Deniece Williams: Classic Soul 1978 Interview

Deniece Williams' 'When Love Comes Calling'
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Columbia Records

Deniece Williams: Niecy's 'Forgotten' Duet Scores All Over

By David Nathan

April 1978

Currently enjoying international success is the somewhat unlikely pairing of Ms. Deniece Williams and Mr. Johnny Mathis. For information on how the due got together and about some of Niecy's own plans, David Nathan spoke to the lady at home in Los Angeles…

IF THERE is such a thing as a time and season for everything, then over about the last year or so the record buying public both in the U.S.A. and in Europe have been very much tuned in to singing duos, of the male/ female kind!  Of course, the teaming of soulful vocalists is nothing new — back to Marvin Gaye and his succession of lovely ladies, Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross; William Bell and Judy Clay and then Ms. Clay with Billy Vera; the many more one-record duos like Dee Dee Sharp and Ben E. King (on Atco, would you believe, back in the late Sixties) and the more consistent teamings — Peaches & Herb, Inez & Charlie Foxx, Ike & Tina Turner, Jerry Butler with Betty Everett, Brenda Lee Eager and, more recently, Thelma Houston; and over the last couple of years, special 'one-off' events like Dionne Warwick and Isaac Hayes, Phyllis Hyman and Jean Carn guesting with Michael Henderson on Norman Connors' albums, as well as the phenomenal success of Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo.  During '78, easily one of the biggest records across the board has been Roberta Flack's enchanting "Closer I Get To You" with former duo-partner Donny Hathaway making a welcome return to the studios.

In close contention in the same league, however, is the beautiful coupling of the lovely Ms. Deniece Williams and the suave Mr. Johnny Mathis whose "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" has become a chart topper internationally. We recently got the chance to rap with Niecy, a firm favourite with record buyers, about how the whole situation came about and how it's affecting her current and future career activities.  "Well, let's see, it happened through two particular people — Mike Dilbeck, who's in the A&R department at CBS on the West Coast and Jack Gold, a former president of CBS and a really renowned and respected producer, who has been working with Johnny," reports Deniece.  "They discussed it and came to my managers to enquire as to whether we'd like to do it. They asked me on a Wednesday, I said yes and on the Thursday Johnny and I were in the studio recording the song!"  What has really amazed Deniece is the fact that she almost forgot about it all! "

Directly after we'd finished doing the vocals on the top side and The Bee Gees' "Emotion", there was Christmas and then back on the road for me with Earth Wind & Fire. "To be perfectly honest, I'd really put the whole thing to the back of my mind because I do get a few calls to do those special guest spots with different people and I just saw it as another similar situation. I certainly didn't expect it to be a single or a big hit and then, boom, all of a sudden the record's out and it seems like everyone's playing it and buying it!"  "Working with Johnny was a really great experience for me too", Deniece adds, "I've always had so much respect for him and of course, I've been listening to him for all these years. I was truly more than honoured to work with him and as soon as we met, we hit it off immediately. We both felt really relaxed around each other — the vibes were great. It was particularly interesting because it was a first for both of those — neither of us had ever done a 'duet' per se and it seemed like we just felt right into the groove."

The particularly interesting and important aspect about the record's impact has been that it has opened up new avenues for both performers inasmuch as Deniece is getting acceptance from pop radio stations, whilst Johnny is finding that r&b stations who really didn't play his music before are now hot on the record.  "I'm really all for experimenting," says Niecy, "and this has been a beautifully successful experiment! It's definitely opening doors for me because although the first single I had, "Free" crossed to a lot of pop radio stations, it didn't go quite as far as we all thought it might. So this record is really taking over where that one left off. And what's important to me is that it's getting me known to a whole new audience of people.  I really would like to feel that my music is universal — it's not just r&b, not just pop — and with something like this record with Johnny, there are going to be a lot of people who never knew about my music who will hopefully now tune in to it."

As a result of the demand, Deniece and Johnny have already begun work on an album together. "The record company just got so excited and after the record took off so quickly, they turned around and said 'where's the album?'  As you know, both tracks are on Johnny's latest album but since we saw the impact, we decided to go ahead with an album that Jack Gold will be producing. It's going to be really great working with Johnny and Jack again and, in fact, I've submitted quite a few of my own songs for consideration in the project so hopefully I may have a couple of songs on there too."

Although the success of the duo's record has unquestionably boosted Deniece's career even further, she's definitely not complaining about how it's been going otherwise. "As you know, I did the three-month tour with Earth Wind & Fire and Pockets and it was really a tremendous experience for me. I got exposure to mixed r&b and pop audiences and I learned so much about what to do, what not to do and that's really the only way you can learn — from actually doing it, performing and seeing what works with your audiences.  But I was really well received and that made me feel real good! Plus it certainly helped the sales of my second album."

"Songbird", Deniece's second album, didn't take off quite as quickly as her debut but, she's quick to point out, it is approaching gold status and it will undoubtedly have reached that magical pinnacle.  Deniece's next solo album project is already in preparation and this time, she'll be working with someone other than mentor Maurice White from EW&F: "Yes, it's a change and it's really simple: Maurice is just so busy with so many different projects outside of just working with Earth Wind & Fire that it's a matter of time — he just can't do everything for everyone!  I think collectively we're going to come up with something really exciting. What I see happening is that the music is going to reflect some of the way I'm feeling myself these days, which is really ultra-feminine, soft, warm, relaxed and I think that's the kind of sound you're going to hear. What I've found is that people find my music soothing — they like to come home and just rest and relax and listen to it and that's beautiful. So I think that's the direction we're going to be going with this album — which will probably be called "Just Niecy". I'm certainly going to be working hard on it because we anticipate being in the studios to complete the album with Johnny and my own right through until August."

Needless to say, Deniece will undoubtedly have much of her own material on her next album and since she's been off the road ("we got back at the end of February and I've been home enjoying myself, just relaxing ever since"), she has been busy pursuing another aspect of her career — music publishing. "You know, that's where I first got started — writing songs and doing demos about four years ago. And it takes a lot of time — you have to work hard at getting your songs recorded by other artists and so on. But I've been lucky — people have been asking me for material now — although right at the beginning, it was really hard trying to get people interested. "But that's one aspect I definitely want to concentrate on — because you can build a solid financial foundation for yourself in publishing. Plus there are a whole lot of good writers out there and I want to be able to help them get their songs out, too!"

Yet one more facet of this multi-talented young lady not to be ignored is her desire to get into both acting and she's already taken steps in that area.  "Last year I studied with Hope Clark and I'll be doing that again this year because I feel that acting is an area I really want to get into — and it seems that everyone else feels that way too because people keep asking me why I haven't got into it yet.  I've looked at a few things but I haven't seen any suitable scripts yet. But I feel it will all come with time and I don't want to be a jack of all trades and master of none!"

As if that weren't all, Deniece also sees herself becoming more involved in producing — both other acts as well as herself. "I've been producing my own demos on my songs for some time now and that's given me some experience in that area. "In addition, Maurice (White) really let me help out on the last album on a few things, so gradually I feel that I'm moving closer to being at that point where I can take on more responsibility in that area.  Eventually, of course, I'd like to produce myself, but again, I realize that it all comes with experience and time."

Meanwhile, Deniece is "in no hurry — I feel like I've got a lot of time ahead of me to do all the many things I want" and if her career continues as it has up until this point, she is definitely going to become a major established artiste in short order.

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