Deniece Williams ‘Black Butterfly. The Essential Niecy’ 2CD (BBR) 4/5

Blessed with an instantly recognisable and pure voice, Deniece Williams effortlessly oscillated between soul, pop and gospel music and this excellent anthology that begins in the mid-1970s and goes up to the late 1980s captures her at her finest. Reading through the authoritative sleeve notes from Christian John Wikane, it becomes evident that she was especially popular in the UK and at a time in the mid-late 1970s was disco was all the rage, Deniece Williams, with one notable exception, went counter to this trend.
Her debut solo album shares a prestigious place alongside those of Luther Vandross and Bill Withers in that they immediately made an international impact and were regarded as instant classics. Williams, like Vandross, gained useful experience as a background singer and this on a trio of Stevie Wonder albums that culimnated in, ‘Songs in the key of life’, and thus when ‘Niecy’ was released in 1976, she was far from being overawed by the recording studios. She scored a major number UK hit with ‘Free’ and if the several octave voice was sublime, then the co-production work by the sadly departed Charles Stepney and Maurice White was no less stunning. In this writer’s view the song, ‘That’s what friends are for’, from the same album is equally as strong with sublime harmonies and instrumentation supplied by Earth, Wind and Fire no less. A slow burner of a tune from the same album that is included on this anthology is, ‘If you don’t believe’. Arguably, ‘This is Niecy’, was the singer’s crowning achievement and a definitive slice of quality 1970s soul.

A year later, Williams would pair up with crooner Johnny Mathis for a classy touch of Philly-influenced soul balladry for what would become a smash UK and US pop hit, ‘Too much, too little, too late’, and the duo would continue to record together in the following decades. Interestingly, in reaching the top with this single, Mathis and Williams managed to knock off the number one spot, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack with,’The closer I get to you’. The duos are very much comparable. At this stage in Deniece Williams’ career, producer Thom Bell played a key role. Out of kilter with the rest of her repertoire, Williams cut one out and out disco number in, ‘I’ve got the next dance’, and while formulaic in nature, it was still good enough to hit the number one spot in the disco charts and the extended 12″ version is contained here.

By the early 1980s, quality soul was back in vogue (not that it had ever really gone out, just that dance oriented music had been in fashion since the mid-1970s and soul singers such as Bobby Womack suffered commercially as a result). In 1981 Williams released the underrated lovely mid-tempo song, ‘Silly’, that became a local radio hit in both Detroit and Philadelphia, but did not go on to major national success. She diversified with a return to her gospel roots on, ‘God is amazing’, taking a leaf out of Aretha’s twin gospel-soul heritage, while covering the classic Motown, ‘It’s gonna take a miracle’ and the top ten US R & B hit, once again reunited with Mathis for an early 1980s reprise of the Ashford and Simpson penned, ‘You’re all I need to get by’.

A change of producer in 1982 with George Duke breathed new life into Williams’ career and the classy, ‘Do what you feel’ that proved to be one of those rare critical and commercial hits with the wonderfully sensitive keyboard accompaniment of Duke and this was certainly one of her finest moments. The title track of the resulting album and in fact of this compilation, ‘Black Butterfly’, is an epic pop-soul ballad penned by another ace songwriter pairing, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, but it was in 1984 again under producer Duke that she scored a major pop hit in, ‘Let’s hear it for the boys’, that was mixed by Jellybean Benitez. This became a number once dance hit and crossed over to the upper échelons of the pop charts, capturing the flavour of the hedonistic 1980s. Thereafter Williams was re-branded as a dance diva which was too much of a straightjacket for a singer with such a wide range. A good deal of the mid-1980s material from that time onward falls into somewhat bland pop with a proto-Motown feel, typified by the underwhelming, ‘I can’t wait’. That said, such a naturally beautiful voice was always going to be capable of producing quality music under the right leadership and the string arrangements of Tom Tom 84 resulted in the lovely mid-tempo groove of, ‘The boy I left behind’. Excellent sleeve notes include numerous photos and label covers as well as page long tribute from Johnny Mathis.

Tim Stenhouse