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.
Vanessa Williams- “Colors of the Wind”
PEAK: #4 on August 26, 1995
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose”
In his Number Ones review on Vanessa Williams 1992 #1 “Save The Best For Last,” Stereogum’s Tom Breihan dubbed it as “Disney-princess music” remarking it was well within Williams’ comfort zone as a singer. He’s right about that. With its sugary ballad production filled with huge sounding orchestra, glossy piano, and Spanish guitar, it sounds exactly like the type of music that would have gotten played in one of the Disney Renaissance fairy tale movies coming out at the time. A few years later, when Disney needed a singer to record the pop version of their ballad from their movie about a princess based on a famous Native American figure, it seemed like a no brainer to get Vanessa Williams to sing it.
After Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, Alan Menken found a new songwriting partner for Pocahontas in lyricist Stephen Schwartz, another veteran of musical theater. A Long Island native, Schwartz studied music at the Juilliard School of Music as well as drama at Carnegie Mellon University. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon, Schwartz quickly found work as an A&R producer at RCA Records before moving to Broadway where he would have his breakthrough as the composer and lyricist for Godspell, the biblical musical that premiered off-Broadway in 1971 before getting adapted into a 1973 movie and moving to Broadway in 1976. One of the Godspell songs Schwartz wrote, “Day By Day,” became a moderate chart hit peaking on the Hot 100 at #13 in the summer of ’72.
For a while in the ‘70s, Schwartz had three of his plays- Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show– playing on Broadway. But eventually, things fell apart when a couple of his musicals in the late-‘70s, The Baker’s Wife and Working, flopped on Broadway. Even a return to Broadway in the ‘80s with Rags didn’t take off. During much of the ‘80s into the early-‘90s, Schwartz wasn’t very active outside from producing some children’s programs on PBS and moving to London where he wrote and premiered Children of Eden, another biblical musical based on the book of Genesis. For a while, Schwartz even quit theater entirely enrolling at New York University to study psychology before Disney called him to write songs for their new Native American-themed movie.
Before his 1991 death, Howard Ashman was planning to write the songs for Pocahontas with Alan Menken after working on Aladdin. But when Ashman died, Tim Rice was brought in to complete Aladdin with Menken. There were plans for Rice and Menken to continue working together but the two didn’t get along that well so when Rice went off to write The Lion King with Elton John, Menken was paired with the more friendlier Schwartz, someone who hadn’t written for film before.
To prepare for Pocahontas, Schwartz studied Native American culture as inspiration for the songs including an 1854 speech often attributed to Chief Seattle, leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes in what is today Washington state. The speech touched on Native American land rights and protecting their natural environment but it wouldn’t be publicized until about 25 years after and today its authenticity is heavily disputed. I’m guessing Chief Seattle’s speech wasn’t yet debunked in the ‘90s since Schwartz wound up using part of the speech as inspiration for “Colors of the Wind,” the first song written for Pocahontas.
“Colors of the Wind” is, going from the clip in the film, Pocahontas (Judy Kuhn) singing to Captain John Smith about respecting her land and appreciating its nature. Pocahontas also confronts Smith about how he and other white European explorers view the whole Earth as something they can claim without respecting the Native population and that she and the Natives know their land best. While the lyrics are certainly admirable, to me some of it comes across like Schwartz trying to be poetic and in the process not knowing what he’s writing like making up a “blue corn moon” and the main title line “Can you paint with all the colors of the wind” which doesn’t make sense as the wind doesn’t have colors. The lyrics are a big departure for a mainstream Disney ballad which are usually love or empowerment songs that are vague enough to work outside the movie. Musically, the song doesn’t sound much like it came from Native American culture but instead has all the majestic swells you expect from a Disney ballad.
By 1995, Vanessa Williams was three years out from her #1 hit but she was still doing alright for herself getting past her previous image as the first Black Miss America who resigned due to a nude photo scandal. Thanks to the success of “Save The Best For Last,” her 1991 album The Comfort Zone went triple platinum but it didn’t exactly lead to more pop chart success. In the three years in between, Williams landed in the Top 10 only one other time in 1993 with “Love Is,” a tender ballad duet with Brian McKnight cut for the soundtrack of the hit teen drama Beverly Hills 90210. (“Love Is” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.) From there, things started to falter as her 1994 album The Sweetest Days only peaked at #54 with its lead single title track peaking at #18.
While lyrically, “Colors of the Wind” is a departure from most Disney ballads, musically it’s about as obvious as you can get. For the pop version, “Save the Best For Last” producer Keith Thomas produces the song with Robbie Buchanan, a man so obscure he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. Thomas and Buchanan play on the song alongside other session players like veteran guitarist Dann Huff who’d go on to produce a few songs on Taylor Swift’s original Red album, Native American artist Bill Miller who plays the flute, and the Nashville String Machine orchestra. Altogether, the song sounds like earlier Disney ballads “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Whole New World” with its reliance on the gloopy Yamaha DX7 keyboard, woodblock programming, loud drum fills, processed guitars, you know the drill. In the context of the 1995 pop charts, this must have sounded increasingly dated. Soundtrack ballads didn’t stop getting big but at this point were starting to move beyond this type of overdone schlock.
Thomas and Buchanan’s production is exactly the kind of dated sap that usually doesn’t excite me much but despite it I find myself liking it a bit. That’s mainly because of Vanessa Williams’ singing. Like on “Save The Best For Last,” Williams has this warm and intimate delivery that paired with the production makes the song feel inviting. She hits big notes but unlike other ‘90s balladeers like say Mariah Carey Williams doesn’t use her big notes to be showy. She doesn’t try to overpower the song by holding out her notes with melisma. Instead, Williams keeps her voice small while still in command of the song like an actor knowing her part. She may not have known what a blue corn moon is but she sings it like it’s something beautiful. It’s not enough to make the song fully exciting but good enough to make it fine enough.
Created alongside The Lion King, Pocahontas was seen by Disney as the big money maker as its top animators flocked to work on the film figuring The Lion King would not be a big hit. Ultimately, the opposite is what happened in a way. Pocahontas was still in the general sense of the term a big success beating The Lion King’s record for the biggest earning opening weekend but it didn’t exactly have the same staying power and cultural dominance that The Lion King had a year earlier. Critics were mixed and it wound up grossing $141 million domestically, more than half less than what The Lion King grossed. Still, for 1995, that was enough for Pocahontas to be the #4 movie at that year’s box office behind Toy Story, Batman Forever, and Apollo 13.
At the 1996 Oscars, “Colors of the Wind” was performed by Vanessa Williams amid a forest backdrop and dancers surrounding her. Also at the ceremony, the song won Best Original Song beating out some big competition like Bryan Adams’ #1 hit “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” from Don Juan DeMarco and Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got A Friend in Me” from Toy Story which is weird to think about today. Laurence Fishburne and Angela Basset, a couple of years after getting nominated for their portrayal of Ike and Tina Turner in the biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It, presented the award and in a weird touch, the male a cappella group Take 6 sings all the nominations. During his speech, Schwartz gave a special thanks to the “Native American poets and wisdom keepers” for inspiring his work on the song specifically shouting out Chief Seattle.
“Colors of the Wind” would turn out to be Vanessa Williams’ last major success in music. The Sweetest Days, now re-released with “Colors of the Wind” added on eventually went platinum but her next five albums wouldn’t make much impact. Even though Williams hasn’t put out music since 2009, she’s been doing well for herself as an actor in TV, movies, and stage starring alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger for instance in 1996’s Eraser. In recent decades, you probably know Williams more for her roles on TV’s Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives to the point where you often forget about Williams’ past as a singer.
After the success of “Colors of the Wind,” pop song covers from Disney movies would start to make less of an impact on the pop charts even as the movies continued to be big. It’d be almost two decades before another song from a Disney movie would make the Top 10. My best guess for this is people getting tired from these mostly inferior versions of songs they love in their original movie version. After all, by the time that next Disney movie song hit the Top 10, it wasn’t in its pop version but the version you hear in the movie. And thanks to changes in the way Billboard measures a song’s popularity, listeners could now decide what version they wanted to make big.
BONUS BEATS: For the 2007 compilation album Disneymania 5, Vanessa Hudgens, in the midst of her High School Musical success, recorded a cover of “Colors of the Wind.” Here’s her version:
(Vanessa Hudgens’ highest-charting single, the 2006 High School Musical cut “Breaking Free,” peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “Colors of the Wind” that Brian Wilson released in 2011:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “Colors of the Wind” that Tori Kelly recorded for the 2015 compilation We Love Disney:
(Tori Kelly’s highest-charting single is 2015’s “Should’ve Been Us” which peaked at #51.)