Random Tracks: Celine Dion & Peabo Bryson’s “Beauty and the Beast”

In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958.

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Celine Dion & Peabo Bryson- “Beauty And The Beast”

PEAK: #9 on April 18, 1992

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Vanessa Williams’ “Save The Best For Last

When the nominations were announced for the 64th Academy Awards, it must have been a big celebration at Disney. The studio was already enjoying a pretty great 1991 thanks to their latest animated film Beauty and the Beast, the second of Disney’s now highly regarded Renaissance period of animated films. The film grossed $145 million in the US for the year making it the #3 film of 1991 behind Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. At the Oscars, Beauty and the Beast made history as the first animated film to be nominated for the coveted Best Picture prize. (It would lose to The Silence of the Lambs.) 

On top of that, Beauty and the Beast landed not one, not two, but three nominations for Best Original Song. Usually, that would be seen as a major honor but for Disney, it led to concern. With three of the five songs coming from the same film, there were worries that Academy voters would split their votes among the songs leading to a Disney loss to either “When You’re Alone” from Hook or the biggest hit song of 1991 with Bryan Adams’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves power ballad “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.” To avoid such an event, Disney decided to put its campaign behind one song which would be the title ballad instead of “Be Our Guest” or “Belle.” To ensure commercial success, the studio put together a radio friendlier version of that song with a veteran journeyman and an up and comer duetting together seeing the success Universal Pictures had in 1987 with “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail. Their plan wound up a success in more ways than one helping set the template not just for Disney to win at the Oscars but also to get over on the Hot 100.

“Beauty and the Beast,” the song, came from songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman who by this point were becoming hugely known and rewarded for their work with Disney. Mencken and Ashman had worked together in musical theater launching the off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors which later got adapted into the classic Frank Oz 1986 film. It was from that project when Disney hired the two of them to write the music for their newest fairy tale The Little Mermaid. A major success upon release, The Little Mermaid gave Mencken and Ashman a Best Original Song win for the film classic “Under The Sea.” When Disney needed help with its next fairy tale, there was no question on who was going to write the music.

The song was written as a simple ode to love and learning to accept each other’s differences. In the movie, “Beauty and the Beast” gets a big spot at the end playing in the famous ballroom dance scene between Belle and the Beast as they profess their love for each other. Singing the title song as Belle and the Beast dance is the character Mrs. Potts voiced by acting legend Angela Lansbury who in 1991 was a constant presence on TV as Jessica Fletcher on CBS’ Murder She Wrote, one of the Top 10 rated shows at the time. When given the song, Lansbury wasn’t initially too sure about it feeling like she was too old to deliver it in the right way but was encouraged to deliver it as best as she could. Lansbury wound up recording one take of “Beauty and the Beast” which reportedly moved everyone in the studio to tears and wound up being the take used in the movie. 

In getting the song onto the radio and the charts, Disney knew they needed to change up the arrangement and performers. The Little Mermaid soundtrack managed to sell six million copies but none of its songs even “Under The Sea” made the Hot 100 in their original movie form. For as big as Angela Lansbury was at the time, at 66 she was definitely not going to be able to help “Beauty and the Beast” get over in the mainstream alongside the old style orchestration of the song. Paige O’Hara, the voice actor behind Belle, volunteered to sing the pop version but Disney wanted a big-name singer. The only problem though is that Disney couldn’t afford a big-name singer.

Disney’s first pick for “Beauty and the Beast” was Celine Dion who to that point was a rising star in America after the release of her first English-language album Unison in 1990 which yielded her first major American hit, the #4 peaking “Where Does My Heart Beat Now.” (It’s a 5.) Even then, that wasn’t enough for Disney who felt Dion wouldn’t be big enough of a name to connect with audiences. To calm those fears, the studio decided to turn “Beauty and the Beast” into a duet bringing on Peabo Bryson, a singer who had been around longer but wasn’t exactly a big-name hitmaker. By 1991, Bryson was a regular hitmaker on the R&B charts but on the Hot 100 had only been in the Top 10 once with 1984’s #10 hit “If Ever You’re In My Arms Again.” (It’s also a 5.) But Bryson had been known to make duets with the likes of Natalie Cole and especially Roberta Flack so perhaps that history was what Disney felt would make Bryson a good fit with the up-and-coming Dion.

Brought in to produce and play was Walter Afanasieff who was enjoying big success in the early-‘90s producing hits for the likes of Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton. “Beauty and the Beast” wasn’t Afanasieff’s first involvement on a soundtrack as he had co-written and produced Gladys Knight’s 1989 Bond theme “License To Kill.” With his involvement, Afanasieff transforms “Beauty and the Beast” into standard early-‘90s adult contemporary gloop represented by the omnipresent Yamaha DX7 keyboard that carries the song to the little keyboard twinkles, the loud booming drums, and the programmed percussion sounds. Afanasieff succeeds in making “Beauty and the Beast” fit with everything else on the radio at the time but that doesn’t make it very memorable.

Considering Celine Dion was the one that would eventually become a major singing superstar, she’s the main reason to listen to “Beauty and the Beast” today in its pop version. Even by this point, Dion sounds very recognizable in the way we all recognize her now. Just her sheer star power alone elevates the song amid the forgettable production. Peabo Bryson on the other hand sings his parts fine enough but like lots of professional singers in his vein, he doesn’t have a lot of vocal personality to stand out. But my big issue here is the fact that “Beauty and the Beast” is a duet. The original movie version worked just fine as a solo showcase. There was no need for it to be a duet as it doesn’t structure itself for two singers to express differing viewpoints. All that magic and excitement from the movie version is gone like with most of these pop versions of Disney songs. Ultimately, this version sounds exactly like what it is, a corporate move made to get radio play.

At the 1992 Oscars, both the movie and pop versions of “Beauty and the Beast” were given showcases with Angela Lansbury coming out on stage first to perform. Soon after, the music transitions to the pop version with Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson coming out to sing before it ends with Lansbury coming back out to sing with Dion and Bryson. All of this happens as a man dressed as the Beast and a woman do a dance routine to the song.

When “Beauty and the Beast” won Best Original Song, Howard Ashman was not around to accept the award. Ashman had been diagnosed with AIDS and his health quickly deteriorated during the making of Beauty and the Beast eventually dying in March 1991 at the age of 40, eight months before the film’s release but survived long enough to see a test screening. Ashman’s loss was not lost on Alan Menken and his partner Bill Lauch accepting the award on Ashman’s behalf giving a touching tribute in his speech.

That Oscar win gave “Beauty and the Beast” the boost it needed on the Hot 100 getting to its #9 peak a few weeks after the ceremony after lingering in the Top 20. With that, the song achieved everything that Disney wanted. From there on, as Disney continued to release hit animated film after another, it would take what happened with “Beauty and the Beast” and apply it to those other movies. For the longest time, that method became a regular success until listeners had the means to rebel against it as we’re seeing now.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: If you want more gloop, here’s the cover of “Beauty and the Beast” that one-time #1 artist and clarinetist Acker Bilk released in 1998:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: After being rejected for the pop version, Paige O’Hara finally got to release her version of “Beauty and the Beast” in 1998. Here’s what her take sounds like:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the soft and tender acoustic version of “Beauty and the Beast” that one-time #1 artist Kenny Loggins released in 2000 for his hilariously titled album More Songs from Pooh Corner:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: For the 2007 fairy tale movie Enchanted, Alan Menken along with lyricist Stephen Schwartz wrote “So Close,” a song written in the style of “Beauty and the Beast” and in the movie plays during a dance scene that’s meant to invoke the famous ballroom scene from Beauty and the Beast. Here’s that scene:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: When it was time for Disney to make the inevitable live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast in 2017, they got Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts to sing “Beauty and the Beast” while Ariana Grande and John Legend recorded the new pop version of the song. Here’s the scene in the movie of Emma Thompson singing “Beauty and the Beast” over the live-action movie’s version of the ballroom scene:

And here’s the video for Ariana Grande and John Legend’s version of “Beauty and the Beast:”

(The Ariana Grande and John Legend “Beauty and the Beast” peaked at #87. Both Grande and Legend will eventually appear in The Ones of the ‘10s.)

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