Let’s hear it for Deniece Williams. Since making her first big splash 40 years ago with debut album This is Niecy, the daughter of Gary, Indiana has scored 27 Billboard R&B hits and 14 Pop successes including two crossover Number Ones, won four Grammy Awards (and amassed another nine nominations), and recorded over fifteen albums blurring the lines between soul, pop, and gospel. This singular artist has just been celebrated by Big Break Records on a new 2-CD anthology. Black Butterfly – The Essential Niecy: 40th Anniversary Collection is the most lavish and comprehensive tribute paid on disc to the shimmering songstress with the distinctive, multi-octave range. Every one of Williams’ 27 R&B hits is here, along with eight more tracks illustrating why she remains an artist’s artist.
This is Niecy arrived on Columbia Records under the imprimatur of producer Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire. White and collaborators Charles Stepney and Jerry Peters crafted a sparkling record to showcase the young artist’s talents. The centerpiece of This is Niecy remains “Free,” and that stunning signature statement opens Big Break’s 35-song, career-spanning compendium. Co-written by Deniece (as was each track on the album), “Free” scored chart victories both in the United States (No. 2 R&B, No. 25 Pop) and the United Kingdom (No. 1 Singles). “That’s What Friends Are For” (not the Burt Bacharach song, or for that matter, the Paul Williams song, either!) and “Cause You Love Me Baby” both followed “Free” up the R&B charts, and the former even cracked the U.K. Top Ten. The album introduced an individualistic voice as both singer and songwriter and led to another success with 1977’s Song Bird, from which BBR has included the bright and brassy groover “Baby, Baby, My Love’s All for You” and two further tracks including “God is Amazing,” the message of which had deep resonance for Williams.
Following Song Bird, Columbia teamed its new star with a label mainstay, the velvet-voiced Johnny Mathis, for a one-off single arranged by Gene Page, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” The song by Nat Kipner and John McIntyre Vallins took the triple crown, going all the way to No.1 on the Pop, R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. It was the veteran artist’s first chart-topper since 1957 and the first for Williams. Its success led to an entire album of duets, 1978’s That’s What Friends Are For. In addition to the infectious “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” Williams’ long-standing musical relationship with Mathis is represented here with their wonderful renditions of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s Motown classic “You’re All I Need to Get By,” a subsequent 1984 duet on Bobby Eli and Vinnie Barrett’s sensual “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” and “Without Us,” Jeff Barry’s heartwarming theme to the NBC sitcom Family Ties.
That’s What Friends Are For arrived in between Song Bird and When Love Comes Calling, Deniece’s first LP for Maurice White’s Columbia-distributed ARC label. That album, produced by David Foster and Ray Parker, Jr., yielded hits including the No. 1 Club Play smash “I’ve Got the Next Dance.” Appropriately, Big Break has included that uptempo floor-filler in its extended 12-inch version. But When Love Comes Calling served as prologue to the next chapter of Deniece’s career, which would find her teaming with Philadelphia soul maestro Thom Bell for a pair of albums in 1981 and 1982.
The gold-selling My Melody (1981) was co-produced by Williams and arranger-conductor Bell, and featured some of Philly’s finest names including Bobby Eli and Don Renaldo. It produced another signature song for Williams in the beautiful ballad “Silly” as well as the driving “It’s Your Conscience,” featuring Bell’s swirling strings at their most evocative. The Bell/Williams team topped that, though, with Niecy (1982) and its striking re-arrangement of The Royalettes’ “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle.” Their take on the Teddy Randazzo/Bob Weinstein/Lou Stallman oldie went to No. 1 R&B, No. 6 AC and No. 10 Pop. Randazzo, like Burt Bacharach, was a songwriter greatly admired by Bell, and much as Bell’s production of Bacharach’s “You’ll Never Get to Heaven” reinvigorated that song for The Stylistics, his and Deniece’s new, lighter-than-air take of “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” invested new life in the beloved girl-group classic. Bell seamlessly and tastefully integrated the sound of a synthesizer into his lush, symphonic soundscapes. Adding to the album’s singular sound, he recorded Williams with a live rhythm section, quite anomalous for a production circa 1982. Even that rhythm section itself was surprising; Bell brought in new musicians to the newer, largely untried studio at Sigma Sound, joining the familiar veteran session players. Williams wrote every track on the album save “Miracle,” and four of her songs were co-written with Bell. In addition to “Miracle,” Black Butterfly has the album’s mesmerizing pop-soul singles “Waiting for the Hotline” and just-plain “Waiting.”
Following her close collaborations with Maurice White and Thom Bell, Denice enlisted producer (and accomplished artist in his own right) George Duke as one of the producers of 1983’s I’m So Proud. A veteran of every genre from straight-ahead jazz to avant-rock, Duke was traveling his own path towards commercial pop when he paired with Deniece. They delivered a Top 10 R&B hit with the gleaming “Do What You Feel,” co-written with Deniece. The success of the LP would ultimately lead to Duke’s next project with Williams: a little song called “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” for the film Footloose. As revealed in Christian John Wikane’s illuminating liner notes for this release, Duke originally rejected the song: “We’re not doing that little silly song,” he told Williams. Happily, her persistence paid off for both of them!
Supplementing Duke’s work, Williams and Bill Neale co-produced the title song of I’m So Proud, a new interpretation of Curtis Mayfield’s 1964 Impressions classic. “I’m So Proud” became a minor hit in Williams’ hands, and “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” became a No. 1 Pop and R&B hit, not to mention the title of Deniece’s next LP. Black Butterfly includes the pulsating, 12-inch version of “Let’s Hear It” that earned the song a No. 1 berth on the Billboard Dance chart – most apropos considering its origins in a film about the power of dancing. The Let’s Hear It album also introduced Deniece’s timeless recording of the affecting, inspiring “Black Butterfly,” penned by veteran writers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
Deniece’s chart popularity cooled off after the phenomenon of Let’s Hear It for the Boy, but unexpectedly, the quality of her recording output did not. Black Butterfly includes tracks from her final Columbia albums Hot on the Trail, Water Under the Bridge, and As Good As It Gets, giving those lesser-known songs their equal time in the spotlight. Collaborators during this 1986-1988 period included Duke, Culture Club producer Steve Levine, Greg Mathieson, Jay Grusko, and The Time’s Monte Moir. Compilation producer Wayne A. Dickson has sequenced the songs in non-chronological fashion, using single versions, 12-inch remixes, and album tracks to present a compelling and new sonic journey through Williams’ career. The most recent track on the set, the single version of “Every Moment,” hails from 1989’s MCA album Special Love.
In more recent years, Williams has continued to perform in the secular and gospel arenas. Her most recent secular studio album, 2007’s Love, Niecy Style, was recorded with Philadelphia veteran Bobby Eli, who played on her Thom Bell sessions. Black Butterfly is beautifully packaged in a digipak, and includes a deluxe 24-page booklet with Wikane’s notes, full credits and discography, and an introduction from Johnny Mathis. Nick Robbins has splendidly remastered. This release lives up to its subtitle of The Essential Niecy, making it quite the “Miracle,” indeed.
- Baby, Baby, My Love’s All for You
- What Two Can Do
- I Found Love
- It’s Gonna Take a Miracle
- Too Much, Too Little, Too Late – with Johnny Mathis
- Waiting by the Hotline (Single Version)
- It’s Your Conscience (Single Version)
- Waiting (Single Version)
- If You Don’t Believe
- God is Amazing
- You’re All I Need to Get By – with Johnny Mathis
- That’s What Friends Are For
- The Boy I Left Behind
- I’ve Got the Next Dance (12-Inch Version)
- Cause You Love Me, Baby
- When Love Comes Calling
- Let’s Hear It for the Boy (12-Inch Version)
- Do What You Feel (Single Version)
- Without Us – with Johnny Mathis
- I Can’t Wait
- I’m So Proud
- Black Butterfly
- Next Love
- Never Say Never (12-Inch Version)
- Wiser and Weaker
- I Confess (Single Version)
- All I Need
- Every Moment (Single Version)
- This Is As Good As It Gets
- You’re All That Matters
- Love Won’t Let Me Wait -with Johnny Mathis
- Why Can’t We Fall in Love
CD 1, Tracks 1, 11, 14 & 17 from This is Niecy, Columbia PC 34242, 1976
CD 1, Tracks 2, 12 & 15 from Song Bird, Columbia JC 34911, 1977
CD 1, Tracks 3, 8 & 10 and CD 2, Track 15 from My Melody, ARC/Columbia FC 37048, 1981
CD 1, Track 13 from That’s What Friends Are For, Columbia JC 34535, 1978
CD 1, Tracks 4, original version of 16, & 18 from When Loves Comes Calling, ARC/Columbia JC 35568, 1978
CD 1, Tracks 5, 7 & original version of 9 from Niecy, ARC/Columbia FC 37952, 1982
CD 1, Track 6 from Columbia single 3-10693, 1978
CD 2, original version of Track 1 and Tracks 6-7 from Let’s Hear It For The Boy, Columbia FC 39366, 1984
CD 2, original version of Track 2 and Track 5 from I’m So Proud, Columbia FC 38622, 1983
CD 2, Track 3 rec. 1983 for Family Ties
CD 2, Tracks 4, 11 & 14 from As Good As It Gets, Columbia FC 44322, 1988
CD 2, original version of Tracks 8 & 10 from Water Under the Bridge, Columbia FC 40486, 1987
CD 2, Tracks 9 & 12 from Hot on the Trail, Columbia FC 40084, 1986
CD 2, original version of Track 13 from Special Love, MCA 6338, 1989
CD 2, Track 16 from Johnny Mathis, A Special Part of Me, Columbia 25475, 1984