Free to Be Regina Belle

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

Regina Belle first played Blues Alley in 1987, soon after the release of her debut album, "All by Myself." She had a No. 2 R&B single at the time, "Show Me the Way," which could now be retitled "I Know the Way." Belle has been a Blues Alley perennial ever since, including a four-night stand that continues through Sunday.

What's in a genre name? Adult contemporary, urban contemporary, smooth jazz, Belle's lustrous alto has graced them all with such classics as "Baby Come to Me," "All I Want Is Forever" and "Make It Like It Was."

She has even had her pure pop moment with 1992's triple platinum, chart-topping smash, "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)." Belle's duet with Peabo Bryson from the Disney animated classic earned them a Grammy for best pop performance.

"The great thing is I've never been locked in," Belle says. "Even though I've always been looked upon as an adult contemporary artist, I've always been able to go as many places as I want to go. I'm thankful to my audience for that because they've allowed me the freedom to be me."

All along her journey, Belle has indulged her jazz impulse in concert (a spry scat-chase through Ella Fitzgerald's "You'll Have to Swing It, Mr. Paganini") and on her albums. Her debut featured the heart-wrenching ballad, "So Many Tears," a tribute to Billie Holiday that still remains in her set list.

"To do a jazz album was not going to be far-fetched for my real fans to accept because they've seen me in that atmosphere already," Belle says of 2004's "Lazy Afternoon," a collection of jazz-flavored Broadway and soul standards.

Belle will stretch her wings a little wider in February with her first gospel album, returning to her roots and the times she first lifted her voice at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Englewood, N.J.

"It's been a part of my life since day one," Belle says. "I sang my first song when I was 3. I sang my first solo when I was 8, so you've got to believe gospel is a huge part of who I am. It's not something you can just turn away from, especially when it's helped to shape the musical being that you are. So we're now talking about running the entire spectrum of what it is Regina Belle does, the things that make me tick, that make me smile when I do music."

In high school, Belle studied trombone, tuba and steel drums (no worry, she doesn't play them now) and studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music. At Rutgers University, she became the first female vocalist with the school's jazz ensemble. After a few years working as a backup singer and opening act, Belle was signed to Columbia, where her soul-meets-jazz-pop stylings immediately earned favorable comparisons to Anita Baker, Nancy Wilson, Phyllis Hyman and Sade.

Belle has always had a great, octave-leaping voice, rich in creamy tones and supple melisma, but has favored emotional nuance over vocal pyrotechnics (though she's capable of those on occasion as well). Possibly to her detriment, the strikingly attractive singer refused to play the glamour game, particularly the sexualizing of female singers so prevalent in the pop music world. With five children (four girls and a boy), it's a stand Belle says she has never regretted taking.

"In my life and my career, I've had to maintain a position. Sometimes we have to reap what we've sown years and, years later, trying to get our kids to pay attention and not do certain things or to do certain things. And we can't get their cooperation because they're looking at what we did."

For Belle, it was, and is, a matter of respect for her family. "My grandmother's still living; my mother is a big inspiration, in fact, she's the first hero in my life. My dad, my brother and my kids: They made a difference to me, and I thought that was the reason why I didn't do certain things."

It's the music that has mattered most to Belle -- music that has almost always been romantic, more about long-term connection than fleeting pleasure. "I've seen what love can do when you really love somebody and can look beyond their faults and help them with their needs. Those are the kind of songs I want to sing, not those come-and-let-me-knock-your-boots-one-night." And if that casts Belle as old-fashioned, she says, "I'm okay with that, like I'm okay with being 44, not 24. If I wasn't about certain things at that stage, I'm not going to try to become some sort of sex symbol now, trying to live my life vicariously through Beyonc¿. . . . It's about being gratified in the right things."

Belle adds: "Here's the reward. I go to concerts, I go to work, and people tell me, 'I got married to "A Whole New World." . . . I played "If I Could" when my son graduated college.' . . . I've become a part of the fabric of people's lives. That's humbling; it's an honor. When you find joy in the right things, you stop looking for the surface stuff that's only going to please you for a moment."

The deeper pleasures include her husband, Washington-born John Battle, who spent 10 years in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers and is now a pastor in Atlanta. The at-home kids include Tiy, 17; Jayln, 15 ("6 feet tall with a size 12 shoe -- I'd rather dress him than feed him," Belle jokes); Sydni, 13; and Nyla, 10. The oldest daughter, Winter, is married and has children of her own, "my two precious little grandchildren, Thea and Joshua -- I'm glad they don't live here." (Again, a joke.)

That family commitment is why Belle usually works only weekends, as she is at Blues Alley. "That way I have most of the week with the kids. I've mastered how to give them that time."

Regina Belle Appearing Friday-Sunday at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Shows start at 8 and 10. Tickets:$43. Reservations suggested at 202-337-4141.

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