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Mary J. Blige, Steve Vai, Travis Barker and more take on 'Stairway to Heaven'

February 3, 2010 | 12:14 pm

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Pop & Hiss was privy to a top secret recording session Tuesday night involving a supergroup of sorts covering one of the most recognized songs in rock history: Led Zeppelin’s classic “Stairway to Heaven.” The players? Soul queen Mary J. Blige on vocals, guitar god Steve Vai and his pop protégé Orianthi on rhythm and lead guitars, respectively, Travis Barker on drums and “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson on bass, with producer Ron Fair (Christina Aguilera, Pussycat Dolls) handling piano, the arrangement and all-star recruitment. The track’s destination: Blige’s 10th studio album, due out later this year.

“What people don't know about me is I've been a rock 'n' roll fan for years,” Blige said after wrapping her 17th vocal take at Capitol Records Studio A. “I loved soft rock as a child. I'm full of this stuff, naturally.” She also had one massive international hit with a rock song, a cover of U2’s “One,” which Blige performed with Bono on the 2007 Grammy Awards, but it never had the same success stateside that the single saw in Europe.

Still, ever since the collaboration, it’s Bono who’s been pushing Blige to embrace her inner rock star, so blame him if you hate the concept. “Some people might consider it blasphemy, but Mary’s voice really is a nice match [for the song],” said Fair. “Robert Plant’s high-pitched blues thing is right in step with Mary's vocal range, and she brings the soul music to it, which is what Plant was going for in the first place.”

Indeed, Blige had no trouble hitting “Stairway’s” sweet spots and making its boldest moments her own, but she was also keenly aware of not just replicating the original. “You approach it as yourself, you don't try to be the artist,” she said.
That sentiment was echoed by the various players in the room, who found themselves strangely star-struck by one another. In one corner, Jackson sang the praises of Blige (“She can do anything, Mary is the truth!”), in the other, Orianthi was admiring Jackson and “what a monster bass player he is,” while Blige was ogling over Orianthi, whom she remembered seeing in "Michael Jackson's This Is It” movie. “What a surprise it was for Ron to bring her here,” said Blige. “I really love how she plays.”

Because the track was recorded backward, with the drum-heavy second half finished before the four-minute acoustic first act, Barker was out early, around 5 p.m. And amazingly, though they only started working at 3 p.m., the mostly live recording was pretty much finished by 7 p.m. “This is how records used to be made, and I love it,” said Orianthi, who also participated in Monday’s “We Are the World” remake. “Everyone comes in, you do your best, put everything into it, and by the end of the day, you have a song.”

This one, she said, was simply “magical.”

-- Shirley Halperin

Photo: From left to right, Steve Vai, Ron Fair, Mary J. Blige, Randy Jackson, Travis Barker and Orianthi
Credit: Andrew McLeod