Over the last few years, The Shadow League’s Black Music Month In Focus series has celebrated the vibrating musical excellence within our wide cultural tapestry.
In the eighties, when there were enough crooners to fill up both sides of a slow jam tape, some the leading women singing love songs included Anita Baker, Angela Bofill, and Regina Belle.
Regina Belle’s official music video for ‘Baby Come To Me’. Click to listen to Regina Belle on Spotify: http://smarturl.it/RBSpot?IQid=RBCTM As featured on Stay With Me.
Of the three, Belle got the least mainstream name recognition, although Top Ten hits like Show Me the Way, Baby Come to Me, Make it Like It Was, If I Could, and A Whole New World, showed how she could alternately caress melodies and belt them out with a powerful voice that impressed in equal parts, whether it was jazz, R&B or gospel.
Belle, a trained musician who could play trombone, steel drums and the tuba, had a voice that sounded as pure as any instrument.
She began singing in the church choir at age 3 in her hometown of Englewood, New Jersey, home to many musicians including those at Sugar Hill Records and right across the way in Teaneck, The Isley Brothers.
Belle would go on to study with pianist Kenny Baron when she was a student at Rutgers University, majoring in African American studies.
With just a few weeks left to finish her degree, she got a call to audition for the R&B group, The Manhattans. Belle didnt hesitate to respond to that call or her higher calling to sing. Against the best wishes of some of her family members who wanted to see her become the first child in the family to finish college, she left school and joined the Manhattans on tour.
On one leg of the tour, Joe McEwen, an executive from Columbia Records heard her sing and offered her a record deal on the spot.
In her recent episode of Unsung that aired on TV One this past weekend, she talked about her marriage to former Atlanta Hawks guard John Battle, their struggles to have children, her struggles in the music industry, and later with her health.
Visit http://tvone.tv/ for more.
We recently caught up with her for our own conversation about her musical journey.
The Shadow League: Talk about what it was like coming out of Englewood, which a lot of people dont realize turned out a lot of great black musicians.
Regina Belle: I came up in a time when the Isleys were in Teaneck. When I was 17 years old I used to go Sugar Hill studios and do background vocals, myself and Cindy Mizelle, who sang background for Luther, The Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston, the list goes on. She’s an amazing talent in her own right. My brother Bernard, we were in bands together coming up. He’s been celebrated as a gifted musician and songwriter. He has many ASCAP awards for writing for everybody from Michael Jackson to Boy George, Patti LaBelle, Case, Hi-Five, Guy, Bobby Brown; the list goes on forever. He is singing background on some of them too.
I sang background for other artists they produced at Sugar Hill. You have to understand the inner workings of background singing, which was helpful because when I went off and did my own thing, I had training and I could tell my background singers how to do it.
Whitney Houston was in East Orange. We were all growing up around the same time. I was finishing high school when I was at Sugar Hill. I went on the road when I was 17 and I met Angie Stone, who was singing with Sequence–they were out of Englewood. They traveled with Sugar Hill Gang. Big Bank Hank was working at Crispy Crust on Palisade Ave. and thats where I would hang out. They were in Crispy Crust discussing their dreams and what they wanted to do.
A lot of New Yorkers were coming into Englewood, so you ended up having a lot of musicians growing up in the same place at the same time. Word got out and after a while, we got together and we formed bands.
The first band I was ever in was called Reality. I would usually sing. Sometimes we would switch off and I would play the bass. We all read music too because we all played in the marching band in school and played steel drum in the band. We had this plethora of music we could pull from, the jazz vocabulary, all of this gospel orientation, reggae, we would go a number of places and people that I was playing with were extremely gifted.
When I was about to graduate from college, I realized I would have to be a teacher or an accountant, and I was like no, God, please get me away. In less than two weeks I was getting a call from Vaughn Harper, the radio personality from WBLS in New York to say that Blue Lovett of The Manhattans was looking for a female vocalist to do their song called Dont Say No to Love. I told Vaughn that was my job.
Music video by Regina Belle performing Make It Like It Was. (C) 1989 Sony BMG Music Entertainment
TSL: You were a few weeks away from graduating.
RB: I had all kinds of disappointment trailing me. At the time, I couldnt get financial aid for summer school. I needed about $850 to finish the last 12 credits. My aunt who was an anesthesiologist put up the money for me. In two weeks, I do all the auditions and get the job. Im leaving summer school and $850 behind.
My grandfather was angry because my cousin Curtis Belle and I are the first on his side to go to college. My mother was my saving grace, out of everybody chastising me, saying why would you leave now? My mother said, All of them people saying what theyre saying lived their lives, you got to live yours.
That was the key unlocking the chains. She was my way of saying Im not gonna do this a little bit, Im gonna make this my life, so they will see that I didnt just waste their time, money and their prayers. I went above what even they dreamed.
Music video by Regina Belle performing If I Could. (C) 1993 Sony BMG Music Entertainment
TSL: At Rutgers, you brought Phyllis Hyman, Ashford and Simpson and Peabo Bryson to perform there. Is that where you met Peabo?
RB: That is where I met him. I was in charge of bringing African American talent to the school, so I brought everybody I liked. They were also super stars by their own right. Then I said, Im gonna hire myself as the opening act. I got a chance to meet all of these people – Pieces of a Dream, Peabo, Gil Scott-Heron, D Train, Roberta Flack. Phyllis came several times.
When I got to Rutgers, I sang with a band that specialized in jazz. I got to school and realized that jazz music was America’s classical music. I put in the time to study it. I was performing with Alan Watson, a phenomenal keyboardist and Ralph Peterson, a phenomenal drummer who introduced me to Wynton and Bradford Marsalis. I got a chance to meet Dexter Gordon and Art Blakey.
TSL: All at Rutgers?
RB: Yes! Terrence Blanchard and I were in the jazz ensemble together. It was his last year and I was a sophomore.
Copyrights 1992 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc. Entity: Warner Chappell Content Type: Sound Recording No copyrights infringement. All rights belong to it’s rightful owners. I don’t own this video. “A Whole New World” is the Oscar winning featured pop single from the soundtrack to the 1992 Disney film Aladdin.
TSL: Nancy Wilson was one of the people you were influenced by too, right?
RB: Yes, I absolutely loved her. I would sing her songs at a club with the jazz group I was working with. A man named Bernard would request me to sing them. I didnt know he was dying of cancer. He would give me 20 dollar tips just to sing Nancy Wilson songs. He passed away.
I came to the club one night and he wasnt there and one of the persons that frequented the club told me what happened. He left a package for me – a package of records. I still have them. He thought that much of me to give me that.
TSL: How did you get a record deal?
RB: I had a gig with the Manhattans at Carnegie Hall and the Manhattans allowed me to open up for them. I opened and sang You Bring Me Joy, by Anita Baker. Joe McEwen came to me and says, Do you want a record deal? It was like, Uh let me think. Yeah.
Music video by J.T. Taylor, Regina Belle performing All I Want Is Forever. (C) 1989 SONY BMG MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT http://vevo.ly/uUA671
TSL: Even with a hit record right off the bat, you were still having to hustle, though.
RB: Yes, doing session work. Different people who were doing records were looking for artists that could bring the noise. I had hung out with Audrey Wheeler, shes married to Will Downing, but for years had sung with Freddie Jackson. I worked with them. There was always a gig doing session work in The Village at that time. I would come home off of a tour at midnight and go straight to The Village. I would do session work until 5:00 am.
TSL: I saw the clip of you and Anita singing You Bring Me Joy together at the Capital Jazz Festival. Almost like coming full circle.
Whoa, two power house vocalist join forces on stage for a first time duet. Anita Baker invites Regina Belle for a live rendition of “You Bring Me Joy” live at Merriweather Post Pavilion for the Capital Jazz Fest in Columbia, MD. This is also the first time that Ms. Baker has performed this song on her Farwell Tour.
RB: I was there to do the tribute to Phyllis Hyman. Allyson Williams, Rachelle Farrell, Amber Sunshine, Vanessa Williams, we were all called to do this tribute. I did, You Know How to Love Me.
Allyson comes out with the shoulder pads, and the hat and sings Old Friend. Rachelle sang Living All Alone.
Marcus Miller was the emcee. After that, Bob James comes on and kills it. After that comes Anita Baker. My assistant wanted to meet her. So I get them together. I am thinking we are going back to the hotel and Anita says, No you got to stay. You gotta do something with me. I told her the story about Carnegie Hall all those years ago singing You Bring Me Joy.
She said what song do you want to do? I said lets do that song. She said I dont even have that song on the shelf. I was like this is the song that keeps on giving. And thats how we got to do it, we never rehearsed anything.