In the mid-1990s many emerging black popular singers consciously evoked elements of the 70s soul recordings of Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Donnie Hathaway, Minnie Riperton, Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder. Among these were Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Dionne Farris, Maxwell and Me’shell N’degeocello. By the early 2000s music writers applied the term “neo-soul” to Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, John Legend, Alicia Keys and others who also drew on previous soul traditions.
Arguably, the fusion of contemporary pop with the earthy soulfulness of the 70s was already occurring in the 1980s. Post mid-80s “Quiet Storm” and pre-early 1990s-hip-hop soul multiple vocalists wove together elements of classic soul and modern R&B to forge a distinctive style. Regina Belle, Miki Howard, Freddie Jackson and Stephanie Mills are among those performers who helped their listeners draw on the past while still looking ahead to the future. Each possessed a rich, highly expressive voice comparable to their influences, and were able to excel in the production styles of the time. Though their “pop” radio appeal was moderate their success on R&B stations was consistently strong: From 1985-90 Belle and Howard had six top 10 R&B hits; Jackson had 15 top 10 R&B hits; and Mills, who had begun having hits in 1979 but had a mid-80s upswing, scored seven top 10 R&B hits. The fact that they rarely scored top 40 pop radio hits is less about talent or the promotional skills of their record labels than ways deep cultural segregation infuses the music industry. The fact that black artists have to “crossover” speaks volumes about how the social construct of “race” distorts our sense of what counts are art, commercial or otherwise.
In the early 1990s hip-hop soul, led by Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Faith Evans, and eventually neo-soul, rendered 80s R&B superstars as old-fashioned. Recently, I was catching up with the music of some of these artists and was continually surprised by how well their best music has aged. I was also perusing episodes of UnSung. The series, which airs on the cable network TV One, focuses on black popular singers of the past who have been unheralded or nearly forgotten by younger audiences. Given the ephemeral nature of American popular music, and the commercial gaps between black artists and the “pop” radio market there are perpetual fears of black art being forgotten so the series performs an interesting service for aficionados and novices of black popular music.
Belle, Howard and Jackson have each been the focus of an episode. Mills, who was nominated for a Tony for her performance in The Wiz on Broadway, won an R&B Grammy in 1980 and had five #1 R&B hits from 1986-89, declined because she felt that she had been heralded. Listening to her soulful performances on ballads such as 1986’s “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love,”1986’s “I Feel Good All Over,” and 1989’s “Home” (from The Wiz), neither of which crossed over to the pop charts I would say she remains underrated.
Other R&B artists who might also fit comfortably into this space include Will Downing, Howard Hewett, Mica Paris and Vesta. Below, I focus on Belle and Howard whose are the most interesting artists among this group and whose discographies have remained most active among their peers.
Watching the TV One UnSung episode on Regina Belle reminded me of what a splendid vocal artist she is and how the music industry never quite knew what to do with her. Her rich tone, fluid phrasing and emotional intelligence should have secured her a career comparable to other black female crossover artists of the time, including Anita Baker and Whitney Houston, to name two. Like them, she is someone who had to attain some commercial footing at “black radio” to reach a wider audience.
Unlike them, however, she only had one major crossover hit, her duet with Peabo Bryson on “A Whole New World.” That song hit #1 and won the singers a Grammy as well as Oscars for its composers. As wonderful a song and recording as it was it did not reveal anything new about her talents. The only difference was the commercial machinery behind it. Columbia was content to promote Belle as a R&B singer with some adult contemporary appeal but left it at that.
I decided to listen to her four Columbia albums recently to delve into what led her to move on to other labels. Three albums in (1993’s Passion) I figured out a few issues: While her singing never fails to engage, Belle emerged in the New Jack era, so her up-tempo songs have a dated feel that does not distinguish them from other dance pop from the time. In this regard she is a follower rather than a leader. More importantly, Belle is a balladeer, not a funkmaster. I’m not questioning her rhythmic drive so much as what seems to flatter her luscious tone and fundamental sensual delivery. Listening to her first albums, the R&B radio hits “Show me The Way” and “So Many Tears” have memorable melodies and flatter her voice. She knows exactly how to illuminate their melodic qualities and lyrical ideas. The ballads surrounding them are less memorable and the light funk/dance cuts feel obligatory. Related to this, issue, which also surfaces on 1989’s Stay with Me, is the tendency to bog Belle down with one too many interchangeable “pillow talk” ballads drenched in a generically bombastic pop-soul style. The glittering keyboards, thundering drum machines, and outsized vocals get repetitive when every song has the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure. “Baby Come to Me” and “Make it Like it was” were understandable hits—she sings them with outstanding exuberance that separates them from the mundane material around them.
Listening to Belle, I always long to hear her sing something in front of an acoustic band. Given her musical training in wind instruments, piano and voice—she has the chops, but the commercial formulas limit her to R&B and pop conventions. Whereas Baker was able to find a satisfying place between pop/soul and jazz Belle never quite makes the sensuous, jazzy mood album, like Rapture, that made Baker the most sophisticated R&B oriented singer of her generation. The bigger picture is the shift in black pop away from making music for adults to straining to capture everyone including teens. As a result, artists who excel making sensuous adult music try to branch out to funk and dance pop and flop. For example, the rap solo on “Tango in Paris,” is dated and distracting. 1995’s Reachin’ Back is a fine tribute to 70s Philly Soul, but its audience was primarily classicists of 70s R&B—a small audience. Too small for her to maintain her recording contract.
Belle’s timing also coincided with other changes in black pop. Blending New Jack and hip-hop, Mary J. Blige authored the hip-hop soul (“New Jill Swing”) sound. Mariah Carey’s Daydream, which featured “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” was the hip-pop-soul blueprint. Black bohemian and neo-soul artists like N’degeocello, Farris, and Badu, also forecasted what became somewhat of a revolution in R&B toward a more organic and idiosyncratic soul music beyond love songs and dance cuts. Belle, who was always more of an interpreter than songwriter, was of a different generation and sensibility.
1998’s Believe in Me was Belle’s attempt to reclaim a more contemporary R&B identify but it was a tame affair especially compared to Lauryn Hill’s triumphant solo debut, which overshadowed most albums released that year. Even Whitney Houston got hip on 1998’s My Love is Your Love. This is Regina, released in 2001 on the smooth jazz boutique label Concord/Peak, felt like a bit of a retreat. She recorded the kind of ballads that made her an R&B star but even the inclusion of hip-hop elements made it feel like it was recorded in a bit of a time warp.
In 2004 Belle finally released Lazy Afternoon the kind of album her fans have always felt she was capable of recording. Belle’s sense of standards spans from stalwarts like “the Man I Love” to ‘70s soul (“For the Love of You).” The result is a polished and engaging set of performances that avoids sounding retro or succumbing to watered down fusion or smooth jazz. It’s a refreshing change that finds Belle at her peak. Singing “Corcovado” and “Fly Me to the Moon” was hardly a commercial strategy in 2004 but the fact that she was able to record the album on a major label spoke to what was possible.
Four years later Belle turned to her first love, gospel music on 2008’s Love Forever Shines, which was followed shortly by serious health issues. Belle returned with 2012’s Higher, another gospel set and revisited secular R&B on 2016’s The Day Life Began on Shanachie, a record label home for many R&B veterans. Belle remains a remarkable singer in search of an audience.
In terms of an aesthetic vision and success with black audiences Chicago native Miki Howard (b. 1960) is the most successful and consistent singer among the underrated R&B divas. She never achieved a big crossover single but has always seemed content to resonate with her core R&B audience, even if her talent warranted even greater exposure. When she emerged in 1986 on Come Share My Love not only was her sultry, gospel trained voice intact, but she knew the kind of songs she loved to sing and stuck to her interests continually. In listening to Howard, I hear few compromises in the material she chooses, her vocal technique, or the aesthetic she advances—notably the interconnected relationship of contemporary black music to the gospel and jazz traditions. The desire to “crossover” often stifles performers to the point of desperation. Too many of the talented divas I discuss in this section have bland discographies weighed down by mediocre albums with nary an interesting song. Comparatively, Howard is a dynamic presence with such a surefooted sensibility and radiance, that she could never be read as dull or dispassionate.
A good point of comparison is the biggest black female vocalist of Howard’s era when she recorded for Atlantic and Giant Records, Whitney Houston. Houston, two years younger than Howard, debuted as a solo singer in 1984 at 21 and her debut mixed bubbly dance pop with emotive ballads. Howard debuted at 25 and projected a sultrier, more adult image. Though Howard’s first hit was actually written for Houston “Come Share My Love” feels so intrinsic to Howard’s sensual persona that it’s hard to hear anyone else sing it. It’s not a great song, but she makes it work. Even more radical for the time was Howard’s choice to interpret the Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen standard “Imagination” live with an orchestra. This is about as far away from cheesy dance pop as you can get. More importantly it reflected Howard’s genuine affection for her jazz predecessors (in this instance Jimmy Scott). Like so many black vocalists she saw little distinction between genres and sang from a more timeless place than typical black pop of the era.
Her follow-up continued in this fusion of contemporary and classic sensibilities. There’s solid new material, like the alluring waltz “Baby Be Mine,” and a sizzling duet with Gerald LeVert (“That’s What Love Is”), as well as a loving nod to Earth Wind and Fire on “Reasons” and to her hero Billie Holiday on “You’ve Changed.” Whereas many pop and soul singers treat standards as quaint museum pieces Howard employed contemporary instruments alongside strings and her gospel phrasing is used effectively enough that the songs sound contemporary, as they should.
From 1986-89 New Jack Swing, the marrying of R&B with urban beats derived from hip-hop production, reshaped the sound of commercial R&B. The style suited young dance acts like Bobby Brown and Guy but was not always the best for the traditional voices of adult R&B to excel. Yet Howard was hip enough to make it work. Her first R&B #1 hit was the propulsive “Ain’t Nuthin’ in the World” which was squarely in the black mainstream and credible for a singer known more for ballads. Even more intriguing was her nod to Aretha Franklin on a sleek interpretation of “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” which juxtaposed New Jack rhythms and textures with Howard’s soulful wails in the main vocal and background. It reached #3 and succeeds on every level.
1989-90 was a great time for Howard’s career. The album Miki Howard is her finest and most successful album. It peaked at #4 on the R&B albums chart and spawned three big R&B hits including the two already mentioned, and “Love Under New Management” her best performance on record. The “neo-soul” tag (discussed elsewhere in this section) was a late-1990s term for young R&B singers with a penchant for classic soul, but “Love” was a forerunner to this sound. It begins with a swirling saxophone and steady beat that instantly establish the sultry journey to come—a woman discovers true love. From the brilliant title to the sage-like tone, to the call and response vocals, to the vernacular lyrics (“There’s nothing like someone who can take care of business”), to the spoken “rap” during the bridge this is classic soul writ large performed with expert finesse.
In 1992 Howard gained visibility portraying Billie Holiday in Spike Lee’s epic film Malcolm X. Unlike many soul singers who primarily model themselves after soul divas like Aretha, Tina, and Gladys, Howard leans more toward jazz singers particularly “blue” jazz singers like Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Etta Jones. Holiday is the clearest idol for Howard. Vocally Howard has a bigger voice and is far more extradited. She also favors Holiday’s smoldering ballads over her swing material. Their root commonality is their attraction to torchy, melancholic material. Howard’s gift is her contemporary outlook on the Holiday repertoire as one relevant to today. By working with modern arrangements and instruments Howard takes the risk of singing the material in her language which is bold considering the conformity rampant in contemporary R&B of the time. Howard’s Holiday tribute album is mixed (more on that later) but I appreciate her moxie. At a time when hip-hop soul was on the rise it was iconoclastic to go against the grain and follow her heart.
She also switched to Giant Records in 1992 and released Femme Fatale an interesting cross-section of Howard’s persona. She could have easily built on the momentum of Miki but chose to open her album with modern takes on “Good Morning Heartache” and “This Bitter Earth.” As always, she sings them in a modern vocal style that melds gospel inflections with jazz oriented phrasing. By doing so she “introduces” the songs to younger ears and legitimizes them as living melodies. She juxtaposes these with nods to ‘70s soul fare including a duet on the Teddy Pendergrass-cum-Philly Soul classic “Hope We Get Together Soon” and a funky mash-up of Sly Stone’s “Thank You” and “Dance to the Music.” These seemingly different eras, jazz, funk and Philly Soul sit comfortably beside each other in Howard’s universe. Howard balanced these classicist tendencies with smart commercial material including her second number one R&B hit “Ain’t Nobody Like You” a sultry, smart adult groove tune and the funky “Release Me.” Like her previous album these are contemporary songs perfectly in tune with the time, but with room for Howard to be herself. The remaining material on the album is listenable pop-soul.
1993’s Miki Sings Billie: A Tribute to Billie Holiday is a muddled experiment. Perhaps Howard feels so close to Holiday that it’s hard to establish a critical distance. This might explain a version of “I’m a Fool to Want You” drowning in electronic keyboard/synthesizer textures and tinny electronic drumbeats. Whether it’s intended to sound contemporary or a reflection of early ‘90s production cost-cutting the gloss distracts from what is mostly a solid vocal performance. This is a letdown given her past success with standards. “Don’t Explain” is less produced but her opening ad-lib about her equal access to the temptation of cheating seems too liberated in relation to the song’s fundamental resignation. “Yesterdays” is sung as a mid-tempo swing ballad then goes into double time then slows to mid-tempo then a ballad tempo; a different but not emotionally satisfying approach.
As expected, she handles torch songs well including “My Man” which features a few embellishments and a potent “Solitude.” Some of her choices betray expectations quite nicely. The opener “What a little Moonlight Can Do” starts as a sultry ballad then a big band swing instrumental break comes in before returning to Howard’s ecstatic vocal. This approach differs enough from typical jazz versions that it’s memorable even if the arrangement seems a bit big for such a slight song. Though she usually leans toward Holiday’s torchier fare she has a lot of fun on a big band version of “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” that she modernizes lyrically, and captures the fundamental levity of “My Mother’s Son-in-Law” with a similarly brassy arrangement.
Howard has often defined herself as a jazz singer, but R&B remains at her core. She lacks Holiday’s gift for subtly improvising melodies, is sometimes lacking in humor and is not always very emotionally subtle. Her gutsy, on-the-nose style is enjoyable, but she is more of a jazz stylist than an improviser. This set make me long for a big band jazz album, but this seems unlikely soon.
Miki Sings Billie was her least successful endeavor commercially and she struggled for years as a result of industry politics and substance abuse. In 1996 she released the Can’t Count Me Out an uneven release that goes overboard showcasing her colors. She starts off with a solid cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Love Every Little Thing about You” with harmonies from Chaka Khan and Terence Trent D’Arby, follows this up with a lovely Brenda Russell and Ron Spearman tune “Sunshine” and spirals in to odd territory, like an overwrought guitar laden rendition of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” (!) and some middling R&B. The best performance is a straight ahead version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” refreshingly free of clutter. This independent release was barely released and did not restore her to glory. Five years later she released Three Wishes, which I have not heard. It garnered a 2011 Grammy Nomination for Traditional R&B Vocal Performance. She followed this up with a pop-soul cover album, Pillow Talk: Miki Sings the Classics, for Shanachie Records.
In 2010 TV One aired a Miki Howard episode of UnSung. Compared to predecessors like Phyllis Hyman, Howard had a remarkable commercial run and seems to have had fewer struggles recording the material she desired. Still, I find it unfortunate that Howard, who remains a gifted singer, had to release her 2008 album Private Collection independently in an era when singers with lesser voices and no discernible aesthetic thrive at major labels. This was followed in 2015 by Live in Concert. Her sultry, gospel flavored approach to R&B, and her jazz orientation, has firm roots in black popular music traditions that never go out of style. Even if she is not in the mainstream commercially her musicality makes her part of a chain of formidable soul singers with talents that transcend the current pop moment.
Stay with Me (Columbia 1989)
Baby Come to Me: The Best of Regina Belle (compilation) (Columbia/Legacy 1997)
Lazy Afternoon (Peak 2004)
The Day Life Began (Shanachie Records 2016)
Miki Howard (Atlantic 1989)
Very Best of Miki Howard (compilation) (Atlantic/Rhino 2001)
Live Plus (Warlock Records 1996)
COPYRIGHT © 2019 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.