Sometimes, the difference an experience and talented producer can make to an artist’s career can’t be underestimated. While everyone has their own examples, Deniece Williams certainly felt this when she first met Thom Bell. Instantly, they realized they were musical soul mates. By that time, Thom Bell was a vastly experienced producer, having worked with artists like The Delfonics, Detroit Spinners and The Stylistics. So, in hiring Thom Bell to co-produce Deniece’s 1981 album My Melody, it was no surprise when the albumwas  certified gold. Given the success of My Melody, it’s no surprise that Thom was hired to co-produce the followup Niecy. However, when Deniece came to record her sixth solo album I’m So Proud, Thom Bell wasn’t available. Considering how well they worked together and the musical results, this must have been hugely disappointing. With Thom Bell unavailable, another producer was needed. Rather than choose one producer, instead, production duties were shared between Deniece, jazz legend George Duke and Bill Neale. George Duke and Deniece had met at a party and spoked about working together in the future. A few months later, this collaboration was underway, with George sharing production with Bill Neale. How would the sharing of production duties and Thom Bell’s absence affect I’m So Proud?

For Deniece’s sixth studio album I’m So Proud, a mixture of new material and cover versions were chosen. Deniece wrote one track and cowrote three tracks. Two of these she cowrote with producer George Duke. The other track Deniece cowrote was Love, Peace and Unity, which she cowrote with Scott Sigman. Among the other four tracks, were covers of a track Curtis Mayfield wrote for The Impressions, I’m So Proud. Two other tracks were They Say which Skip Scarborough and Theresa McFaddin cowrote, plus Heaven In Your Eyes written by Raymond Jones and Love. On So Deep In Love, which Jeff Barry and Bruce Roberts cowrote, Deniece is reunited with Johnny Mathis and they shares the lead vocal.  With the eight tracks chosen, Deniece headed to various studios, one in New York and Los Angeles with producers George Duke and Bill Neale.

With two producers working on I’m So Proud, recording took place at various studios. For the four tracks produced by George Duke, the tracks and vocal were recorded at The Complex in Los Angeles. Later, guitars, keyboards and percussion were overdubbed at Le Gonks West in Los Angeles. Not only did George Duke produce these four tracks, but played keyboards and drums on these tracks. Given the recordings took place at different studios, George used different musicians to Bill Neale.

For the three tracks that Bill Neale produced, two studios were chosen. Monterey Sound Studios in Glendale California and Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood were chosen. Bill arranged and produced the three tracks, while using different musicians to George Duke.

The other track, Love, Peace and Unity was produced by Deniece, with the track recorded at New York’s Sigma Sound Studios. Given recording of the eight tracks on I’m So Proud were recorded at five separate studios, a long list of musicians were used

Among the long list of talented musicians that would play on I’m So Proud, were a rhythm section of guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., bassist Louis Johnson and drummer Rickey Lawson. Accompanying them were percussionist Paulinho DaCosta and keyboard player Jerry Peters. Not only did George Duke produce four tracks, but played keyboards and drums on these tracks. Eventually, the eight tracks that became I’m So Proud were recorded. All that was left was for I’m So Proud to be released. Would it match the success of Deniece’s two previous Thom Bell produced albums My Melody and Niecy?

Before the release of I’m So Proud in May 1983, Do What You Feel reached number 102 in the US Billboard 100 and number nine in the US R&B Charts. On the release of I’m So Proud in May 1983, it reached number fifty-four in the US R&B Charts and number ten in the US R&B Charts. This didn’t match the success of Deniece’s previous album Niecy. It had reached number twenty in the US Billboard 200 Charts and number five in the R&B Charts. July 1983 saw the release of the title-track I’m So Proud, which reached number twenty-eight in the US R&B Charts. The final single was Heaven In Your Eyes, released in September 1983, but failed to chart. Unlike Niecy, the singles released from I’m So Proud didn’t prove as popular. Niecy had contained It’s Gonna Take A Miracle, which gave Deniece a US R&B number one single, plus two other hit singles. Although I’m So Proud didn’t match the success of Niecy, how do the two albums differ? That’s what I’ll tell you, once I’ve told you about the music on I’m So Proud.

Do What You Feel opens I’m So Proud, and is a track Deniece and George Duke cowrote, with George producing the track. There’s a real George Duke sound to the track from its opening bars. Funk and soul are fused during the track. When the keyboards open the track, you’ve no hint of what’s about to unfold. The pounding rhythm section is funky, while chiming guitars and blazing horns punctuate the arrangement. Here, Deniece’s vocal is looser than on tracks on Niecy, but still soulful. It soars high, quivering, replacing the sizzling horns. Sometimes, the horns showboat, grandstanding as they’re played with power. However, Deniece holds her own, mixing power and emotion. She copes well with the fusion of funk, jazz and soul, demonstrating a quite different side to her music.

I’m So Proud was written by Curtis Mayfield and recorded by The Impressions, giving them a hit in 1965. Here, Bill Neale takes over production duties, producing the perfect arrangement for Deniece’s tender, heartfelt vocal. He combines keyboards, guitars backing vocalists and the rhythm section. They produce a slow, spacious and understated arrangement. Later, a harmonica solo adds the finishing touch to the arrangement. It’s replaced by Deniece’s vocal which soars, trembling and quivering emotively, while backing vocalists accompany her. Here, Deniece and Bill Neale give an old song a new twist, breathing new life and meaning into it.

So Deep In Love sees Deniece joined by Johnny Mathis, who sing a duet. As the arrangement begins, it’s dark and dramatic, stabs of piano, layers of pounding guitars and the rhythm section combining. It’s unlike anything else on I’m So Proud, but has the required effect. It grabs your attention. You’re intrigued and certainly not disappointed. The combination of Deniece and Johnny is a potent one. There’s a chemistry between them that’s almost tangible. Their voices compliment each other, while the dramatic arrangement provides a fitting backdrop to the emotion and chemistry in their voices.

I’m Glad It’s You is another of the George Duke production, but quite different from his production on Do What You Feel. He produces a much slower, more soulful sounding backdrop for Deniece’s tender, impassioned vocal. Gone is the funk and blazing horns. They replaced by melodic keyboards, percussion and the an understated rhythm section. They combine, producing an arrangement that not only suits the song, but compliments Deniece’s vocal. This suits the song, and is much more Deniece Williams in sound. That’s what makes this one of the highlights of I’m So Proud.

Punchy drums pound, augmented by percussion, before the rhythm section and chiming guitars combine on Heaven In Your Eyes. It’s a much bolder sound, Deniece’s dramatic, emotive vocal swept along amidst waves of keyboards, a driving, slightly funky rhythm section and guitars. Later, George Duke adds jazzy keyboards, mixing jazz and funk. Again, this is a very different Deniece Williams from the one we heard on Melody and Niecy. Having said that, her vocal is full of life and energy, on a track that shows how versatile a vocalist she is. Whether soul, funk or jazz, she’s just at home.

They Say was co-written by Skip Scarborough and Theresa McFaddin and isn’t just one of the best songs on I’m So Proud, but one that could’ve been written with Deniece in mind. There’s also another change of producer, with Bill Neale taking charge. He produces a seven minute epic track that has you spellbound Immediately, you realize something impressive is about to unfold. You’re not disappointed. Waves of keyboards and rhythm section combine, before Deniece’s vocal enters. As the arrangement meanders along, the emotion in Deniece’s vocal is palpable. Backing vocalists accompany her, sometimes sharing the lead vocal. Here, Deniece seems totally at home, delivering a heartfelt, impassioned vocal against an arrangement that’s elegant and beautiful.

Deniece and Scott Sigman cowrote Love, Peace And Unity, a track packed full of social comment and optimism. She also produced the track, which has a very different sound to other tracks on I’m So Proud. When the track opens, it’s with sizzling rocky guitars, before it’s all change. An almost reggae style is revealed, with keyboards, the rhythm section and percussion responsible for this. Her vocal is filled with optimism and sincerity, as the arrangement flows along. Suddenly, there’s space within the arrangement, filled by percussion, dramatic drums and her deliberate vocal. This is really effective, ensuring you listen to the lyrics.

Closing I’m So Proud is It’s Okay, which Deniece and producer George Duke cowrote. Chiming jazz-tinged guitars, stabs of dark keyboards combine, before giving way to a joyous sounding arrangement. Deniece’s vocal almost floats along, atop the jazzy arrangement spreading her message of hope. Meanwhile, the rhythm section, guitars, rasping horns and percussion combine. Later, a braying horn dances above the arrangement, before Deniece’s vocal returns. When it drops out, she’s joined by a children’s choir, percussion and whistles that give the track a carnival atmosphere. This is the perfect way to close I’m So Proud, with its positive message, hope, and a joyful sound.

Earlier I wondered how having three separate producers would affect I’m So Proud? In some ways it worked well, allowing Deniece to explore new musical styles. George Duke took her music in a different direction from Thom Bell, fusing funk, jazz and soul, sometimes within the same song. This was the case on Do What You Feel, which has a trademark George Duke sound. You could pick a George Duke production out any musical lineup. After that, he changed his production style, making it suit Deniece’s vocal. Gone were the showboating, blazing horns that were a feature of Do What You Feel. On I’m Glad It’s You, in came a much more mellow, understated arrangement from George, much more suited to Deniece’s delivery. Then came I’m Glad It’s You, which is the best of the four tracks he produced. 

Of the other four tracks on I’m So Proud, Bill Neale produced three of them. Deniece’s cover of The Impression I’m So Proud breathed new life, meaning and energy to the track. However, it was on They Say, which Skip Scarborough and Theresa McFaddin cowrote, that Bill Neale surpassed everything else on the album. It features a heartfelt vocal from Deniece, with an elegant, beautiful and complimentary arrangement from Bill. This to me is the highlight of the album. The other track Love, Peace And Unity, which Deniece produced herself has a quite different, compelling sound but is full of hope and optimism. 

I’m So Proud has a much more eclectic selection of songs than My Melody and Niecy. The album was produced by two talented and experienced producers, whose approach was quite different to Thom Bell’s. For me, Thom Bell’s sound has always been polished and tight. The musicians don’t have the freedom that say Gamble and Huff would give them. Here, George Duke  gave Deniece more freedom to try to explore new styles of music, while Bill Neale’s “sound” was much more Deniece Williams. Although this results in an album of quality music, it wasn’t as successful as My Melody and Niecy, Deniece’s two previous Thom Bell produced albums. Whether you prefer the tighter, more polished Thom Bell sound or the production style of George Duke and Bill Neale will be down to personal taste. For me, as a lover of the Philly Sound and an admirer of Thom Bell’s work my preference is for My Melody and Niecy. However, I’m So Proud, which was rereleased by BBR Records on 25th June 2012, has one thing in common with My Melody and Niecy…its quality. Standout Tracks: I’m So Proud, I’m Glad It’s You, Heaven In Your Eyes and They Say.


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