DENIECE WILLIAMS-THIS IS NIECY.

DENIECE WILLIAMS-THIS IS NIECY.

Deniece Williams, whose legendary debut album This Is Niecy has been remastered and will be rereleased by BBR Records on February 27, never had any intention of becoming a singer when she was growing up. Quite the opposite, with Deniece heading for a career in medicine. She was was born and grew up in Gary, Indiana and after graduating high school, headed to the Morgan State University where she was studying to become a nurse and anesthetist. However, all that changed when she got a chance to sing in a club part-time. After that, Deniece recorded a number of singles as Deniece Chandler for Toddlin’ Town’s various labels. One of these singles I’m Walking Away which became popular on the Northern Soul scene. Now that Deniece had discovered music, her nascent career as a nurse and anesthetist was over. Medicine’s loss was music’s gain. 

The  next step in Deniece’s career was working as a session singer during the early seventies. She sang backing vocals on albums by Linda Lewis and Esther Phillips, as well as on albums produced by Stevie Wonder. This included Minnie Riperton and Syreeta. Later, Deniece became one of Stevie Wonder’s backing singers, becoming one of the famous Wonderlove. Deniece’s backing vocals can be heard on Stevie Wonder albums like Talking Book and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. However, Fulfillingness’ First Finale would be Deniece’s final album as part of Woderlove, because in 1975, she signed to Columbia Records, where she’d work with two legendary music figures, Charles Stepney and Maurice White.

Although Charles Stepney and Maurice White had worked together before, they both had were successful in their own right. Charles had worked with a variety of  artists that included Rotary Connection, Howlin’ Wolf, Marlena Shaw Terry Callier and Minnie Ripperton. He’d also worked with Maurice White and his group Earth, Wind and Fire. Together, Maurice and Charles had co-produced Earth, Wind and Fire’s platinum album Open Our Eyes in 1974 and 1975s triple platinum That’s the Way of the World. So Maurice and Charles were two hugely successful producers, that were at the top of their game. They were perfect for producing Deniece Williams debut album This Is Niecy.

To record This Is Niecy, Maurice White and Charles Stepney headed to Los Angeles with Deniece Williams. They chose Studio 3 of the Wally Heider Studios, where artists like Jimi Hendrix, Herbie Hancock and Earth, Wind and Fire had all previously recorded. At Wally Heider Studios, seven songs were recorded. Of these seven songs, Deniece wrote Cause You Love Me Baby herself, and co-wrote the other six songs with various songwriting partners. It was an all-star cast of musicians that accompanied Deniece on This Is Niecy. This incuded three members of Earth, Wind and Fire who provided the rhythm, section. Maurice White was the drummer, Verdine White bassist and Al McKay played guitar. George Bohannon also played trombone, while Ernie Watts played saxophone. With this all-star cast of musicians, Deniece recorded the seven songs which would become This Is Niecy. This Is Niecy would be released on September 1976, and included a song that would become synonymous with Deniece Williams…Free.

On This Is Niecy’s release in Septempber 1976, the album soared to number three in the US R&B Charts, while reaching number thirty-three in the US Billboard 200. This resulted in Deniece receiving a gold disc for her debut album This Is Niecy. Meanwhile, the album reached number twenty-six in the UK. However, when Free was released as a single in October 1976, it became a huge hit, reaching number two in the US R&B Charts, number twenty-five in the US Billboard 100 and reaching number one in the UK. The follow-up single was That’s What Friends Are For, which reached number sixty-five in the US R&B Charts and number 103 in the US Billboard 100. However, That’s What Friends Are For fared better in the UK, reaching number eight. Overall, Deniece Williams debut solo album This Is Niecy had been a huge success, but what does the music sound like? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

Opening This Is Niecy is It’s Important To Me, which marries a funky arrangement with Deniece’s soulful vocal. The track opens with three members of Earth Wind and Fire providing a funky rhythm section, before blazing horns and keyboards combine with sweeping, soaring backing vocalists. Deniece’s vocal is a mixture of soulfulness, confidence and power, while the backing vocalists sweep in with their gospel tinged sound. She sings call and response with her backing vocalists, while a punchy, funky arrangement drives along. This is a stunning way to open the album, with a track that combines a punchy and uplifting arrangement with a confident, dynamic and soulful vocal from Deniece.

Apart from Free, That’s What Friends Are For is the best known track on This Is Niecy. Not only that, but it’s one of the most beautiful tracks, with gorgeous lyrics about love and friendship within a relationship. Opening with keyboards, searing guitars that give way to a gentle and beautiful vocal from Deniece. With percussion, drums and rasping horns accompanying her, her vocal grows in power, demonstrating her wide vocal range. Her vocal veers between a gentle style, to a soaring powerful style. All the time, she’s in total control of her vocal. Towards the end of the track, the arrangement also grows, with braying horns, rhythm section, percussion and keyboards combining brilliantly. However, what makes this such a beautiful track is Deniece’s vocal. She delivers the lyrics with a combination of tenderness and sincerity against a stunning arrangement from Maurice White and Charles Stepney. What I don’t understand though, is why such a gorgeous song wasn’t a bigger hit when released as a single.

Slip Away is very different from the previous track, with its combination of jazz, funk and soul music. Keyboards, chiming guitars and distant horns open the track, before the track reveals its hidden charms. Deniece delivers the lyrics in a sassy, powerful style, while behind her, punchy horns blaze, the rhythm section add a touch of funk and backing vocalists augment Deniece’s vocals. Flourishes of keyboards drift in and out of an arrangement that combines jazz and funk with Deniece’s sassy, soulful vocal.

Cause You Love Me Baby was written by Deniece herself, while she cowrote the other six tracks. It’s a mid-tempo track where gentle, melodic keyboards open the track, before chiming guitars and the rhythm section enter. Together, they provide a beautiful backdrop for Deniece’s thoughtful, emotive vocal and her lyrics about love. Subtle, punchy horns are added to an arrangement that has a lovely understated and catchy sound. This is perfect for the joy and emotion in Deniece’s vocal, as if she’s singing the song about someone special to her. Maybe this is what makes this such a great song, and one of the highlights of This Is Niecy.

Ask anyone to name a Deniece Williams song, and most people will say Free. Since its release, it’s a song that’s become synonymous with Deniece. It gave her the biggest hit single of her career, reaching number two in the US R&B Charts, number twenty-five in the US Billboard 100 and reaching number one in the UK. With its slow, meandering introduction where percussion glides effortlessly, combining with subtle burst of keyboards, before Deniece’s gentle, tender and beautiful vocal enters. This gives way to the rhythm section, who play with a subtlety, while percussion, keyboards and bursts of horns augment the arrangement. This is easily, the best vocal from Deniece on the album, with its breathy, tender style, delivered with feeling. During a breakdown, keyboards, rhythm section and backing vocalists replace Deniece’s vocal, before Deniece’s vocal reenters. For six minutes, it’s pure pop perfection, one of the greatest songs recorded in the past forty years, one that’s absolutely stunning. 

Watching Over is a funk tinged track, with the rhythm section and punchy horns combining to accompany Deniece. Like the other tracks on This Is Niecy, the musicianship is of the highest standard. Mind you, with Maurice and Verdine White and Al McKay providing the rhythm section and the horn section including George Bohanon and Oscar Brashear, this is no surprise. On this track they get a chance to demonstrate their talents fully. Meanwhile Deniece’s vocal is quick, high and punchy. This is perfectly suited to the lilting, funky arrangement. When the arrangement and vocal are combined the result is a track that although almost the polar opposite to Free, demonstrates that Deniece is just as comfortable singing funky tracks like this.

Closing This Is Niecy is If You Don’t Believe, which opens with a sad trailing horn heading into the distance, before flourishes of keyboards and guitar combine. When Deniece’s vocal enters, it’s gentle and thoughtful, while piano, gentle rasping horns and guitar combine to provide a subtle backdrop for her vocal. The arrangement meanders along, with the track having a such a compelling quality, you’re almost scared to breath, in case you miss something. Quickly, you’re drawn into the track, become swept up in it, caught in the spell of its beauty, charms and subtleties. Keyboards, rasping horns and the rhythm section combine during a breakdown, before Deniece’s vocal returns. It’s grown in strength and emotion, while the arrangement also grows in power and beauty. For eight minutes of this epic track, you’re absolutely spellbound, entranced by this mesmerizing track’s hidden charms and subtleties. Although the last track on This Is Niecy, it’s very definitely one of the album’s very best tracks

Although This Is Niecy was Deniece Williams debut solo album, it’s a really mature and polished album, full of some stunning tracks. With two experienced and talented producers in Charles Stepney and Maurice White adding their expertise to This Is Niecy, the result is seven tracks where Deniece Williams combined elements of soul, funk and jazz. Although Free and That’s What Friends Are For are the two best known tracks on This Is Niecy, there’s much more to the album than just two tracks. Cause You Love Me Baby is one of the most soulful tracks on This Is Niecy, while It’s Important To Me, Slip Away and Watching Over combine elements of soul, funk and jazz. The track that closes This Is Niecy, If You Don’t Believe is another of the highlights of the album, with its mesmerizing and spellbinding quality. However, That’s What Friends Are For and Free are the best known tracks on This Is Niecy. Both are beautiful tracks, with That’s What Friends Are For an underrated track that deserved to do much better than it did when it was released as a single. It has a joyous quality and some beautiful lyrics. Free however, is the Magnus Opus from This Is Niecy, with its instantly recognizable and irresistible laid-back sound. On BBR Record’s remastered rerelease of This Is Niecy, there are two other versions of Free, a short and long version of the single, as well as the single version of That’s What Friends Are For. Add to this, stunning sound quality, in-depth sleeve notes from Rico “Superbizzee” Washington and BBR Records remastered release of This Is Niecy is an absolute must-have album. To me, This Is Niecy was the best album that Deniece Williams ever released. It’s an album that will appeal to anyone who loves soul, funk and jazz music, as well as anyone who loves the best known tracks Free and That’s What Friends Are For. Personally, I’ve waited a long time for This Is Niecy to be remastered and rereleased, and BBR Records have done an excellent job, like they did with the other Deniece Williams’ album I reviewed My Melody. Standout Tracks: That’s What Friends Are For, Cause You Love Me Baby, Free and  If You Don’t Believe. 

DENIECE WILLIAMS-THIS IS NIECY.

2 Comments

  1. Derek, This Is Niecy is truly a remarkable album, The quality of the recording, the musicianship and the songs themselves are all top notch. The production team of White & Stepney captured this outstanding session and the result is a recording that stands the test of time. The Stepney/White production team collaborated on the Emotions Lp “Flowers” also recorded in 1976. Another standout and well worth a listen.

    Cheers
    Harold

  2. Hi Harold. Good to hear from you again. Glad you liked the review. There will be plenty of similar reviews coming very soon. Keep watching the blog. The Emotions LP I’ve heard and really enjoyed. It’s time it was rereleased again. Take care. Thanks for your comments.
    Best Wishes,
    Derek.

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