Interview conducted in person in New York in September 1979
"David Nathan takes a look behind the public image of Deniece Williams and reveals other aspects of the songstress..."
WHAT YOU do know about Deniece Williams is that she's worked with Stevie Wonder as a member of Wonderlove; that she began her solo recording career in earnest in 1976 after submitting demos of some tunes she'd written to Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White; that her first album, This Is Niecy, went gold and gave her a No. 1 British pop hit with 'Free' and a follow up in a second successful album, Songbird; that her teaming with Johnny Mathis in early '78 produced an international hit single in 'Too Much, Too Little, Too Late' and an album that did equally well; that after a relatively quiet year, Niecy's been back on the charts with a hit disco single, 'I've Got The Next Dance' and a sparkling album When Love Comes Calling. You may also know if you've ever seen the lady on stage that she gives a great deal to her audiences both musically and in warmth as a person, indeed truly one of the nicest people in the music business.
What you may not know is that away from the spotlight, Deniece is a quiet, private person with two children whom she obviously devotes as much time as possible to being with. "Ken and Kevin are six and seven," Niecy noted during a lightning promotional visit to New York where her single was exploding as one of the year's biggest disco crossover records. "They've kinda grown up with me in the business and I have no hesitation in saying that they are a very intricate part of my life. Being a mother is certainly one of the things that keeps me working so hard. It's a responsibility and it's for that reason that you won't find me hanging out, partying too much when I'm at home."
Deniece recognizes that a show business career means she can't spend as much time as she sometimes might like with her children but "they realize that it's the quality of the time, not the quantity that's real important. Initially, I'd say from 76-77, it was an adjustment period for them – like I'd take the kids to school and people would ask for my autograph and maybe they didn't quite understand that. But now they're very proud of me and whatever I'm able to accomplish."
Deniece feels that it's very important to make sure her children "have the right values – they're very impressionable and it's important that they're taught properly. I try to spend as much time going to meetings at their school so I can learn more about what's happening with their education and I'm lucky having my mother to live with us so that when I'm away I know they're in safe hands."
Knowing that Deniece has a family seems to add another dimension to her as a person and she candidly confesses that "to begin with, I was told not to really even mention them. But they are so much a part of my life that to pretend they're not there is not giving people the proper perspective on me as a full person. Obviously, the kids are very, very important to me."
Both Kevin and Ken have every reason to be real proud of their mother right now, since she's continuing her highly successful recording career which has resulted in very healthy sales in over 15 countries now.
Talking about her latest release. Deniece has quite a few comments, "I guess people wonder about 'I've Got The Next Dance'. Well, yes, it's my first venture into the disco market but I felt that it was important for me to show that I'm an artist of variety, that I'm not just locked into one thing. I guess I'm pretty unpredictable as a person and that reflects in my music too. But I never want to just repeat the same old thing for people. I think it's real important to grow with music."
For her latest album, Deniece is using two new producers for her – her previous work came directly under the aegis of Maurice White. "I have an enormous amount of respect for Ray Parker Jr. (of Raydio) and working with him was a true pleasure. And David Foster and I hadn't known each other before so about half-way through the project I think we began to develop a proper understanding of each other." Deniece is credited with co-production on the album but she doesn't yet see herself taking full command. "I feel eventually I'll be in that position but right now, it's important to be able to get that feedback from someone else. Right now, it's enough being the artist and writing the tunes."
She admits that "initially, I felt some intimidation coming into the business as a woman with creative ideas but you must demand respect although I know it's still hard for some men to accept women working in roles such as producers. Once they realize you can deliver the goods though, it's a whole lot easier and I think you'll find more and more women gaining more control over what they do in the studios."
Coming off a huge hit with Johnny Mathis, there are those who feel that Deniece should have followed through with a big album herself but she insists "I wanted to wait until I had the right product. I'm a firm believer that everything happens in its time. The Johnny Mathis project was great for me – it opened new doors and helped me grow. I could have gone with an album on myself, which would have been less than what I wanted just to capitalize on it, but what would be the point? I feel I owe people a certain quality in recording and I'm not a papier mache person, I'm for real and I know what I want my music to be about! To me, my life, career and music are all wrapped up in one."
And how about those who wonder why the magical duo didn't tour together? "You should have seen Johnny's schedule at that time – you see, we didn't plan for a hit record like that! And he was booked right through to 1980 – so there wasn't any way we could have gone on the road together. "But working with Johnny was an incredible experience and I'm of course very grateful for it and for all it did for both of us. I just didn't want it to detract from my goals – it was like icing on the cake for me."
In talking about her latest album project, Deniece is very positive and enthusiastic. "I think it's a very good album! I'm very happy with all the songs too – we collaborated with some excellent people on there – people like Tennyson Stephens, Carole Bayer Sager, Allee Willis and David Foster. Plus, Fritz Baskett with whom I collaborated on songs on the first album – we did some more things together.
"I'd have to say my own favourites are 'Touch Me Again' which we cut 'live' with just the piano and 30 strings, the way the big stars used to cut – people like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and so on used to do, and 'Why Can't We Fall In Love' which Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster had begun working on and never quite finished – they just asked me if I could help finish it off and the song is the result. But overall, I like everything on the album and I think it reflects exactly how I felt when we did it – very positive, very warm and very light."
Deniece feels that her music is a reflection "of what I'm all about. I don't feel that there's any sense of vulnerability in writing and expressing what you really feel. A song like 'The Paper' on my last album – that was about situations that I knew about. I don't feel that being in the public eye means that I must give up my privacy but I don't feel I have to hide what I want to say either. You see, I sat down with myself earlier in the year and had a good talk with Niecy! I think I've shed a lot of old skin and grown a lot during this last year. My life seems to go in cycles of three – it's been three years since I signed with CBS and Kalimba and I think of each new cycle as a different era for me. And this one looks real good! It's gotten off to a great start plus I feel that there are just so many things for me to learn this year."
Someone who considers herself, in spite of it all, "something of a loner – I like to sit and talk with people, learn, communicate, but still spend time by myself too", Deniece says that "being 'famous' is secondary to me. I feel very blessed that I've been given the chance to communicate with so many people – it's a great feeling." Deniece confesses that she enjoys "the simple things in life – music is a part of it but it's not all there is. Looking after my children, my home, being healthy and happy – those things are important to me."
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.