Though Anita Baker first emerged as lead vocalist of Chapter 8 in 1979 and her debut solo recording The Songstress was released in 1983, it was not until 1986 that she was championed as the “brand new flava” with the release of Rapture. Less than a year later Baker became the prototype for a new generation of R&B vocalists-de-churchified vocals with heavy jazz-styled inflections tailor-made for the burgeoning “smooooooove” jazz radio format. If Baker was the template, Regina Belle and Miki Howard were second generation reproductions, who were given the leeway to explore more serious pop fare than the 10 million-sales poster child Whitney Houston or the mechanical-dance divas Janet Jackson and Jody Watley.
In the absence of “real” jazz singers in the pop world — Carmen Lundy, the late Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, and Cassandra Wilson all released ground-breaking recordings in the late 1980s that were virtually ignored by pop audiences — Baker, Howard and Belle were the closet thing to “real” jazz vocalists in the mainstream. It was on the strength of Belle’s track “So Many Tears” — a sinewy, whiny bit of a song that stuck out on black radio like DMX on the “Quiet Storm” — that comparisons would be made to Billie Holiday. At the time of her debut release All By Myself (1987), Belle said of her affinity for Holiday, “I can get sort of the same feel she could . . . It’s Kind of hard to explain, but it’s an exaggeration of my vocal timbre. That’s how I get the presence of Billie.”
Armed with the spirit of one of the most significant and distinct vocalists of the 20th century and the support of a legion of cultural luminaries including Nancy Wilson (Belle recorded Wilson’s “If I Could” in 1992) and legendary “Quiet Storm” jock Vaughn Harper, Belle went on the achieve success with songs such “Baby Come to Me” (Stay with Me, 1989) and her Grammy Award winning duet with Peabo Bryson, “A Whole New World”, that helped introduce the Disney movie theme (Aladdin) as pop-schlock hit recording (a genre that Elton John and Celine Dion would later perfect). Three years removed from her last major label release, Regina Belle returns with This Is Regina, her first release for Peak Records.
Belle is one of a generation of post-“Urban Contemporary” R&B vocalists who have been lost and forgotten as urban radio has become increasingly dominated by, as Angie Stone puts it on her forthcoming Black Mahogany, “beat stealing, melody trying to find” vocalists who look good on video and sound bad — atrociously so sometimes — live. During the early 1990s, Belle faired better than others, most notably the late Phyllis Hyman, Miki Howard and even Anita Baker, because she was backed my a major label and had achieved some modicum of crossover success with “Baby Come to Me” and the Aladdin theme. With This Is Regina, Belle stays close to home as much of the project is relegated to “Smooooooove Jazz” fare. The one exception is the track “La Da Di” which features a cameo by MC Lyte.
The lead single and opening track “Oooh Boy”, written by Belle and Barry Eastmond, who also produced four of the 12 tracks, is the kind of breezy tune that allows Belle’s hyper-elastic vocals to wrap around its lyrics. On the Eastmond-produced “From Now On”, Belle is joined by vocalist Glenn Jones. Though he has had some minor success with tracks like 1986’s “Show Me” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” (1987), Jones is one of the most underrated R&B vocalists of the last 20 years. His 1994 recording Here I Go Again is one of the great obscure R&B treasures of the last decade. Co-written by former Essence Magazine editor turned songwriter Gordon Chambers, “From Now On” provides a fertile musical landscape for both Belle and Jones and hopefully signals a re-emergence for Jones. Belle and Eastmond also reach out to equally obscured Will Downing-the poor person’s Luther Vandross-to contribute backing vocals on “Someone Who Needs Me”. Eastmond also contributes the “Midnight Luv” styled “Take My Time”.
The best track from This Is Regina is the soulful “Johnny’s Back” which was co-written and produced by Belle’s brother Bernard Belle, who has written and produced for the likes of The Winans, Hi-Five and Bobby Brown. The song is a sweet tribute (“he’s the soul of me, I’m so glad to see your smile, sit down awhile, I fixed you a pot of neck bones baby, maybe a little corn bread”) to her husband, former NBA player John Battle. Other standouts include the touching “Gotta Go Back” which is further evidence of Belle’s maturity as a lyricist.
With the demise of the Private Music label, that was responsible for recent releases by Barry White, Peabo Bryson and Jeffrey Osborne, Peak Records has aggressively tried to fill that gap with recent projects by Miki Howard (Three Wishes) and Phil Perry (Magic). This is Regina is a quality recording that captures Regina Belle is classic form and hopefully is the sign of more quality efforts from a generation of vocalists who were unceremoniously cast aside for a generation of 20-somethings who are mostly flavor with little substance.