OF ALL THE NEW artists making a name for themselves in 1992, Uptown/MCA vocalist Mary J. Blige is probably the biggest mystery.

Blige’s debut album, “What’s The 411?”, is currently at No. 9 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. Current single “Real Love” stands atNo. 11 on this week’s Billboard Hot 100.

Where did she come from? White Plains, N.Y., to be precise.

“I grew up in church and have been listening to and singing gospel since I was 7,” Blige says. “When I was 17 I made a tape at this mini-recording studio in a mall.” The tape found its way to Uptown, where Blige was signed in 1988.

Blige first found success with the song “You Remind Me,” a track from the “Strictly Business” soundtrack. “I didn’t think it was going to be that big,” Blige says. “It’s all been a big surprise. You know? I’m just as surprised as anyone.”

She names Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Staple Singles and Sam Cooke as influences. “There’s so many that I still love. I still listen to old gospel more than anything. I was actually going to do a gospel song for this album, but we ran out of time.”

Despite being offered several movie roles, Blige doesn’t see herself moving away from music, at least not in the near future.

“I’m not really interested in anything right now, other than my singing and my music. But you never know.”

MADONNA SAYS HER NEW Maverick/Warner Bros. disc “Erotica” is made essentially from the same eight-track recordings that were used to demo the songs during pre-production.

“We wanted to keep that raw sound,” Madonna explains. “Usually you do the demos and then you go into a 24-track studio and do everything again, only better. We didn’t want it to sound over-produced.”

Madonna describes recording “In This Life,” a song tribute to her friends who have died of AIDS, as “a cathartic experience.” Both the disc and its accompanying book, “Sex,” contain safe sex messages.

At the moment, Madonna says that plans to tour to support the new album are “possible, but not until next year,” indicating that the priority is her acting endeavors.

“My confidence in acting has increased,” she admits, adding “The more I do it , the more confident I feel.”

Her upcoming role in “Body of Evidence,” (MGM) where she stars opposite Willem Dafoe, is said to contain sex scenes that may earn the film an NC-17 rating.

While Madonna enjoys control over her music, she would like that control to extend into her acting career as well.

“That’s why I’d like to be a director,” says Madonna. But she admits that she would prefer not to act and direct in the same film.

“Directing is about control, acting is letting go. It would be too difficult, too much work, to do both,” she says.

Madonna says her interest in guiding the careers of others is what prompted her to form Maverick, her Time Warner-backed multi-media company.

“I enjoy exploring and nurturing other people’s talents,” she said. “I consider (my company) an artistic think tank.”

WHILE MOST COUNTRY artists freely give interviews, George Strait shuns such contacts with the press.

But the country singer participated in the press junket for the release of Warner Bros.’ “Pure Country,” enduring what Strait termed “seemingly endless interviews” to promote the film, according to an aide-de-camp.

“George doesn’t normally do interviews,” says a spokesperson for Strait’s management company, adding “he needed to be coaxed a bit.”

The film was specifically written for Strait after a series of meetings with producer Jerry Weintraub.

How did Warner Bros. get the singer to do interviews?

“Warner Bros. threatened to pull the advertising (for the film),” says a Warner Bros. source. “They wouldn’t even let him see the dailies,” the source added.

The “Pure Country” soundtrack is being driven by the disc’s single “I Cross My Heart.” The song, which was penned by the film’s music supervisor Steve Dorff and songwriter Eric Kaz, sits at No. 9 on Billboard’s country singles chart. The album has reached the No. 22 spot on the Top 200. The single is also benefiting from repeated exposures in trailers for the film.

The film’s weekend release could spur additional album sales.

NATALIE COLE AND Stevie Wonder were among the spectators last Wednesday night at the Roxy when Manhattan Records Rachelle Ferrell did a showcase for the town’s industry heavys.

Not yet widely known to pop consumers (although she has made a name for herself in jazz circles and Japan), the buzz on Ferrell’s 6 1/2-octave range has been running rampant through R&B circles. The Roxy set showcased material from the Philadelphia-born, Berklee School of Music-trained singer’s American debut, a self-titled Manhattan Records album (produced by George Duke) that includes what is sure to become her signature piece, the set-highlighting “Waiting,” a sensual, romantic ballad.

At the Roxy, “Waiting” provided Ferrell the opportunity to show a sensitive yet playful side. At different turns, she caressed and stroked her notes, hollered and moaned, even yodeled, her voice erupting from the depths of her soul a la Anita Baker, then turning to Yma Sumac-like high notes, a performance only hinted at in the grooves of her album.

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