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Gospel Singer Regina Belle Reaches 'Higher'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. For nearly 25 years, Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Regina Belle has been wowing audiences with her powerful voice. Much of that recognition has been for her work in R&B, but in 2008, after an award-winning career in secular music, Regina Belle went back to her roots and released her first gospel album, "Love Forever Shines."


REGINA BELLE: (Singing) Time after time, I feel this way. Something inside is telling me to pray, so I kneel down and close my eyes and I listen to my voice inside.

MARTIN: Now, she's following up with her second gospel album, which she hopes will take audiences "Higher."


BELLE: (Singing) You deserve the glory, so we lift you higher, higher. No one else before you, Lord, we lift you higher and higher. For the favor we inherit, God, we lift you higher.

MARTIN: That was the title track, "Higher," from Regina Belle's new album and she's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. I should say welcome back.

BELLE: Thank you for having me. I am glad to be back.

MARTIN: We actually spoke after your first gospel album and talked a lot about making the decision to decide to go back to gospel and record, you know, a gospel album and I just wondered, what were you hoping to do with the second album?

BELLE: You said it, to go higher, to increase in the writing, production. The first record was kind of getting my feet wet and what a wonderful surprise to have such success with the first record. With this CD, I think we kind of know more of what we want to say, what we want to do.

Relationship with God has increased and, since then, I've had some experiences that would bring me closer and so all of that, we want to kind of - and so much more - we want to reflect in the music.

MARTIN: Well, do you mind talking about some of the experiences that you had that have actually brought you...

BELLE: Oh, not at all.

MARTIN: ...closer to faith?

BELLE: Not at all. And - well, as you know, we released the album in 2008 and then, in 2009, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and so, you know, devastating news at the height of making a transition from one career to another career and when you think in this for the Lord, you're thinking why devastation now? So it was kind of difficult with 10 months of rehabilitation. We had to have two surgeries because the surgery was so complex. It was only supposed to take two hours. It took eight hours. It was only supposed to take one surgeon. It took six surgeons. We ended up having to be closed up and then the doctor had to go back and open me back up.

So 10 months being out of the loop and then, finally, when I got ready to go back to work, I could just hear a small voice saying to me, now, when you sing God is good, you will understand how good I really am because you cannot tell by looking at me. You don't know what I've been through.

MARTIN: Truly, I cannot. You look fabulous.

BELLE: Thank you.

MARTIN: You look great and anybody who sees the album cover will see...

BELLE: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...what I see...

BELLE: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...because you look amazing.

BELLE: Thank you.

MARTIN: I would not know. Your speech is perfect.

BELLE: Thank you. Yeah. And these are...

MARTIN: I wouldn't know if you hadn't said something.

BELLE: God is good. So, at the end of our journey and when we got ready to do the next CD, we kind of wanted to do songs that would reflect those experiences, maybe not, you know, being specific, but certainly in a generalization be able to cover how I felt and make an example is something that I ask God and I think it's very reflective of what I've been through and where I stand now.

MARTIN: Well, let's play a little bit. It's called...


MARTIN: ..."Make an Example Out of Me."


BELLE: (Singing) Lord, make an example out of me so the world will see and give you glory. I'm not worthy of all You do for me. Oh, Lord, make an example out of me. Oh, Lord, make an example out of me.

MARTIN: You know, that song certainly sounds different to me now that I'm hearing it after hearing your story.

BELLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: After hearing of all that has transpired in the last couple of years.

BELLE: It will. It will. The story makes a big difference in the song.

MARTIN: But how do you feel about that? Because, after having gone through something so traumatic, which must have been so frightening...

...transpired in the last couple of years since I saw you.

BELLE: It will. The story makes a big difference in a song.

MARTIN: But how do you feel about that? Because after having gone through something so traumatic, which must've been so frightening for you and for your family.

BELLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean your brain really is your instrument...

BELLE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: well as your voice.

BELLE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I mean it is - and I could see where you would not want to talk about it anymore.

BELLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Just to put it behind you.

BELLE: Well, and that's why the song, because Lord, you have to make me an example because, you know, I don't really want to deal with that. I don't want to go back there. That's a real - that was a scary place, you know, to realize that you may not wake up, you may not ever come out of this. And then when you wake up, what kind of state will you be in? And 10 months seems like forever when you're trying to, you can't walk by yourself. You can't feed yourself. You can't dress yourself.


BELLE: (Singing) Use my hands Lord, and my speech. Let my song bring praise to thee. Fill my cup Lord, I forever lift it up. Oh Lord, Lord, make an example out of me.

Now all of a sudden I'm having to depend on my children just to get up to use the restroom, so it was quite an experience. Of course the natural thing is to say once we get past that, we don't want to deal with that know more, you know?


BELLE: But when I look at where I am today - being able to stand up, sing and do all these things of my own free will, and I lost all my hearing in my left ear, so I'm clinically deaf in my left ear, so to be able to still sing and do all the things that I do, I'm not scared to talk about it now, 'cause this is huge. I'm a walking miracle.

MARTIN: You are. You really are. It's so good to see you.

BELLE: It's good to be seen. How about that?

MARTIN: I hear that. I hear that.


MARTIN: I'm speaking with Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Regina Belle. We're talking about her new album, "Higher," and all the stuff that's happened since we talked to her last about her first gospel album in 2008.

You know, you've always been known for the power of your voice. And, you know, people who know your incredible hit, "A Whole New World"...

BELLE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...your duet with Peabo Bryson, which was, you know, featured in the Disney film, you know, "Aladdin," it was number one on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and Grammy-winning and so forth like this. And there's a couple of things, there's a sweetness of your voice and then there's the power, you know, of your voice.


BELLE: (Singing) Unbelievable sights. Indescribable feeling. Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling. Through an endless diamond sky. A whole new world.

PEABO BRYSON: (Singing) Don't you dare close your eyes.

BELLE: (Singing) A hundred thousand things to see.

BRYSON: (Singing) Hold your breath - it gets better.

BELLE: I remember when I was trying to figure out my style. I was in college and I was trying to figure out what, what do I want to sound like, what, you know, and you have so many favorites...


BELLE: know, from Ella Fitzgerald to Patti LaBelle to Chaka Khan to all these different people. And finally I honed in on Billie Holiday and I thought that her voice really epitomizes femininity. But then I said the power of Donny Hathaway. So I said if I could somehow combine the two of those I would have something different and I would have, you know, that would be my signature. And so you just said that, so now you, I mean you made me feel like I've done it, I've reached my goal in trying to do what it was I set out to do so many years ago.

MARTIN: Well, I think people can hear it. In fact, I just want to play, for people who might be listening to our conversation and saying wow, after going to all that does she still have that, let me play "Coming Back."

BELLE: All right.

MARTIN: And people can hear it for themselves.



BELLE: (Singing) I'm not going to sugarcoat. I'm not going to water it down, I've lost my way. And keeping a hectic schedule, letting everything else get in the way of me and you. I'm sorry that I stayed away from you, so I'm coming back. Coming on back.

MARTIN: So there's that beautiful sound. Still got it. Message though. Wanted to ask about, is this about in part the journey that you had? I can imagine some very dark moments.

BELLE: There were some dark moments but I never left. I never left my faith in God. I knew that if I was coming out, it was going to be through him. Because even my doctor said, you know, I can only do but so much. You know, he was confident that, you know, we would come out of it OK and everything but, you know, he says ultimately he doesn't have that say so and he's wise enough to be able to understand that.


BELLE: (Singing) All those put it off to tomorrows, all of the time I borrowed from your grace. Those times I knew I should of but I let my selfishness get in the way of me and you. I'm sorry that I stayed away from you...

"Coming Back," it's for the one who knew God to be God but some kind of way got caught up, and not so much the whole backsliding thing from the standpoint of, you know, I've made something else a God, you know, but from the standpoint of getting caught up in everyday life, just doing stuff, just busy being busy, and gotten away from relationship with God, you know, taking time out to talk to him, to, you know, that time that you put in when you in trouble, you know, so to speak. Now all of a sudden you got all these things facing you and you don't have time. And so that's what "Coming Back" is really about.

MARTIN: Are your secular fans following you, do you feel?

BELLE: Believe it or not, yes. I was at the Blue Dolphin and I sang, you know, some of the R&B songs and I sang, you know, the gospel songs, and a lot of the people there had come to the Blues Alley and some of the other places that I had frequented in the secular years, so they were like, you know, it was wonderful seeing them because I mean that's fans for over 20-something years and still supporting me, still loving on me. I mean that's a feeling like I can't even, I can't even explain.

MARTIN: Do you ever miss the secular music?

BELLE: Not really because, you know, it's not out of my repertoire and what I do. My duty is kind of different in that I'm not able to just get rid of R&B, and not that I would want to. It's a huge part of who I am and I believe that God uses that particular tool to talk to people because that's their familiarity with me. But then I throw on them, you know, "Make An Example Out of Me." I'll throw on them "God is Good." You know, I'll throw out on them "God Must've Been With You." And these types of songs not end up being the songs that they meet with. That's the thing that lasts or that sits with them the most, so it packs the most powerful punch, even more than a "Baby Come To Me," because that song was meant to be, you know, for you and your boo and, you know, those hours, those moments. But this song actually speaks to your life to help you get better.

MARTIN: We mentioned earlier your duets. And of course "A Whole New World" is with Peabo Bryson. You know, people just love your duets.


MARTIN: In this when you have a duet with...

BELLE: Several.

MARTIN: Right. You have several. I just want to mention one...


MARTIN: ...with, you know, a huge name in gospel who...

BELLE: Yes. Pastor Shirley Caesar.

MARTIN: Pastor Shirley Caesar.

BELLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Just the incomparable...


MARTIN: Shirley Caesar. So we have to play a little bit of that.

BELLE: All right.

MARTIN: It's called "Been So Good."


BELLE: Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to bring to the stage one of my favorite singers in the whole wide world, the one who taught me how to sing. Y'all know who she is, the singingist pastor in the land, Pastor Shirley Caesar.

SHIRLEY CAESAR: (Singing) Oh, yeah...


BELLE: That is my girl.

MARTIN: That's your girl. Two divas in the studio though. How was that? Was there room in the studio for the two divas?

BELLE: No. No. I made room and I let her do her thing and I waited and did mine much later.


BELLE: You can't hang with Pastor Cesar. What?


CAESAR: (Singing) I've been chump time up and chump town down. But Lord, you've always been around. And then a whole lot of years I've traveled all over the world, telling of your goodness to men, women, boys and girls. You know what? I tried it for myself. I've been on a journey. The Lord been good. Oh...

BELLE: And she's remarkable to watch because it just doesn't take her that long. You know, she's very, very adamant about how she's going to do it and she gets in there and she's true to her word. She gets it done.

MARTIN: You just stepped on back?

BELLE: Yeah. She's...

MARTIN: You just stepped on back?

BELLE: She's like so baby, you're going to come in after me? I said, no, ma'am.


BELLE: We going to do yours here in North Carolina. I'm going back to Texas and think about mine and then I'm going to do mine.


BELLE: But no, just...

MARTIN: Good choice.

BELLE: Just fabulous. Fabulous. Fabulous duet. And what a great person to work with. I mean she made my dreams come true because the first solo I ever sang was Pastor Shirley Caesar's "I'm A Stranger, Don't Drive Me Away," and that was where I started, so coming full circle now to have her on the record, huge.

MARTIN: That's great. I'm so glad. Well, what is left for you? What you going to do? Sign up with NASA? I mean what? What? What you going to do?


MARTIN: What you got left? What you got left?

BELLE: That's definitely not on the itinerary. However, a gospel record over eight years ago, that wasn't on the itinerary either, so I don't know. Like I said, eight years ago, if you'd asked me about doing a gospel record, I'd be like, girl, you crazy. I'm good, you know. So I don't really know. God has many things in store for me, I'm sure. I'm just not sure where and what. So you know, basically I'm just traveling this road to see where it leads, and prayerfully I'll end up smack dab where he wants me.

MARTIN: Well, we're so glad you're journey caused you to stop here...

BELLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: our Washington, D.C. studio.

BELLE: Yes. This is like home for me.

MARTIN: What should we play as we say goodbye?

BELLE: I think you should play "Mighty Embattled." That is my ode to Chuck Brown. I call it gospel go-go.

MARTIN: All right. Regina Belle is a Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter. Her latest album is "Higher." It's available now. And as we said, she was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C.

Regina Belle, thank you so much for joining us.

BELLE: Thank you for having me.


BELLE: He's a doctor. He's a mind regulator. He's a hard fixer. So right now God...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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