[26 April 2007]
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)
When Deniece Williams decided to return to R&B, she took a trip back in time.
“Love, Niecy Style,” in stores this week, is her first soul record since 1996’s “Love Solves It All” and her first CD of any genre since 1998’s gospel effort “This Is My Song.” The Gary, Ind., native remains in sterling voice, her soaring soprano as honeyed, pliable and tuneful as ever.
On the 10-song disc, her debut for New Jersey independent label Shanachie Records, she interprets eight classic R&B tracks, such as Baby Washington’s “That’s How Heartaches Are Made,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “Love’s Holiday,” Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me,” Kool & the Gang’s “Cherish” and the late Gwen Guthrie’s “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter” and the late Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much.”
“I was in love with every song that we had chosen,” Williams, 55, says by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “Some of them I’ve been walking around my house and humming for years. So I was in dress rehearsal with them for a long time.”
For good measure, she took on two of her own compositions, redoing ” ‘Cause You Love Me Baby,” which she originally recorded for her 1976 debut album, “This Is Niecy,” and offering a new song, the sultry “The Only Thing Missing.”
To go with the vintage soul mood of the material, Williams traveled to Philadelphia, once a haven for old-school R&B, and worked with producer Bobby Eli, the man responsible for helming creamy records by Blue Magic, Major Harris, Atlantic Starr and Rose Royce, among others. She also had friends Wonder, Philip Bailey of EWF, George Duke and Everette Harp performing on the sessions.
Everything about making “Love, Niecy Style” felt lived-in for Williams. She first heard “That’s How Heartaches Are Made” when she was 13. The song spoke to her, helping her get over a boy who didn’t reciprocate feelings she had for him. She considered Guthrie and Vandross “dear friends,” so she wanted to pay tribute to them. Plus, she had worked with Eli back in 1981 and 1982 when she made “My Melody” and “Niecy” with legendary producer Thom Bell.
“It was like coming back home,” she says. “Some magic showed up. We were very excited about doing this kind of a project. The songs came quite easily.”
Well, most of them. She chose “Never Too Much” and soon realized why the Vandross gem is rarely covered.
“Can’t nobody sing it but Luther Vandross, that’s why nobody covered it,” she says. “I was the only knucklehead who had the audacity to sing this song. When I get to heaven I’m going to hug him and then I’m going to slap him. I could hardly breathe. The melody is consistently moving and the music is consistently moving. I barely made it.”
Singing has long been Williams’ constant companion. She remembers doing it effortlessly while growing up in a church environment. Her mother sang, as did her grandmother. In fact, that Deniece Williams vocal signature, the scale-climbing flourish, came from her mother.
“She would sing in the shower, and I would hear her,” Williams remembers. “Anybody who tells you that they came up with something all by themselves is lying.”
Williams studied nursing before flunking out of college. Initially she figured she would follow in the steps of her mother and grandmother, both nurses, even after singing background vocals in Wonder’s group, “Wonderlove,” and then with Earth Wind & Fire. Even after “EW&F’s” Maurice White got her a recording contract with Columbia Records and produced her debut disc. Even after she had scored hits such as “Free” and “Silly” and racked up gold albums, Williams still thought she was destined for nursing school.
It wasn’t until the release of “Niecy,” which featured the R&B-to-pop crossover smash, “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” that she finally realized singing was the career.
“I thought I was just working to save money to go back to nursing school. It finally dawned on me, ‘Deniece, this is it. Stop swimming upstream. Start going with the flow.’ When I got to Thom Bell it dawned on me that this is it.”
When the R&B heyday dried up, Williams turned to gospel music, her other love. She recorded 1988’s “So Glad I Know,” 1989’s “Special Love” and 1998’s “This Is My Song.” But she had laid the groundwork for gospel long before. On her second album, 1977’s “Song Bird,” she wrote and recorded “God Is Amazing,” which has become a concert staple.
“I will always be R&B and pop music, I will always be gospel music,” she says. “People expect to hear both from me. I think if I went into a concert and didn’t do ‘God Is Amazing’ people would be disappointed. But I couldn’t get away with not doing ‘Black Butterfly,’ ‘Let’s Hear It for the Boy,’ ‘Free’ and ‘It’s Gonna Take a Miracle.’”
She’s just happy to be singing again. She has no regrets about taking nine years off to spend time with her four sons. But she knew she needed to mine the R&B treasure chest upon her return. Williams is no fan of today’s R&B. “I am happy about some of it, sad about most of it.”
When asked for her thoughts on some of the younger singers who seem to put more value on clothes and makeup than on vocal chops and musicianship, she raises her usually soft voice and gets ready to fire.
“All they want to do is show their belly button,” she says. “Well, what happens when they can’t find their belly button?”