Interview recorded June 1, 2012
There is something warm and inviting about Regina Belle. It's not just her voice, which has graced many hits, including the Oscar winning song "A Whole New World," but her entire demeanor is devoid of pretense. She is, as they say, "good people."
After twenty-two years of making timeless R&B gems like "Baby, Come To Me," Regina Belle has answered what she described as "a calling" to begin a whole new career in gospel music.
Upon the release of her second gospel CD, HIGHER, she shares why it is important for her to follow this musical path at this time in her life. And she reveals to Darnell Meyer-Johnson whether she will ever return to R&B music.
Darnell: Good day! This is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Portions of this conversation may also appear on my new radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday at noon, eastern standard time, on JazzOn2.org. Today, I’m speaking to one of your favorite women of soul. Her long list of hits started in 1987, with the release of her debut album, ALL BY MYSELF. Her soaring voice took songs like “After the Love Has Lost Its Shine,” “Make it Like it Was,” and “A Whole New World” to a whole other level. Now she’s going even HIGHER, which also happens to be the name of her brand new gospel album. Today I’m speaking to Miss Regina Belle. How are you Miss Belle?
Regina: I am doing wonderful.
Darnell: It’s good to talk to you again. And I say again, just for those who may not know, because we spoke to you a few months ago for our Voice Your Choice feature. So we appreciate speaking with you again.
Regina: It’s good to be here. It’s good to be spoken to--how about that?
Darnell: There you go. It sounds good to me. Many people who listen to my interviews are aspiring singers or aspiring entertainers, in one way or another. So, when I get a chance to talk to somebody like yourself, who is very accomplished, I always want to know how did that person get to where they are. Can you tell me the story of how Regina Belle was “discovered,” for lack of a better term?
Regina: Well, that’s so old a story. It’s, basically, I started out in the church doing what I do. Went through high school and college and studied jazz and opera and some of the other genres of music to kind of be a little bit more well rounded, in terms of knowing the connection of music through other genres, and went on the road for two years with the Manhattans. And while singing at Carnegie Hall with the Manhattans, I was discovered by a young man by the name of Joe McEwen, who was the A&R person at what is now Sony Records, what was CBS Records then. The rest, as they say, is history.
I got a contract to do what I do and moved forward. I was in the industry for about twenty-two years, and God said, “I need you to kind of switch gears for a minute. I need you to transition. I know you’ve talked about the love between a man and a woman, and between the parents and their children. So now I need you to talk about the love that looks beyond faults and still sees the need.”
God has been so good to me over the years in taking care of me, and y’all don’t read about me sitting on the side of the curb with my wig on sideways talking to myself. Yes, let the fans hear what I said because I meant to say that. You don’t see me sitting in July with a fur coat on and one sock, so it’s all because God has been good to me, and there’s some things that will make you a little bit out there, but I’ve been kept throughout the whole time.
So, when talking about going to the next level, to do some other things, I was a little skeptical, but because I could feel the pull, the tug on my heart, it was something I knew I was going to do. And that’s how we got here.
Darnell: Exactly, and I want to ask you in detail about that particular calling, and how that came about, but we are SoulMusic.com, so I want to get to the most obvious question that a lot of our listeners are going to have, because you’ve been a huge name in R&B since that first album came out in ’87. Now HIGHER is going to be your second gospel album. So, what a lot of people are asking now is, has Regina Belle left R&B? Will she ever sing R&B again?
Regina: I don’t know because if you had asked me eight years ago if I would have done a gospel album, I would’ve said no. So I’m not accustomed to wearing egg on my face twice. So I just decided I’m going to leave that to God and allow Him to kind of designate my future as to where I’m going with this.
Darnell: As you mentioned, you grew up singing in the church and now today, you’re the first lady of a church in Atlanta.
Regina: Isn’t it crazy?
Darnell: Did you ever feel that your life would come full circle in that particular kind of way?
Regina: No, never. First lady? No. When I think first lady--growing up, you think about the first lady with the fruits in the hat and, you know, nobody can see through her hat and the whole nine, and all of that kind of crap. I know it sounds crazy, right? But a lot of the time, people come to our church, and they’re not sure who the first lady is, because I work as much as anybody else--because I believe in that.
In fact, at my church they term me as “first servant,” because, I believe, in the position that I’m in, I ought to be the first to serve. If nobody else does, I definitely have to. So the term is more “first servant” as it is the first lady, because I am my husband’s first lady. Amen, somebody.
Darnell: I want to ask you something about your secular career that I’ve always been curious about, because it has always been sort of this buzz in the air behind you. At the time that you came out, Anita Baker had already started having her huge success with the RAPTURE album, and even as the years went on and you went to record more albums and she went to record more albums, people have always asked the question, “Why isn’t Regina Belle’s name as big as Anita Baker’s name?” Where’s Regina Belle’s RAPTURE album, so to speak?
Did you ever feel any of that kind of energy at the time, that people were sort of wondering why you weren’t on a certain level with other people that they felt that you should be, because you’re just as talented as they were?
Regina: No, I kind of, you know what? For me, I lived in the world that I lived in. I’ve always had a great … how can I say this? I never lost my connection with my family, and things of that nature. So there was some things in the industry that I just really wasn’t willing to do, because, you know as well as I do, there are certain parties, certain events that the media want you to be at just so you can be in the know, to take a picture for this, for that, and the other thing. And, if there was a family event going on, I kind of went home and did that. So, sometimes, a lot of the times, I wouldn’t be in the media just because.
If I was performing somewhere, it was different, but I wasn’t as accessible, and maybe that had something to do with it. I don’t really know. I’m elated to be where I am, because I still have a sense of me. My name is not so big that I can’t go to the grocery store and go shopping, food shopping for myself, and I enjoy those types of things, because outside of what you see on the stage, I’m really a regular kind of cat. I’m really a regular person. I enjoy some of the just--the regular stuff.
Being able to go to Ruby Tuesday’s and if somebody asks me for an autograph, they’re nice enough to wait until I’m finished eating before they come over; they're not intrusive. And I love my life. I wouldn’t want to change my life to be anybody else. So I don’t know what to say to that. That’s pretty much how I feel about that issue.
Darnell: You said that not being there for photo ops and such meant that you were less accessible, but I think, for the fans, it actually made you seem to us more accessible, as if she’s approachable if we should happen to be at the mall and you’re there. You know what I mean?
Regina: Oh, please, I have met many a fan at the mall. They’re like, “Regina Belle, you’re at the mall shopping?” “Yes, girl. I needed some sneakers; I had to come out here and get me some sneakers.” Let me know. I want the hook up too. So a lot of the times when people would come to my concerts, and even still today, they tell me that it’s like being in my living room, because they can appreciate the fact that I’m a little bit transparent.
I allow people to come in, because I don’t believe, even when I was doing R&B for the entire album, I still allowed people to kind of come into my life, because I don’t believe that you can inspire anybody or help anybody unless you let them see a little part of you, and with gospel now, it’s even more so. People have to be able to see the transparency in you so that they can humble themselves.
They think so much of you that they put you on such a pedestal, but then you say, “I have issues with certain things. I’ve got questions about these kinds of things,” and all these different kinds of scenarios that everyday people go through that I think people are willing more to surrender and to try to find the help that they haven’t been able to find. So, hopefully, throughout both careers, both the R&B as well as the gospel, people have found help through listening to my music, coming to my shows, and maybe, just hearing me talk to you.
Darnell: It’s interesting that you mention the topic of transparency. I didn’t even think of it this way, but I was going to ask you something very much related to that, and that’s the fact that you've appeared on the first couple episodes of the documentary series Unsung.
You were providing comments on the episodes on Phyllis Hyman and I think also the Clark Sisters, and just a few days ago, an interview came out with Stephanie Mills in which she, basically--I don’t want to say she blasted the show, but she really kind of spoke against the show, and said that it didn’t stand for anything that she believed in, and she would never ever appear on it, even to make comment on someone else’s episode. And I was just wondering, would you ever be willing to be the subject of a show like that?
Regina: I don’t know. It would really depend on the circumstances. I don’t really want to answer that, because I don’t know. Anything is possible. However, it is a show that I watch. It’s a show that is very informative to me. I wouldn’t trash the show. I think it’s a great show, because there’s information about artists that all of us know and love. In terms of the information out there, you can’t put stuff out there that … I guess you can, put stuff out there that the artist doesn’t condone. But, by the same token, when you’re in this industry, your life is a little bit of an open book.
So, we have to be careful about what it is we say, what it is we do, how we treat people, because you never know when that comes back to haunt you. I think the show itself is a good show. When we think of Unsung, a lot of the times you think of the people who are not celebrated, and I don’t generally think of myself like that.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do the show, but I don’t think of myself as being unsung, uncelebrated. And I spoke on Phyllis Hyman, and even the Clark Sisters; I don’t think of them as being uncelebrated. I think they’re highly recognized. So many Grammys, so many this, so many that. And all of them have done independent records as well as records with the sisters.
So I talked about the love, some of the love of my life in music, and I was glad to do it, because without Donny Hathaway, which I spoke about as well, and Phyllis Hyman and some of the ones that I talked about--they helped to shape my voice, to make me who I am. The Clark Sisters gave me an opportunity to be inspirational, to realize that I can give God the glory and be celebrated in the R&B world, as well. So there’s a lot of doors that open up to these artists that Unsung portrays, so I think the show is needed. It's something we have to have.
Darnell: Now if there was an Unsung episode on Regina Belle, what do you think would surprise even your most loyal fans?
Regina: Wow. Probably the one thing that would surprise them is that I actually have a certificate from the Skip Barber School of Racing. Most people don’t know that.
Darnell: Now, what is that again?
Regina: I have a certificate, a driving certificate, I went to the Skip Barber School of Racing.
Darnell: That’s not anything that I would think of, so, yeah, I guess that might be surprising.
Regina: On a more everyday note, I think people would be surprised that I cook everyday. I have 5 kids that grew up with Mama in the house as well as on the road. They went on the road with me. I’ve sometimes taken all four of my children with me. So, because by that time, Winter was in school and I couldn’t take her as much, but sometimes I would take all four of them with me, sometimes all five.
I remember, I had to go to Hawaii and perform for Sony, and I took all five of my kids on the road, and people were sitting around, and they were like, “How do you keep your children so well behaved?” And I said, “Because whenever they act up, I’m going to act up, too.” It’s quite clear.
Darnell: So they already knew.
Regina: They already know.
Darnell: Speaking about being talented in the kitchen, what’s your particular specialty?
Darnell: There you go.
Regina: I’m really good at Italian. I love Italian food.
Darnell: Don’t say lasagna. Are you about to say lasagna?
Regina: No. I mean, I can do lasagna, but cannelloni, wow, I make a killer chicken and pesto. So, I kind of stretch out a little bit.
Darnell: If you said lasagna, I would have been on my way over to get a plate.
Regina: Oh, I can definitely make some lasagna. That’s without question. In a house with 5 kids, you have to learn how to make lasagna, because, with lasagna, you can go a long way.
Darnell: Now, tell me about the journey that led up to your new album, HIGHER. You did a gospel album before in 2008, LOVE FOREVER SHINES. I think we talked about it before in our Voice Your Choice, but for people who haven’t listened to that yet, just tell me a little bit about how that particular project came together. The LOVE FOREVER SHINES album.
Regina: Actually, it was something that I had been asked to do years before I actually gave in to doing it. I was skeptical because that’s a huge responsibility. It’s a huge undertaking, and I wasn’t sure that was something I really wanted to do. So, when I finally gave in, I could just kind of really, like I said, feel the tug on my heart where God is saying, “Hey, I need you over here now.”
And I don’t know for how long this will be. I just know that, while he has me here, this is what I’ll be doing. So that’s really in a nutshell. It’s nothing deep, nothing like I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a stream, you know? The sun was shining at midnight. No, I didn’t see all of that.
Darnell: Jesus didn't come back to tell you that?
Regina: Right. I wasn’t walking in a white gown and everything was ethereal. No. It wasn’t that kind of party. It was really more just a tug on my heart that God wanted me to transition and do something different. And I knew it had to be God, because who makes a transition in what they do at 45 instead of 25? Who does that? Nobody does that.
And especially when you’re in an area where you’re making money, regardless of having a record out at all. Never mind having a number one record. I’m still making money doing what I do, but when you get caught up with God saying, “Hey, I need you to do this here,” you just got to kind of go.
Darnell: So, when that album came out and started doing its thing, was it clear to you right at that point that your next album was also going to be a gospel album? Was it clear that you were going to continue down that path for at least one more album, if not further?
Regina: Yes. I was clear, after I did the first one, that I had a little bit more to say. As long as I have something to say, this is where I’ll be.
Darnell: You were just speaking about the fact that, even though you may not have had a current hit or whatever, you were still able to be on the road and make money singing the old hits. Are you still doing any of that, or is that door completely closed?
Regina: Absolutely. No, I still do some of my old stuff, and reason being is because God hasn’t called me totally out of what I do. It’s important that, for me, I go back to some of those same places that I’ve been in. Some of the clubs, some of the theaters, and even arenas, if you will. I still sing “Make it Like it Was.” I still sing “This is Love.” I still sing “Baby Come to Me.” It’s just with a catch now. I’m singing “God is Good” on top of that. I’m singing “Make an Example Out of Me.” So, while I’m thankful for the husband, my life is not just my husband and my family.
My life is also--where do I stand as an individual, because I’m a voice. I’m an instrument. I’m a vessel for the world, and so, when I go outside my house, although I represent them, I also represent God, and I represent him first. So you sing songs like “Make an Example Out of Me.” You sing songs like “God is Good,” because they are a reflection of my life.
So I want folks to know I didn’t get here by the pulling up of my own bootstraps. I had a lot of help. So that’s why I’m not crazy and diva-fied, and all those different things. There are things that I love in life, but it doesn’t go beyond my service to people.
Darnell: Other people have been called the Queen of gospel music, but in my opinion, you have the real Queen of gospel music on your new album, Miss Shirley Caesar. Tell me about the song that she’s on with you, because I haven’t had a chance to listen to the whole album yet.
Regina: Well, the song is entitled “Been So Good to Me,” and Pastor makes it what it needed to be. When myself and Chris Walker were writing this song, she was indeed what we had in mind and, because my last record, she told me, she said, “You didn’t call me for that last one.” She calls me “daughter.” Pastor Caesar is one of the reasons why I’m even a singer today. The very first song I ever sang solo was one of her songs.
Darnell: Which one was that?
Regina: [Singing] “I’m a stranger, don’t drive me away. oh, no, whoa, I’m a stranger, don’t drive me away. If you drive me away, you gonna need my help someday. I’m a stranger. Don’t drive me away.” That was my song right there.
Darnell: That was beautiful. I was like, “I’m not going to say anything. I’m trying not to breathe heavy or anything.” I just didn’t want to interrupt that at all.
Regina: That was my song. That was the first gospel solo I ever sang, and she was kind of like my platform. I based myself on all of the songs that she sang on those early albums with her sisters. I even learned where she took breaths at. I took breaths in the same place that she did. So she is hugely responsible for me doing what it is that I do.
Darnell: There was a point in her career where she made albums very quickly, it seemed, and word has been--her reputation has been that she didn’t play around when it came time to being in the studio. She went in and got the work done. What was your experience like, working with her in the booth, so to speak?
Regina: The very same thing you just said. Pastor does not play; do you understand me? I’m telling you, inside of two hours she was done, and some of that didn’t have nothing to do with her. Some of that had to do with the studio and stuff not working properly. So, for a minute, we were just kind of sitting there waiting.
But she is so awesome. When I tell you that she knows how her instrument works, she’s very much on top of who she is and what she’s able to accomplish. I mean, she is just awesome, and just a wonderful gift to work with, and she commands a mic. It’s not about her fitting into something. You fit whatever it is around Pastor Caesar, and I really loved that. And it was my first opportunity in co-writing a quartet song. Something that my father absolutely loved. So I got a little something on here for my dad, so he can say that I’m relative.
Darnell: I was going to ask you, how does this particular album HIGHER, differ from your first gospel album, if at all?
Regina: I think it’s--first of all, the title track says it all. I’m a little higher in my relationship with God. I’m a little higher in my understanding. I think in terms of the praise, we took it up a little bit higher, the worship. We took it a little bit higher.
I have some very important people on this record: Kathy Taylor--she wrote a song for me called “I Will Bless the Lord,” and very simply said, but magnificently done. What can I say? She is awesome and, to me, she is the 2012 Mahalia Jackson. I just think so much of her, and she lent her gift to me, not just in the form of the song that she wrote for me, but also in terms of dueting with me. So I’m forever indebted to her for gracing this record with her talents. What can I say? When you listen to it, I know that people will be blessed by that.
Darnell: Well, I’m looking forward to hearing it, for sure. When you go back and listen to the album yourself, is there any particular song that kind of jumps out and speaks to you a little bit more than the others?
Regina: “Make an Example” does, because of what it says. It packs such a powerful punch. I think “Make an Example” says it all, because that should be the mantra of every Christian that walks the face of the earth. If people are to know about Jesus Christ, they’re only going to know through us, and so we have a special obligation to let the world know who he is by the life that we live. We’re suppose to live … we’re supposed to be a little bit better, we’re supposed to show folks there’s another way. There’s another way out, and so “Make an Example Out of Me” speaks volumes to that part of what the Gospel is all about.
Darnell: Before we go, people would never ever forgive me if I didn’t take this opportunity to just ask you about some of the old songs. I know we talked about many of them when we did our Voice Your Choice. I won’t necessarily ask you about those same particular songs. People can go back there and listen to that, but what I want to do, I want to throw a song out there, and you tell me the first thing that comes to your head when that song is mentioned and what you remember about it. And the first one I want to ask you about is the first solo song that I heard you sing, and that was “Show Me the Way.”
Regina: Wow. There you go, you’ve got good questions. I’m always caught. “Show Me the Way”-- what can I say? The beginning--a song that I really, never really cared for.
Regina: Mmhmm. I didn’t really like it, and I sang it like twice, and Nick Martinelli said it’s done. And it’s a song that, when I’m in a show, if I’m doing an R&B show, people will not let me get off that stage without singing that song.
Darnell: I love that song.
Regina: That’s what I have to say about that one.
Darnell: I’m kind of laughing to myself. It’s always funny when I’m speaking with somebody and we’re talking about their hits and the one song that I really, really love is the one they’re like, you know what? I really wasn’t feeling that one.
Regina: No, I was not feeling that song, for real. But I’m thankful that I did it, because look at what became of it.
Darnell: With some change of lyrics, the chorus kind of reminds me, now that we’re talking about your path today, when I think of those words “show me the way to love,” I’m thinking that could be reinterpreted to have a spiritual meaning, really. So that’s just another thing to consider to help you fall in love with the song, I guess.
Regina: It could. It could very well. I think you have to change some things, but right. You have to change some things, but it’s kind of like “Let’s Get it On” with Marvin Gaye; it’s really hard to imagine anything else that opening guitar lick. So it’s kind of hard to hear something else, but I guess it can be done.
Darnell: Stranger things have happened, they would say.
Regina: Yes, stranger things have happened. I will agree with you on that one.
Darnell: Just a couple more: I want to ask you about “Dream in Color.” When you think back to that song, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
Regina: Let me see, “Dream in Color.” I think about Betty Wright, because she organized the background singers, and she’s actually a distant cousin of mine. When I think about “Dream in Color,” I think about--singing that song--it was so bright. I don’t know how else to explain it. I was in the studio, and the sun was shining so bright that particular day.
The backgrounds were so ... I was trying to sing it without the background, and I told Nick, I absolutely have to have the background, because they will make me sing … there’s a presence with them that will not be there if I try to sing the song without them. So I remember Betty going in there and creating her magic, and then I came in shortly after that, and I just remember thinking, “Wow, this is something that I would love to sing in a church and have like 150 piece choir behind me.”
Darnell: Yeah, you know what, as a fan listening to that song, I was having that same kind of feeling. I didn’t feel as if I was just listening to any other song that came on the radio. It was like this song kind of jumped out and it just sort of had some spiritual connection to it.
I thought you were singing better than I had ever heard you sing before on that tune. I just thought, “Wow, this is like on some whole other level in so many different ways.” It was a well-written song, lyrically, so I get it when you say that it was “bright” to you.
Regina: Yes, it was bright, and I recorded it on a day when the sun was shining so bright. So it’s very interesting for you to ask me to go back to that place, and “What do you think of.”
Darnell: And, lastly, you mentioned this one earlier--“Baby Come to Me.” What do you remember about the making of that tune?
Regina: Hawaii, because I sang that song in two takes. I was done because the whole deal was to get through the song, because I wanted to get to the beach. And it was …
“Baby Come to Me” was such an easy song to sing, because all you really have to be was in love and you can sing that song. So, it was that kind of tune. It brought that kind of, what can I say--that kind of feeling over you.
I was married to my husband at that time, or dating, one; I can’t even remember. But, at that time, I was just crazy in love with him, and singing “Baby Come to Me” was kind of to him, in general. So it was an easy song to sing. It didn’t take me all day to get that one through.
Darnell: Especially with that Hawaiian motivation.
Regina: Absolutely. And that’s another place where … and I recorded it in George Benson’s studio with Narada Michael Walden, so that was wonderful. That was … all my experiences with Narada were great. The only issue I had with Narada is that Narada is a perfectionist. So you can’t go in there--to actually sing “Baby Come to Me” like two or three times is really like, a unicorn. It’s just not done. You’re going to sing it at least seventeen times, or at least ten times. So, being able to get through that in a couple of times in a couple of shots with him, was huge.
Darnell: So what’s next for Regina Belle, in terms of this new gospel album? I’m not quite sure how things work. Is it a bit different when you’re working a gospel album, in terms of touring and that kind of stuff? Are the dynamics a little bit different?
Regina: Not really. The work ethic is still the same. The biggest difference in when you’re dealing with a gospel record as opposed to an R&B record or jazz record or anything else, is that you have a specific obligation to speak into people’s lives. So, amidst promotional work that you do to promote the record, you might have somebody say, “I have an issue,” where they talk about some of their illnesses.
I suffered a brain tumor in 2009. I had to have surgery and sometimes people … in fact, I just did a concert where a lady came up to me. She said, “I’m going through it right now.” So you have an obligation to stop right where you’re standing, and to pray God’s strength over her, God’s covering over her to keep her. And if it be God’s will, that he would heal her. Just like he did me. So you have a little bit more … the responsibilities area little bit greater, like I said, because you have to speak into people’s lives.
You have to present an alternative to what it is they go through. You’ve been trying to work this thing out by yourself. Well, I even have this song. Let God work it out. Let him work it out. You’ve been trying to do it for all this time and you’ve been messing it up, and haven’t done any better, so why don’t you give him a try. So you have those specific duties while you’re on the road to do what you do, to not only just sing the songs and minister while you have the pulpit or the stage, but you also have an obligation to touch people on a real personal level. That makes sense?
Darnell: It makes perfect sense. And it’s a great way to end our conversation here. If you could just let everyone know--everybody’s on the Internet these days. Is there any way to stay updated on what you’re doing? Are you on Facebook or Twitter?
Regina: On Facebook, yes, as well as @IamReginaBelle. That’s my Twitter page. Or you can go to ReginaBelle.org, which is my website, and find out where I’ll be next. I’m performing probably in a city near you.
Darnell: And let’s just put a word out about your church, for those who may be in that area.
Darnell: There you go.
Regina: Right there in Atlanta. If you are available, come on down because, when I tell you we believe in having church, we have chu’ch in Atlanta. In Atlanta, Georgia, right off of 85, University Avenue, and the website again for the church is NewShieldofFaith.org, where my husband is the pastor.
Darnel: Alright, and Regina is the first lady. It’s a pleasure; it’s always a pleasure talking to you, so, anytime that you have anything going on, just feel free to come through and let us know. Our doors are always open.
Regina: I will, Darnell because you ask the hard questions. You ask the questions that make me think, and I like that.
Darnell: Well, I like that you answered them. So I appreciate that. Thank you so much, Regina.
Regina: Thank you for having me. Have a good one, okay?
Darnell: You, too. Be blessed.
Regina: You, too. Bye bye.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.