The Number Ones

March 6, 1993

The Number Ones: Regina Belle & Peabo Bryson’s “A Whole New World (Aladdin‘s Theme)”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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For just about anyone who’s interacted with pop culture on any level since the ’30s, the songs from Disney animated movies resonate on some deep molecular level. You hear these songs for the first time when you’re a small child. They’re silly, or they’re romantic, or they’re silly and romantic. They become a part of your life before you’re able to process them as discrete pieces of art.

Disney has built an empire on those songs and on the comforting familiarity that they trigger. If you’ve ever spent vast sums of money on Disney theme-park entry, you already know this. Every night, there’s big, spectacular fireworks display set to those Disney songs, and that spectacle draws a ton of its power from the instant dopamine-squirt that so many of us feel when something like “Part Of Your World” hits. In recent years, Disney has made piles of money by recycling its own movies, redoing them as CGI-heavy quasi-live-action spectacles. In those remakes, Disney always leaves the songs intact. They have to. Those stories might be based on kids’ books or old folk tales, but Disney has essentially made it impossible to imagine experiencing those stories without the songs attached.

But considering just how vastly lucrative the Disney songbook has historically been, those Disney songs haven’t always made much noise on the pop charts. Songs from those cartoon musicals have charted, and they’ve sometimes charted high. But right now, as I’m writing this, only one song from a Disney movie has ever gone all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. (That’s likely to change very soon; more on that later.) Disney’s sole chart-topper is “A Whole New World,” and it’s not the version of “A Whole New World” that every kid knows.

1992’s Aladdin was a monster smash. It was the year’s biggest box office hit, earning more than $200 million in the US and more than $500 million worldwide, eclipsing competition like Home Alone 2: Lost In New York and Batman Returns. (Since then, it’s probably made untold billions for Disney, thanks to toys and spinoffs and stage adaptations and everything else.) Aladdin arrived early in the fabled Disney Renaissance, the string of hugely successful animated movies that started with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and lasted the better part of a decade. A lot of factors went into that Disney boom, but one of the key catalysts for the Renaissance was Disney’s decision to recruit two rising stars from the world of New York musical theater.

The team of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman first met up in theater workshops in the late ’70s, and they first worked together on a 1979 off-Broadway adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. In 1982, Menken and Ashman co-wrote Little Shop Of Horrors, a stage version of an old Roger Corman comedy-horror flick. The two of them clearly loved ’60s pop music, and they brought a ton of that sound to their story about a carnivorous alien plant and about the hapless dweeb who feeds it blood. Little Shop Of Horrors was a sensation that ran for years and broke records to become the highest-grossing off-Broadway show ever. Little Shop moved to London’s West End in 1983, and in 1986, it became a really great Frank Oz movie, with Rick Moranis as the hapless dweeb Seymour and the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs as the voice of the plant-monster Audrey II.

The Little Shop Of Horrors movie wasn’t a big hit, but it got Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman an Oscar nomination, and it convinced Disney to hire them. Menken and Ashman wrote all the songs for The Little Mermaid, essentially changing the in-progress film into an animated version of a Broadway musical. That approach paid off. The Little Mermaid was a huge hit, the first true cartoon blockbuster. The soundtrack album went platinum six times over. Menken and Ashman won the Best Original Song Oscar for “Under The Sea,” and Menken won another Oscar for writing the score. But despite how omnipresent those Little Mermaid songs were, none of them made the pop charts.

Maybe Disney wasn’t used to competing in the pop arena. Maybe the studio didn’t give proper promotional pushes to those Little Mermaid songs, or maybe radio simply didn’t want to play songs that were written specifically for kids. Whatever the case, Disney changed its strategy for its next big animated movie. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman also wrote the songs for 1991’s Beauty And The Beast, an even bigger hit than The Little Mermaid. Partly in an effort to avoid Oscar-voter confusion and to put all its promotional might behind one song from the soundtrack, Disney decided to make a sophisticated adult-pop version of the movie’s title song.

Disney brought in the Mariah Carey/Michael Bolton collaborator Walter Afanasieff to produce a gloopy take on “Beauty And The Beast.” Rather than hiring actual pop stars to sing it, Disney recruited relative newcomer Celine Dion, a singer who will eventually appear in this column, and quiet storm journeyman Peabo Bryson. The ploy worked. “Beauty And The Beast” won Best Original Song, and Menken won yet another Oscar for the score. That Dion/Bryson take on “Beauty And The Beast” also became a pop hit, peaking at #9. (It’s a 6.)

When he made “Beauty And The Beast,” Peabo Bryson was a veteran mid-level act who already had a long career behind him. Bryson, a South Carolina native, started singing in clubs as a teenager, and he signed with Bang Records, the Atlanta soul indie, in the ‘70s. Bryson released “Disco Queen,” his debut single, in 1975. Later that same year, he made the Hot 100 for the first time, singing lead on the Michael Zager Band’s club track “Do It With Feeling.” (It peaked at #96.) After a couple of years, Bryson moved from Bang to Columbia, and he started to find a national audience for his lush, sensual ballads. Bryson’s 1978 Columbia debut Reaching For The Sky went gold, and its title track was a top-10 R&B hit that didn’t cross over to the Hot 100.

For a few years, that was how things went for Peabo Bryson. He had a dedicated R&B audience, but he didn’t make the pop charts. That changed in 1981, when “Lovers After All,” a duet with the adult contemporary singer Melissa Manchester, peaked at #54. By that time, Bryson had already carved out a lane as a singer of romantic duets. He’d recorded with Natalie Cole and Minnie Riperton. Bryson made a whole duets album with Roberta Flack in 1983. Their single “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love” made it to #16.

In 1984, Peabo Bryson made the top 10 for the first time. “If You’re Ever In My Arms Again” is a pretty typical example of that era’s slick, upwardly mobile R&B. Michael Masser produced and co-wrote the song, and a not-yet-famous Richard Marx sang backing vocals. The song peaked at #10. (It’s a 5.) Until “Beauty And The Beast,” that was Peabo Bryson’s only top-10 hit. He had a solid career crafting these sleepy, reassuring romantic ballads, but he wasn’t exactly a star. On “Beauty And The Beast,” as on so many of these other songs, Bryson understands exactly what he has to do, and he hits all his notes, but he doesn’t exactly radiate personality.

When Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote those Beauty And The Beast songs, Ashman was already working on his dream project, a musical version of the Aladdin story. Ashman did not get a chance to see it through. Ashman died of AIDS in 1991, at the age of 40. He didn’t live to see the release of Beauty And The Beast. Menken was heartbroken at the loss of his creative partner, but he kept working on Aladdin, and Disney — while scrapping some of the songs that Ashman had finished — brought in a ringer to finish the movie.

The British lyricist Tim Rice had started writing musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber in the late ’60s, and they had tremendous success together. Starting in 1968, Rice and Webber wrote Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita. Eventually, Rice broke into the pop arena, too. He co-wrote “All Time High,” Rita Coolidge’s theme for the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy, which peaked at #36. A year later, Rice teamed up with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, fresh from the breakup of ABBA, to write Chess, a concept album that would later become a stage musical. The Chess album featured “One Night In Bangkok,” a synthpop track that was quasi-rapped by the stage actor Murray Head, and that song peaked at #3. (It’s an 8.)

While discussing a possible movie version of Evita, Tim Rice told Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg that he really wanted to write for the movies. Katzenberg asked who Rice would want to write with, and Rice mentioned Elton John. Before Tim Rice and Elton John got started working together on songs for a new movie called The Lion King, Howard Ashman died, and the people at Disney asked Rice to write songs with Alan Menken. Menken and Rice decided that Aladdin needed a big ballad, and together, they wrote “A Whole New World,” tinkering with the track until it fit the needs of Aladdin directors John Musker and Ron Clements. Brad Kane and Lea Salonga, the two young musical-theater singers who played the singing voices of Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, sang the version of “A Whole New World” that worked as the centerpiece for the movie.

In the context of Aladdin itself, “A Whole New World” is an absolute fucking banger. In the movie, Aladdin and Jasmine are two kids who feel trapped — Aladdin by poverty, Jasmine by expectation. Aladdin uses his first genie wish and to transform into a prince, which gives him a chance to get close to Jasmine. Together, the two of them find escape in each other. They sing “A Whole New World” while riding a magic carpet all around the planet, seeing the sights. When they’re together, they feel like anything is possible, and so everything unfurls in front of them. Menken’s music, all weightless strings, gives their optimism a sweeping majesty.

“A Whole New World” just works, and part of the reason that it works is that Brad Kane and Lea Salonga are kids. It’s a song about being young and in love, discovering feelings that you didn’t know you could have, and those voices convey that. Salonga, in particular, just kills it: “Unbel-eee-vable sights! Indes-cryyyy-bable feeeeel-ings!” To me, it’s absolutely perverse that Disney needed to bring in adults to sing this song so that it could get radio play. But that was the game, and Disney played it. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Tim Rice says, “They were trying to get people like Barbra Streisand and George Michael. I was so glad in the end none of those people wanted to do it because we got two singers who weren’t automatic #1s. Imagine if it was Barbra Streisand and George Michael, you’d say yes, it was #1 because it was them.” (Let the record show that George Michael would’ve bodied that shit.)

Peabo Bryson had already sung “Beauty And The Beast,” so he was in. Bryson had previously recorded with duet partner Regina Belle. Belle was 12 years younger than Bryson, and she got her start much later. (When Belle was born, the #1 song in America was the Essex’s “Easier Said Than Done.”) Belle came from New Jersey, and she started singing in her uncle’s church. She studied jazz vocals at Rutgers, and she found a gig as an opener for previous Number Ones artists the Manhattans. A guest spot on the Manhattans’ 1986 single “Where Did We Go Wrong” won Belle a deal with Columbia.

Regina Belle’s debut single, 1987’s “Show Me The Way,” was a #2 R&B hit that made it to #68 on the Hot 100. Later that same year, Belle teamed up with Peabo Bryson for “Without You,” a duet that Lamont Dozier wrote for the Bill Cosby movie Leonard Part 6. It became Belle’s second Hot 100 hit, peaking at #89. Belle and Bryson made a natural pair. They’re both smooth singers of crushed-velvet adult-contempo love songs, and neither of them ever got too intense about anything.

Like Peabo Bryson, Regina Belle was a big presence on the R&B charts who didn’t often cross over. Before “A Whole New World,” Belle’s biggest single was 1989’s “Make It Like It Was,” an R&B chart-topper that didn’t get any higher than #43 on the Hot 100. In retrospect, it’s a little bit wild that Disney tapped Regina Belle for “A Whole New World” but not for “Beauty And The Beast.” She was literally named Belle.

Just as he’d done for “Beauty And The Beast,” Walter Afanasieff produced the pop version of “A Whole New World.” His version of the song takes away all the orchestral swoops of the movie version, replacing them with echo-slathered keyboard chimes and with what sounds like a piano drowning in honey. He changes it into standard-issue early-’90s adult-contempo pop. The Afanasieff-produced version of “A Whole New World” was clearly built to work on the radio, alongside all the other big hits of the day. It fit plenty of trends. “A Whole New World” was the fifth straight soundtrack ballad to hit #1 on the Hot 100, and it was the third consecutive #1 hit to feature session whiz Michael Landau on guitar. With his version of “A Whole New World,” Afanasieff essentially transforms a lovely cartoon jam into replacement-level hold-music sludge. The bones of the melody remain, but the spirit is gone. Every one of Afanasieff’s production decisions actively pisses me off.

Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle sing “A Whole New World” with gloss and dignity. They’re both masters of smoothed-out soul, and they know when to hold back and when to let loose with the melisma. Their voices sound nice together, easy and textured. But they also sound like adults, which completely negates the dazzled, starry-eyed feeling of the song. Forty-one-year-old Peabo Bryson sounds like he’s already seen the world, and he’s not going to convince me that he’s that excited for the prospect of a whole new one. Other than the great central melody, my favorite thing about the Bryson/Belle version of “A Whole New World” is the video, in which Bryson and Belle look like they’re parents all dressed up for a night out even though they’re on a cheap desert set.

At least in theory, it’s cool that Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle, two pros who operated on the outskirts of the pop charts for years, finally got a #1 hit. But their version of “A Whole New World” isn’t the one that anyone remembers. A few weeks after “A Whole New World” hit #1, the track won Best Original Song at the Oscars, beating another Aladdin number and two Whitney Houston songs from the world-conquering Bodyguard soundtrack. Menken won Best Original Score once again, too. At the ceremony, though, it wasn’t Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle singing the song. It was Brad Kane and Lea Salonga, giving a winning performance even though they were on an elaborate and goofy-as-hell fake Middle Eastern set. (This might be a good place to point out that it was wack for Disney to make Aladdin without a single Middle Eastern voice actor.)

Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle didn’t make any more huge hits after “A Whole New World.” Later in 1993, Bryson got to #25 with the Kenny G collaboration “By The Time The Night Is Over,” and that was his last time on the Hot 100. Soon afterwards, Regina Belle made it to #53 with her song “If I Could,” and that was her last time on the Hot 100. For both singers, “A Whole New World” was mostly just an unpredictable career detour.

Both Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle have had health problems in recent years. Belle survived a brain tumor in 2009, and Bryson recovered from a heart attack in 2019. Bryson also had some tax troubles, and the IRS seized and auctioned off a bunch of his property, including his two Grammys, in 2003. But Bryson and Belle are both still recording and still playing shows. They’ve kept their audience.

Alan Menken and Tim Rice kept working with Disney, and they both eventually became full EGOT winners. The Lion King soundtrack, which Rice wrote with Elton John, came out in 1994, the same year that Rice was knighted. The Lion King replaced Aladdin as the highest-grossing animated film of all time, and the soundtrack went diamond. Elton John’s version of the Lion King song “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” peaked at #4. (It’s an 8.)

For a long time, Disney kept up its practice of hiring singers to do pop versions of the songs from the studio’s animated musicals. In recent years, though, that seems to be falling away. The 2013 blockbuster Frozen, for instance, had Demi Lovato singing an end-credits version of the big ballad “Let It Go,” and their take on the song reached #38. But the version of “Let It Go” that became a true smash was the one that the Broadway singer Idina Menzel actually sang in the movie. This makes sense. This is as it should be. Menzel’s version of “Let It Go” is the one that actually connects with the narrative of this movie, not the one that feels like a corporate pander move. Menzel’s “Let It Go” lapped Demi Lovato, and it peaked at #5. (It’s a 9.)

Right now, as I write this, a song from the most recent Disney musical sits at #2 on the Hot 100. That song wasn’t immediately identified as a single, and it’s not the song from the movie that Disney submitted for Oscar consideration. There’s no pop version of the song, and it’s not a standard swooping ballad. It’s a weirder, more anarchic number, but it’s gone extremely viral, and it’s become a kid-culture anthem. My kids are nine and 12, and this song is one of the few things upon which they can agree. It gets a lot of burn in our car. In recent weeks, this song has been racing up the Hot 100. Later today, Billboard will unveil the latest Hot 100 chart, and there is a very good chance that this song will finally knock off a long-reigning ballad and join “A Whole New World” as the second Disney song to reach #1. We won’t talk about that song yet, though. Maybe later.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Near the end of their 2003 track “Driz Hollering,” one of the members of the Philadelphia joke-rap group Plastic Little suddenly breaks into “A Whole New World.” Here it is:

(Plastic Little never made a Hot 100 hit, but they’ll eventually appear in this column in sampled form.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from Maria Bamford’s 2007 stand-up album How To WIN! where she demonstrates the insidious power of pop music by singing evil lyrics to the tune of “A Whole New World”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2005, a grown-up Brad Kane and Lea Salonga reunited to sing “A Whole New World” on Good Morning America, with Alan Menken backing them up on piano. It was nice. Here’s that:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the late mutant-dance producer SOPHIE interpolating “A Whole New World” on her 2018 track “Whole New World/Pretend World”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2019, Aladdin got its inevitable pointless remake, a “live-action” version that was so CGI-dominated that it might as well have been animated. The director, implausibly enough, was British gangster-movie specialist Guy Ritchie, while Will Smith, a man who will eventually appear in this column, got himself painted blue to play Robin Williams’ genie role. Here’s the scene where Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott sing “A Whole New World”:

That 2019 Aladdin remake also included its own end-credits pop version of “A Whole New World.” This time, Zayn and Zhavia Ward sang the duet. It did not chart. Here’s the video:

(Zhavia Ward has never been on the Hot 100 as a lead artist, but she did get to #78 with the 2019 Diplo/French Montana/Lil Pump collab “Welcome To The Party.” Zayn will eventually appear in this column.)

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