.”

  Mary has worked in healthcare her entire life and attended Camden County College and then Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.   On the entertainment scene she is also known as a stylista. “I put a lot of work and effort into my presentation. I always wear glamorous elegant attire that includes gowns, hats gloves and sequins that are reminiscent of the stage presence of classy ladies Nancy Wilson and Phyllis Hyman. Everything I wear is intentionally classy and tasteful.”


  Mary founded a company called 2NspireU, LLC in 2014.  “It serves to promote me as an artist and assists with booking my gig opportunities.  In the beginning, 2NspireU did a lot of philanthropic work by performing live music at senior centers, youth organizations, hospitals and we also did a number of online virtual concerts at no charge.  We are unable to do this as often because of our other obligations. The goal is always ‘2Nspire’ people, because music is the main way to connect/bring people together.”

  As an acknowledgement for this philanthropic work on February 27 in 2021, Mary received a Tri-State Black History Award in Atlantic City. “I’m still trying to find an organization that I can work with on mental health issues, because I found that with Dorothy Dandridge, Phyllis Hyman, Nina Simone and some others – whether it was bipolar, depression or some other mental health diagnosis – people were taking advantage of them and creative artists need to be heard, understood, and receive help for many times their intellectual property was never appreciated, compensated nor respected.”

  2NspireU is not only a company but a record label and the name of Mary’s band – it is also the band’s mission statement. “I put the band together, because I have a special love for timeless, old-school classic soul and jazz music There’s so much great music out here.  I wanted to perform more than popular songs but rather great music from different eras that is not often played unless it’s on the radio.

It is a tall order to expect live bands to perform the classic soul timeless music that is not on the normal songlist.  That is why I decided to start a band - to perform music, which I love, enjoy and grew up listening to.  When people began attending our shows, I was shocked they were selling out - a trend that has continued for the past 2 years since the pandemic. For my first show I sold tickets for ten dollars and it was a standing room only. I had no idea that people would come out – let alone pay a whole $10 to hear me sing – considering I primarily sang in church – but from there it took off like a wildfire.   In addition to local venues where we perform on a bimonthly basis, we are busy with private and public events we are booked for and the schedule is continuing to be busy.”

  Both the company and the band were formed in 2014, and today the line-up includes the musical director Dane Clark on guitar, Daille Kettrell on keys and vocals, Carey ‘Akono’ Muse on percussion and vocals, Joseph Fisher on bass and vocal, and two drummers: primary Kerry Little and alternate Clarence Johns. The two backing vocalists are Martina Grant and Abby Love; and dedicated sound engineers who provide state-of-the-art equipment for all the performances.  “We have been fortunate to perform not only in the tristate regions of New York, New Jersey and Delaware as well as in the DMV - District of Columbia/DC, Maryland, Virginia - Jazz Flow Productions has invited Mary Cross 2NspireU Band back as the headliner. We opened for Marcus Johnson.” After a sold out performance on Oct 9th at the Hilton in Linthicum, MD, they are invited back by popular demand!  “My desire is to perform outside of the United States. I know they love soul music worldwide.  It is interesting that many think we have a huge team. The job of an independent artist is continued work, for making connections, because so far as an independent artist I don’t have any help or guidance.”


  A renowned producer/arranger/songwriter/musician/label owner by the name of Donald Robinson ( is the key person in Mary’s decision to switch into secular music, too, and finally start recording in 2019. Donald has worked with numerous artists, such as Grover Washington, Jr., Jean Carne, Eugene Wilde, Will Downing, Nancy Wilson, Stephanie Mills, Rachelle Ferrell, Gladys Knight, Vanessa Williams, Phil Perry and - Phyllis Hyman.

  Mary: “I’ve known Donald years ago. I think I was 17 or 18, when I first met him. We’ve been friends for over forty years. I would go over to Philadelphia and to the recording studio and to listen to live music at open mics or various gigs. For me it was just an opportunity to be around people, who were doing music. I never had the confidence and didn’t want to, per se, sing, but I had that one song that I could sing well - Over the Rainbow in Patti LaBelle’s style – and I could hit that note. That was all I was known for. So, when Donald and I met there, he said ‘you should really look into singing.’ I went over to his studio a few times, but truthfully, I was intimidated. Those insecurities stemmed from my childhood and I had yet to deal with them so, it was not the right time.  Besides, my voice was not matured for a solo career.”

  “I remained friends with Donald all these years and he has always supported my musical endeavours. After numerous shows, audience members – the first was Evelyn Holley constantly asked me about my own recorded music and why I only sang cover songs.  To pacify the requests, I asked Donald to give me a song, any song and I’ll sing it. That way people that come to my shows will have something to buy and cease asking me for more. They kept saying ‘you’re singing everybody else’s songs, and we would like to have something of yours.’ I had never thought about doing that, but when we did it, it did very well in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Japan. It was surprising to me, because I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear me record anything. As a producer, Donald is a patient and humble soul, who helped me bring the song to life in a convincing way.  He was familiar with my vocal abilities and agreed to write me a song, said ‘alright, I’ll write you a song.’ He wrote the song, and the rest is history.”


  The song Mary cut at a studio in Philadelphia was titled In Love, There’s a Risk. Written and produced by Donald, the single was released in November 2019. This beautiful song grows into a big ballad and Mary’s singing is truly powerful. Marcus Meyer is on drums, Vernon Parson on bass and Donald himself on keys. “The song did well for two reasons. It was something that I had done locally and from the very beginning of that song many who loved Phyllis Hyman wondered if this was an unreleased song as many felt I ‘sounded like’ Phyllis Hyman. It was a twofold blessing I was not expecting.”

  One year later, in October 2020, Mary released her sophomore single called You Can Change It. Recorded at Morningstar Studios in East Norristown, Pennsylvania, You Can Change It is a quick-tempo, infectious dance tune. Craig White was the engineer. Once more Vernon Parson is on bass and Donald on keys and Brandon Mullen on drums.

  This to a degree political song encouraged people to vote. “I tried to be as neutral as possible. I tried to make the video an unbiased one. I also wanted to make a statement, but the most important thing was to get people out to vote. I wrote the lyrics and Donald did the music. I started going to various rallies and events to perform it and to make people feel good, we even sponsored a line dance promotion to get the middle-aged steppers to participate.  So many different ideas were centered around how we could get folks to come out and vote early and day of. My brother Ed House said just the other day ‘I think that song is timeless. People can actually use it for a lot of different elections, especially if they want a change.’


  Only three months later, in January 2021, Mary and Donald released their next single, a high-class and atmospheric ballad called Promise. “It did very well. By this 3rd release, I was already on the map. When we did In Love, There’s a Risk, I didn’t do any promotion. I just did that for people, who were coming to my live shows. Then the song started getting exposure and people began listening. With Promise I intentionally put more effort and energy into it. I even had a publicist supporting us.”

  Recorded at Donald’s studio in Narberth, Pennsylvania, and produced and arranged by Donald, Mary’s vocalizing again is glamorous. On the track there are fine sax solos by Carl Cox, Donald is on keys, Randy Bowland is on guitar, Cedric Napoleon on bass, Marcus Meyers on drums and both Alberta Douglas and Kathy Thomas on strings – so the sound is full, to say the least.

  What inspired Mary to write this song? “I’ve worked in health care my entire life. During Covid I saw families that were separated and people admitted to the hospital with covid who were unable to see their loved ones…and some never made it home.  It was awful. I saw the importance of relationships when the world was shut down.  Having a significant other and the idea of the promise that you make to each other was priceless and again showed the importance of human touch and connection. When we were all shut in, you saw the significance and importance of having someone that you can really call your own. I saw a lot of that loneliness in health care and it was heartbreaking.”

  “The melody to Promise came to me first, then the lyrics. I hummed to Donald what I had and that’s when he created the composition.  Then I presented my lyrics and we created magic once again. The meaning behind this significant and timeless song was love and having someone, who takes care about you and who makes that promise, and commitment to one another and that is priceless.”

  Mary’s next project was slated to begin in 2021 titled The Love Project, a complete album of love songs. “All of that had to stop because of the pandemic. I was working in health care, everybody was shut in, and we had to go to work everyday through it.  It was draining - mentally, physically and emotionally - and we all tried to stay well and continue on when others were falling ill, including our own family members. So I couldn’t focus on that. It was so devastating. I continued to do a few virtual events but I kind of stayed away from people, because I didn’t want to get sick again. All of that went on the backburner. The Love Project was all about love songs from the American songbook.  So, I am excited to be releasing this project which is a labour of love in May, 2023.”

  On Mary’s website - - you can spot a 2022 video of her singing a slightly jazzy, uptempo number named Summer Samba. “I couldn’t put music out, because my focus was elsewhere. I had promised I was going to put a compilation out, since a lot of people were home and had plenty of time to make or listen to music - those requests never ceased (laughing). So, I teamed up with Marina Eve and this was one of the three songs we worked on long distance.  We decided on Summer Samba and it was more important to give something to the loyal listeners, not as a formal release but a labour of love to thank them for not forgetting me despite my inability to commit to the project.  I just wanted to give people something back.”


  On her fourth official release, which came out in early February of this year, Mary covered a song written by Gene McDaniels and Carrie Thompson. Called Meet Me on the Moon, it was first recorded by Kimiko Itoh in 1989, but most people are aware of Phyllis Hyman’s memorable version two years later, from her Prime of My Life CD. This song was also Phyllis’ personal favourite.

  Mary’s smooth and sophisticated rendition is a beautiful tribute to Phyllis. This time Mary is backed by her own 2NspireU band - Dane Clarke, Daille Ketrell, Joseph Fisher, Kerry Little, Clarence Johns and Carey Muse on percussion – and the song was cut at Jamland Recording Studio in Wilmington, Delaware, with Chad Graham working as the engineer.

  “I am so grateful people are receptive to the song.  It is doing very well and in 16 days the listeners have increased to almost 3500 on Spotify alone.  And it has over 10,000 streams to date (February 20).  For years, audience members would request Meet Me on the Moon stating I had vocals that remind them of Ms. Hyman. Of course, I obliged and their love for the song is what assisted me in my decision to cover it. It is magical to hear music lovers sing along.”

  “I am always clear in noting I in no way am trying to emulate Phyllis Hyman.  Phyllis is the beautiful rose that turned a shade of blue, which is why I chose that royal blue colour for the artwork for the single Meet Me on the Moon.  When people state, ‘you sound like Phyllis a bit, but I hear you’, that is the ultimate humbling compliment and makes me happy. I don’t want anyone to think that I was trying to emulate her. It’s just in my tonality, and I can never get away from that. It’s a contralto voice and earlier I never knew how to use it or how to exercise the range, but now I’m in the space, where I can and I want to do all I can to introduce others to her beautiful music and legacy.  Gone but never forgotten.”


  Besides her all-time idols listed above, Mary still wants to point out some of her favourite artists today. “I love H.E.R. She is just amazing, and she plays so many instruments. I love Samara Joy who embodies the phrase everything old is new again by her renditions of the classic songs by ancestral royalty of Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald as she made the songs hew own interpretation. I love Gregory Porter and Jazzmeia Horn.  But honestly, I listen to a lot of artists, and I love their diversity.”

  “There’s one thing I want to say. Soul really came from blues, from what the artist lived through. Truly we are what we live. What comes out of us is what’s impregnated within, the experiences of one’s life. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to me to ensure we connect with people so that they hear and remember those songs and understand the history and willingly take that stroll back down memory lane to a time when LOVE was King.  Music is the ultimate time machine.”

  “Please know, I celebrate the artists of today, but there’s nothing like classic soul, and the way you can remember where you were, what you were doing when a particular song came on/out. A lot of people say ‘it gives me chills.’ In church they say ‘anointed.’  Which is why I believe wholeheartedly in Dr. Maya Angelou’s quote: ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ We’re all standing on the shoulders of someone. We’re going to keep doing our part to remind people how great good music is. Real music has a story to share…a beginning, a middle and an end. It makes you feel something. It’s just beautiful. Some of the music today doesn’t connect with listeners on a deeper level.  Some is just repetitious words without a concept or purpose driven story” (laughing).


  “Meet Me on the Moon is the first release off the upcoming album, which I’ve just completed. It was intentional, because I know that most people are familiar with Phyllis. I was hoping that from there people would take more interest in what I have coming out on the rest of the album.  We will be rolling out different songs, one at a time, and the next one is a medley from the American songbook celebrating Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington and the like. I am very proud of the arrangement and the few times we performed it for audiences and it’s always been a big hit as everybody seems to love it.”

  “In my past, Donald and I produced everything. He was the one, who was actually hiring the musicians, writing the scores/charting the songs, arranging studio time, etc. In honour of Women’s History month, I am proud to say that I wanted to learn how to create music on my own. I didn’t want to have to rely on anybody else doing everything but rather understand how to create music.  My beloved 2NspireU family of bandmates have been with me for nine years. They are accomplished musicians, and normally would learn the songs from releases. This time, they are the actual band members recording, so it’s only fair able to enjoy the reward of their recording in the studio, and we recorded the album ourselves.”

  “The album release date is scheduled for Friday, May 27th.  The hope is that everyone will love and enjoy it as much as we do/did when we recorded and perform it.  Major accomplishments are that the 2NspireU band is playing on every song and I did the arrangements and some of the production. Again, it’s all cover songs that I’ve chosen from the American songbook or from songs I love and grew up on.”

  “By the end of the year the plan is to record some Christmas music as well. I also have a couple of EPs that I have in the works.   And then there are writing projects with Donald Robinson and Tim Hutson I have yet to finish working on. Tim is the drummer for Maysa.   The ultimate goal for Mary Cross 2NspireU is to tour domestically and abroad, sharing the feel-good vibes of timeless classic soul and jazz music with the listeners around the world, one Soul at a time, thus 2NspireU.” 

  “In my shows I greet every guest with a hug, handshake and photo op at the end of the show. While I’m still singing, I go around the entire venue to over 200 people to thank them for coming and hug them. They could have been anywhere else and chose to give me their greatest gift, TIME. And that is the ultimate gift and a gratitude I will never outgrow. Thank you to every listener and every creative being keeping great music on the hearts and in the ears of the listeners.”

(Interview conducted on February the 13th, 2023).

© Heikki Suosalo

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