Keeping the faith

December 07, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

The way she saw it, there was no other choice. Deniece Williams had to make it. It was the early '70s, and the aspiring 20-some- thing singer-songwriter from Gary, Ind., had just landed in Los Angeles to work as a singer for Wonderlove, Stevie Wonder's backing group. "I remember coming to L.A. with an 18-month-old and a 3-month-old and $17 in my pocket," says the four-time Grammy winner, who performs Saturday night at the Hippodrome Theatre as part of the all-star WSMJ Smooth Jazz Christmas show. Stephanie Mills, Peabo Bryson and James Ingram are also on the bill.

"A lot of my peers coming up at the time like Natalie Cole, Patti Austin and Vickie Sue Robinson didn't have kids," Williams remembers, "so it wasn't easy for me. As a single parent with two kids to raise, there was no option but to succeed; there were no excuses."

By the end of the decade, after singing with Wonderlove for nearly five years, the unassuming woman with the crystalline soprano had become a major R&B-pop star. Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the biggest pop-soul bands of the '70s, had backed her on This Is Niecy, Williams' excellent 1976 debut. Spurred by the classic hit ballad "Free," the album sold gold. A 1978 duet with Johnny Mathis, "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," had topped the pop charts. And Williams' career continued to thrive in the '80s with such No. 1 hits as "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" and "Let's Hear It for the Boy," an across-the-board smash from the Footloose soundtrack.

But at the dawn of the '90s, things cooled. Williams left secular music and concentrated on gospel, and she gave birth to two more sons. "I wanted to stay home and raise my children," says the twice-wed pop vet, calling from her Los Angeles home. "I had younger sons and found myself a single mother again. I had married young before and that didn't work. I had seen how quickly the time had passed with my older two. My prayer was that God keep me mentally healthy and physically healthy so that I could perform when I wanted to."

Williams, who wrote or co-wrote many of her hits, including "Free" and 1981's "Silly," has done quite well over the years on publishing royalties. "Free" especially has been sampled and covered numerous times since it first ascended the R&B charts (peaking at No. 2) in '76. But now that her sons are older (the elder two, ages 35 and 33, have formed a film company; the younger set, ages 18 and 15, perform in an unsigned urban-pop band called Keyz 2 Poetry), Williams tours and records more these days.

A new album, tentatively titled Love, Niecy Style, is due out in February on the Shanachie label. A return to pop-soul, the CD is a covers project of romantic jams from the '70s and '80s - gems Williams always wanted to record: Angela Bofill's "This Time I'll Be Sweeter," Baby Washington's "That's How Heartaches Are Made," Luther Vandross' "Never Too Much" and others. Her old boss Wonder plays harmonica on the album, and Williams remakes his 1971 hit "If You Really Love Me."

Although her star was never as big as contemporaries Donna Summer and Chaka Khan, Williams, 56, says she has no regrets about the way her career has played out. Even at her commercial peak in the late '70s and early '80s, the singer-songwriter always stayed true to herself - recording lush, organic ballads and mid-tempo numbers when pop and R&B had gone synthesizer-crazy.

Williams, who grew up in a deeply religious Pentecostal family, also illuminated her music (including the secular recordings) with a strong spiritual vibe. Most of her early albums featured at least one gospel track. Songbird from 1977 introduced "God Is Amazing," a self-penned, meditative ballad Williams seldom leaves out of her shows.

"My record label [Columbia Records] didn't quite understand who I was as an artist," Williams says. "But they couldn't fight the kindred spirit that people felt with the music. I wasn't interested in trends and fads. I had to fight to keep the gospel songs on the albums. I wanted people to know that God was first in my life."

And that hasn't changed, Williams says. It is the same unwavering faith in a higher power that, more than 30 years ago, pushed her to leave Indiana for the City of Angels with two babies in tow and $17 to her name.

"I believe God gave me this talent," the singer says, "and he didn't want me to bury it."

See Deniece Williams in WSMJ Smooth Jazz Christmas: The Colors of Christmas on Saturday night at 8 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $43 and $53 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or going to ticketmaster.com.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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