EXCLUSIVE! A Conversation with the Legendary Deniece Williams

EXCLUSIVE!  A Conversation with the Legendary Deniece Williams

By Michael P Coleman

Beginning with her initial smash, the gorgeous, ethereal “Free,” Deniece Williams’ girlish, multi-octave voice enchanted R & B and pop music fans.  More often than not, she casted that spell from the very top of the charts.

Williams’ piercing, rafter-raising voice almost defied description.  She started her professional career singing background for Stevie Wonder, having gone to an audition in Detroit.  She showed up along with a few dozen other singers…but with no sheet music, and not having rehearsed anything to perform for the Motown legend. 

“Well, I will tell you: ‘green’ is the word to describe me that day,” Williams recalled during our EXCLUSIVE chat, with that trademark, still youthful giggle.  “I had no idea what the audition would be about, or details about what I should bring or anything. There were a couple of people who actually showed up with their keyboard players, and their music, and I showed up with just me.  I just felt so bad.” 

“So my turn comes up, and Stevie asked me what I wanted to do.  I was almost in tears as I said ‘I don’t know.’ He started to play a song, “Teach Me Tonight.” And he asked me if I knew it. I told him I didn’t, and he said “Well, I guess I’m teaching you tonight!’  He sung a line, and I sung after him, and I learned a little bit of the song.”

“A few weeks later, I found out that I’d been chosen as one of his new singers,” Williams continued.  “I was just flabbergasted because I was not professional at all like the rest of the people who’d auditioned.  He obviously saw something in me that I didn’t know I had.” 

album williams oneVery soon after that, the world got to see what Wonder saw:  Williams debut album, 1976’s This Is Niecy, was an instant smash. Soon afterward, Williams released what became the first #1 pop single of her career, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” one of her many magical duets with the incomparable Johnny Mathis. 

“We went into the studio, and I was a neophyte — I was just on my second project, and he’s a legend,” the 67 year old superstar recalled, of that first meeting with Mathis.  “I walked in there was such utter respect, and I was so scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen, or how he was going to be as a person.  He came over and gave me a hug, and he started singing some of my music. I was so blown away that he would know my music.” 

“He broke out some glasses, and we had wine, and we listened to the song, and then we went in and we sang it together,” Williams continued.  “It wasn’t like I did my part and he did his. We did it together and it just came out so beautifully.  He was the most humble, nicest, gentlemanly person I’ve ever met.”

If the leadership at her label, Columbia Records, had had their way, that duet would have never happened.  As hard as it may be to believe, they were moving to release Williams from her recording contract when Mathis’ team called and proposed the duet! 

“I had a song called “Watching Over” on that first album, and the second album had “God Is Amazing” on it,” Williams recalled.  “That’s when it hit the fan with Columbia.  They did not want me to put gospel music on my projects.  I told them that in order for people to get a full view for who I was musically, I had to include gospel music on my projects.  They complained that they’d invested money to build up a R & B / pop star, and I was putting “this Jesus stuff” on those albums.  If there were ten songs on an album, I didn’t see why we couldn’t give God one.”

Fans of Williams’ already know that “that Jesus stuff” of hers was the stuff of legends.  If you’ve not heard her live rendition of “God Is Amazing,” brace yourself.  But as we’re only now, in 2018, approaching a world where women in the entertainment arena are finding their voices and actually being heard, I wondered where Williams, still in her 20s, found the strength to tell her bosses at Columbia how things were going to be. 

Her answer to that question is as inspirational as the gospel songs she’s sung since she was a little girl. 

“My love and reverence for Jesus was much greater than my love and reverence for what they could give me,” Williams said.  “I knew that it was God who had put me in the music industry, because I never wanted to sing. I wanted to be a nurse. My grandmother and mother had been nurse’s aids, and I wanted to take it further and be a nurse.  I was the first black Candy Striper in the hospital in Chicago where my mom worked.”

williams mathis albumCan you believe that one?  Deniece Williams never wanted to sing!  For fans of R & B and pop, a world without her voice is unfathomable.  But as she faced losing her recording contract, she got the call that would change the course of Williams’ life and career…and send the suits at Columbia Records packing.

“By the time my second project came out,” Williams recalled, “Columbia was really trying to find a way to get rid of me and get me out of my contract.  As they were figuring out how to do that, I got the offer to record “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” with Johnny Mathis, and all of a sudden, Johnny and I had a #1 hit.”

“After that, they had to play nice,” Williams laughed. 

Williams’ career was white hot after that, with her enjoying hits like “Silly” and “Gonna Take A Miracle.”   Mention of her next #1 hit, “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” from the Footloose soundtrack, prompts other warm memories for Williams.  If it had been up to the song’s producer, veteran musician George Duke, Williams never would have recorded the song! 

“I still miss George, to this day,” Williams says of the late Duke.  “He was the nicest person, and one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. A big teddy bear!  He and I had just finished “Black Butterfly,” and I got a call offering “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” to me.  George and I drove over and listened to it, and he immediately said ‘We’re not doing that song.’”

“I loved it and heard a hit in it, but George insisted that we weren’t doing it,” Williams continued.  “So I went to his wife, Corinne.” 

I didn’t immediately get the connection between Williams’ professional work with Duke and the producer’s wife…but Williams soon drove the point home.

“They say the man is the head, but if that’s true, then the wife is the neck. And on occasion, she can turn that head any way she wants to,” Williams chuckled.  “She told me to leave it to her.  A week later, George and I are in the studio recording ‘Let’s Hear It For The Boy.’

That single’s multi-format success sent Williams’ career through the stratosphere, and as she’d done in the past, Williams used that platform to give praises to God.  After she’d been invited to perform on the Grammy Award broadcast that year, she opted not to sing her hit single, but to perform her original “God Is Amazing.”   During that broadcast, Williams pours her heart, soul, and all four octaves of her voice into a truly unforgettable performance.

“They only gave me a minute and a half, once I told them I wanted to sing in the gospel section of the show,” Williams recalls, “and they did it begrudgingly.  Columbia Records was complaining about my having had multiple Grammy nominations that year, but that I’d decided to sing gospel.” 

"I took the minute and a half and went out on that stage, and God did the rest,” she modestly said. 

Williams won the first of her many Grammys a few years later, for another gospel song, “I Believe In You.”  In fact, despite her tremendous success in the R & B and pop arenas, all of her Grammys have been in the gospel categories.  I asked her what, if anything, that said to her. 

“It says to me that I still haven’t gotten my Grammy for my R & B and pop music,” Williams exclaimed with a hearty laugh.  “But even more, it says that God honored me stepping out.  He honored the fact that I stepped out even when I could have pursued other things. I decided to honor God, and He honored me.”

Fans will be thrilled to learn that Williams is finishing her first-ever jazz album, and hopes to release it later this year.   We have just small glimpses of what Williams could do with a jazz song — “The Paper” from her Songbird album comes to mind — but I join fans worldwide in anticipation of her sinking her teeth into her album of jazz originals and classics.  I suggested that she call the new album Teach Me Tonight, and encouraged her to record the song that Stevie Wonder had taught her all of those years ago, as she started her career. 

“I have never recorded ‘Teach Me Tonight,’ and I love that idea,” Williams said.  “I love that song!  I’ve got to put it on the list.  I think you’ve convinced me!” 

Maybe we can convince her to sing it in Oakland later this month.  Fans may be happy — and shocked — to hear that Williams will be performing her hits in Oakland in their original, glass-shattering keys. 

“I’ve heard changes in my voice, over the years,” Williams confided.  “When I listen to This Is Niecy and a couple of other projects, I hear a little girl, I hear the innocence in my voice.  Now that my voice has matured, I hear a woman singing.  But I’m still singing most of my songs in the original keys. I know a lot of my peers do not sound like they used to sound, and that makes me even more grateful that God has been that gracious to me.” 

“We’re gonna have a lot of fun,” Williams concluded, in anticipation of her Oakland concerts.  “I always take the attitude that people are sitting in my living room, and we’re just conversing and talking with one another and hanging out, enjoying some great music and some funny stories.  It’s going to be an incredible time.” 

Information on Williams’ Oakland shows is available at yoshis.com.

 Connect with Sacramento-based freelancer Michael P Coleman at michaelpcoleman.com or follow him on Twitter:  @ColemanMichaelP.