What's in a genre name? Adult contemporary, urban contemporary, smooth jazz - Regina 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 had a No. 2 R&B single in 1987, Show Me the Way. She's 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 said. "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 album, All by Myself, featured the heart-wrenching ballad So Many Tears, a Billie Holiday tribute.
"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 said of 2004's Lazy Afternoon, a collection of jazz-flavored Broadway and soul standards.
Now, Belle is returning to the times she first lifted her voice at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Englewood, N.J., as she works on her first gospel album.
"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," Belle said. "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."
Belle studied at the Manhattan School of Music and Rutgers University. After a few years 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 favored emotional nuance over vocal pyrotechnics. Possibly to her detriment, the strikingly attractive singer refused to play the glamor game, particularly the sexualizing of female singers so prevalent in the pop music world. With five children, it's a stand Belle said she has never regretted taking.
"In my life and my career, I've had to maintain a position," said Belle, whose husband is John Battle, a pastor in Atlanta who spent 10 years in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers. "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 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, which has almost always been romantic, that has mattered most to Belle. "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 said, "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 Beyonce. . . . It's about being gratified in the right things.
"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,' " Belle said. "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."