As a kid growing up in Teaneck and Englewood, Regina Belle wouldn't have believed it – any of it – that by 2012 she would have sold millions of records, won a Grammy and an Oscar, have five children and two grandchildren, and be married to an ex-NBA-player-turned-pastor and living in Alabama.
But that's the story. Belle scored hits with such pop, dance, and R&B songs as "Show Me the Way," "Baby Come to Me," "Make It Like It Was" and "A Whole New World." She won her Grammy and Oscar for "A Whole New World," the blockbuster duet with Peabo Bryson from the Aladdin soundtrack.
"I thought that I would prosper in the music industry," Belle says. "My mother said I spoke prophetically about myself as a young kid. I was watching Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles on television, and I told my mom, 'I'm going to be famous just like her one day.' So, I guess I believed that I'd be doing what I'm doing, but I'm sure I had no idea of the level. A Grammy...that is the greatest accolade you can receive as a musician because it doesn't come from the fans, but from your peers, and your peers are just as finicky about the music as you are."
But the surprises in her life kept coming: marrying her best friend from college, having five children, being a grandmother before turning 50. Her husband, John Battle, spent a decade in the NBA and is now senior pastor at the New Shield of Worship Faith Center in Atlanta. Together, they've raised Winter, Tiy, Jayln, Sydni and Nyla, and Winter has two children of her own.
"There are a number of added extras in my life that I'm ecstatic about," Belle says. "There have been downs, too, but whenever I talk to anyone I say that I would not exchange my life for anyone else's in the whole wide world. I love who I am. I love what God has done with me. So I'm happy to have had the life I've had and to continue on in the life I have at this point."
Belle in Bergen
It all started for Belle back in Englewood. She was born at Englewood Hospital and grew up in Teaneck and Englewood. She attended Dwight Morrow High School, learning how to play several musical instruments while there. She always sang in church – at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Englewood and Friendship Baptist Church in Paterson – performing for friends, family and parishioners during church programs, weddings, funerals and other receptions.
"I have some really, really fond and great memories from Englewood and Teaneck," Belle says. "It's the foundation of everything, of all the important parts of who I am now. I still have family there."
Belle's brother, Bernard Belle, who is a producer, writer and musician, lives in Teaneck.
"He's done things for everybody from Whitney Houston to the Winans to...me," she says.
"And I have quite a few cousins and other relatives who live there," Belle adds. "My grandmother, who passed last Thanksgiving, lived to be 100 years, two months and 18 days old. So how about that? Talk about your roots; I have really great roots there."
Belle lives in Atlanta these days, where she's referred to as 1st Servant Minister Regina Belle-Battle at the New Shield of Faith Worship Center. That doesn't mean she's not still performing or recording. Belle released her first gospel album, Love Forever Shines, in 2008 and followed it up this past June with her second collection of gospel songs, Higher, which includes such tracks as "Make an Example Out of Me," "What Would You Do" and "Mighty in Battle."
Belle seems pleased with the results.
"I think I had a lot more to say," she says. "My musicianship is better. I think my writing is better. My relationship with God is better. In terms of where I was on the first record and where I am now, there's a point of elevation, of growth that has happened. I had a better perception of direction with this record, because I've been in it a little longer now and I've had some opportunities to hear from God and hear what it is that he really wants me to do musically. So I'm really excited about the ministry of this record."
Belle's worlds collide on occasion, and they do so harmoniously. At concerts, she still performs the mainstream songs that made her a star. Belle can do so, she notes, because neither they, nor she, was salacious.
"I sing the pop and R&B and then I go into the gospel," she says. "What ends up happening, always, is that the gospel makes more of an impression on the people than the songs they came to hear. People say, 'I came to hear "Make It Like It Was" and "Baby Come to Me," but I really love what you're doing now.' That's the job of gospel music. It's supposed to make a difference. It's supposed to challenge you as a person, to make you step up, to make you better."
Local fans will have their chance to hear and see Belle in person when she takes to the stage at bergenPAC on Sept. 15. She'll open that night for Morris Day and the Time. Mention the bergenPAC show to Belle and – for all her experience and stage savvy, and even with God on her shoulder – it elicits a surprising, charming and deeply human nervous energy from her.
"I have to be honest with you," she says. "This is the scary part, and people may not understand it. I perform for people all over the world, but whenever I go home it's scary because people there know you. You always want to do a great show, and you're scared that something may not go right.
"So going home...it's going to be wonderful," Belle concludes. "But it's going to be nerve-wracking at the same time."
Remembering Her Roots
There are some places I absolutely have to go when I'm home," Regina Belle says. "Englewood has changed quite a bit, but there are still some of the places around from when I was a little girl. Crispy Crust Pizza Shop, on Palisade Avenue, is where I used to eat pizza almost every day. I've got to go by there. The bagel shop on Engle Street; I used to go there in the morning before school. It's still there after all these years. So, whenever I'm back, I get my pizza and my bagel, and I'm looking forward to that."