With a truly unique vocal instrument that is both sweet and soulful, both effervescent and serene, Deniece Williams (or 'Niecy', as fans affectionately call her) has made her mark in the R&B, pop, gospel, jazz, adult contemporary, and dance fields more than a few times over the last 30-plus years. And deservedly so. The singer-songwriter-producer's output is consistently meaningful: lyrically, musically, and vocally. Whether it be the down-to-earth desperation of 1976's perennial "Free," or the inspiring, emotion-wringing spirit of 1984's "Black Butterfly"; or the tell-it-like-it-is narrative of 1996's "Fallen Angel," Niecy's contributions to the world of music are timeless.
Born June Deniece Chandler June 3, 1951 in Gary, Indiana, Niecy grew up listening to the likes of Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, Minnie Riperton, Patti LaBelle, and her own mother. Her flexible upper range is a fine balance of Riperton's ethereal, floating soprano and LaBelle's fiery phrasing; and nuances of McRae's fine diction can also be found. But 'The Songbird' herself has said that when she listens to her own recordings, the influence she hears most is that of her mother.
The idea of taking these influences and making them her own in a professional outlet was the last thing on Niecy's mind during her younger childhood. In her strict Pentecostal upbringing, the idea of pursuing a secular music career was seen as sinful. But God must have seen the good Niecy was out to do, as she ended up in recording studios by her teenage years, cutting sides for Chicago's Toddlin' Town and Lock labels in the late 60's. But the records failed to make much impact, and Niecy set her sights on more modest ambitions. Having worked as a candy striper at a Chicago hospital alongside her mom, she planned on becoming a nurse.
Unexpectedly, Niecy's cousin John Harris came through with a much-needed break. Working as a valet for Stevie Wonder, Harris told Niecy he could get her an audition with 'The Genius.' She didn't believe him, but six months later she was in Detroit singing the standard "Teach Me Tonight" for Wonder - and within what seemed like minutes she was one of the three members of Wonderlove, touring the country for three consecutive years (1972-1975). It was a saving grace, as she was failing college; but it was also a trying adjustment. Niecy had two young sons (four months and 18 months) when she took the gig, and balancing a rigorous road schedule with parenting was no easy feat. As if that wasn't enough of a work load, 'The Songbird' was also lending her pipes to a number of now-classic album sessions, among them idol Minnie Riperton's "Perfect Angel," Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love," and Esther Phillips' "Performance."
Niecy came out of these experiences all the more stronger and prepared for her own solo career. Both the song "Free" (co-written with fellow Wonderlove member and then-future Supreme Susaye Greene) and her ensuing work with Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White signified her coming out of a period of feeling artistically caged. Music lovers responded well, as "Free" became her debut Columbia single, peaking at #2 on the R&B chart in early 1977. The glowing album from which it was taken, "This Is Niecy", also saw two other singles chart. Though she has said that Maurice's approach to music and business was nearly opposite of what she was used to with Wonder, the artistic output was not hindered: Niecy's golden tones and White's astute production proved a natural match. All the while, she continued session work and also used her pen to good effect on "How Did I Know That Love Would Slip Away," a track on the Emotions' "Rejoice" LP.
Following the success of "This Is Niecy" came 1977's "Songbird." Another hit single, "Baby, Baby My Love' All for You" cracked the R&B top 15; while the mellow "Season" was also released, it was quickly overshadowed by the almost immediate release of "That's What Friends Are For," Niecy's landmark duet album with veteran Johnny Mathis. This included the #1 R&B and Pop classic "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" and a top-10 R&B remake of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "You're All I Need to Get By." Working alongside Mathis, Niecy graduated from stadiums and arenas to playing command performances for royalty. The crossover success she achieved opened new options in the studio, too. For 1979's "When Love Comes Calling "(her first on Maurice White's newly-formed ARC label), she worked with blossoming producers like David Foster and Ray Parker, Jr. And this time out, she scored big on the dance/disco charts with the bouncy "I've Got the Next Dance" and "I Found Love."
At the dawn of the 1980s, Niecy began working with legendary Philly Soul master Thom Bell on "My Melody," released in spring 1981. Her most delightful album yet, "My Melody" boasted pensive ballads such as the angelic, sincere "Silly," "It's Your Conscience," and the deeply moving "You're All That Matters" along with strong mid-tempo selections like "Strangers" and "Suspicious." Niecy's personal involvement truly shined through on the project, since she co-wrote all the material. Working with Bell broadened her musical horizons, as she has stated that he walked out of the recording studio at one point, forcing her to direct the string section on "Silly" unassisted. And the soulful energies were definitely flowing well, evidenced by the duo's re- pairing in 1982 for the aptly titled "Niecy" album. For this session, Niecy brought one of her favorite childhood songs to the selection table, The Royalettes' 1965 pop and soul hit "It's Gonna Take a Miracle." 'The Songbird's recording surpassed the original in popularity, scoring #1 R&B and #10 Pop. Besides "Miracle," Niecy again co-wrote all of the material on the album. In between studio time, she also managed to put together a groundbreaking gospel show with Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey called "Jesus at the Roxy," held at none other than the famed Hollywood nightclub.
Next up, Niecy partnered with jazz man George Duke for 1983's "I'm So Proud," which boasted another fine remake in the form of the title track, a heartfelt reading of The Impressions' 1964 hit; as well as the lively "Do What You Feel." Shortly after, she was asked to record "Let's Hear It for the Boy" for the blockbuster movie "Footloose." Initially, Duke found it to be too 'pop-flavored'; but upon release, it reached #1 on both the R&B and Pop charts, going platinum. The follow-up singles - the tropical-toned "Next Love" and the very spiritual, personal "Black Butterfly" - once again demonstrated Niecy's stylistic and musical flexibility. And continuing her involvement behind the tracks, she produced most of the "Let's Hear It for the Boy" LP herself.
Though it would have been easy to capitalize on the mainstream explosion of "Let's Hear It for the Boy," Niecy followed her heart and returned to the music she grew up on, gospel. Columbia was not willing to take the commercial gamble, but allowed her to move to Sparrow to record 1985's "So Glad I Know," which garnered Niecy two Grammy Awards. She had always included a gospel song on each album, but "So Glad I Know" showed her prowess in the spirit more fully.
Back on Columbia, in 1986 she recorded the underrated "Hot on the Trail," which meshed a world-conscious message with clever pop and R&B grooves on songs like "Video" "Wiser and "Weaker." Less than a year later, she delivered "Water Under the Bridge," which included the Top 10 hit "Never Say Never" and yet another Grammy winner in the gospel track "I Believe in You." 'The Songbird' recorded her final album for Columbia in 1988 with "As Good As It Gets," boasting the upbeat, Top10 single "I Can't Wait" and a number of unforgettable ballads like the title cut and "Memories." She closed out quite a prosperous decade with 1989's gospel outing "Special Love," her second set for Sparrow.
In the 1990s, Niecy spread her wings even further. In 1991, she released a religious children's album, "Lullabies to Dreamland." With a desire to spend more time her children, things were understandably quiet on the music front for a while. She started her own publishing company specifically for children's books. But Niecy finally returned to music in 1996 with "Love Solves It All," her first R&B effort in eight years.
Unfortunately, the London-based Upstage Records and its U.S. distributor P.A.R. didn't have the funds to pump a lot of promotion into the project, and it seemed to go unnoticed. But the set is definitely worth seeking out. Containing highly melodic, vocally picturesque tunes such as "Fallen Angel," and "Love Don't Even Live Here No More," the funky groove "One More Kiss" and a beautiful a cappella reading of "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," the album found Niecy blending the old with the new. In 1998, she released her third gospel album, "This Is My Song," a balanced offering of traditional hymns and hip-hop-edged originals. The versatility of these recent efforts is testament that 'The Songbird' never stops growing.
Discography Deniece Chandler - Singles (ca. 1966/67): I Don't Wanna Cry/Goodbye, Cruel World (Toddlin' Town) Shy Boy/Come on Home to Me Baby (Toddlin' Town) Hey Baby/Glorious Feeling (with Lee Sain) (Toddlin' Town) Love Is Tears/I'm Walking Away (Lock) Mama I Wish I'd Stayed Home/I'd Believe Him (Lock)
Deniece Williams (All albums on Columbia unless noted) This Is Niecy (1976) Songbird (1977) Deniece Williams & Johnny Mathis: That's What Friends Are For (1978) When Love Comes Calling (ARC/Columbia) (1979) My Melody (ARC/Columbia) (1981) Niecy (ARC/Columbia) (1982) I'm So Proud (1983) Let's Hear It for the Boy (1984) So Glad I Know (Sparrow) (1985) Hot on the Trail (1986) Water Under the Bridge (1987) As Good as It Gets (1988) Special Love (Sparrow/MCA) (1989) Lullabies to Dreamland (Word/Epic) (1991) Love Solves It All (Upstage/P.A.R.) (1996) This Is My Song (Harmony) (1998)
Collections: Change the World (CBS Special Products) (1990) From the Beginning (Sparrow) (1991) Greatest Gospel Hits (Sparrow) (1994) Gonna Take a Miracle: The Best of (Legacy/Columbia) (1996) The Best of Deniece Williams: Gonna Take... Love Songs (Sony) (2000)
Lead Vocal Appearances on: Michael Zager Band: Zager (1980) (re-released on Varese Sarabande CD collection "Let's All Chant: The Michael Zager Dance Collection, 1997) (track:"Time Heals Every Wound") Various Artists: In Harmony 2 (1981) (Duet with Lou Rawls on "Owl and the Pussycat") Philip Bailey: Continuation (1983) ("It' Our Time") Johnny Mathis: Simple (1984 Columbia LP; duet on "Love Won't Let Me Wait") Spyro Gyra: Love & Other Obsessions (GRP) (1995)
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.