Born in Gary, Indiana, Williams attended Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland in the hopes of becoming a registered nurse and an anesthetist but dropped out after a year and a half. "You have to be a good student to be in college, and I wasn't." She also performed on the side during that time. ("I got a part-time job singing at a club, Casino Royal, and I liked it. It was a lot of fun.") During those years Williams worked also in a telephone company and as a ward clerk in the Chicago Mercy Hospital. As Denise Chandler, she recorded for The Toddlin' Town group of labels and one of those early records, "I'm Walking Away", released on Toddlin' Town's Lock Records subsidiary in the late 1960s, is a favorite on England's Northern Soul scene.In the 1970s, she became a backup vocalist for Stevie Wonder as part of "Wonderlove".She left Wonder in 1975 and after signing to Columbia Records, she teamed up with two famed producers: Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, and his frequent collaborator, Charles Stepney. Her 1976 debut album entitled This Is Niecy
was released. The single "Free" reached number 2 on the Black Singles chart, number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100, and number 1 on the British Singles chart. The album also featured "Cause You Love Me Baby" (which charted separately on the R&B chart as the flip side of "Free") and "That's What Friends Are For". She also shared a number-1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with pop singer Johnny Mathis in 1978 with the duet "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late". The duet also topped the Black Singles and Adult Contemporary charts. Williams also topped the dance charts with her disco single "I've Got the Next Dance". Mathis and Williams also recorded the popular theme to the 1980s sitcom Family Ties
, "Without Us".Williams moved on to the American Recording Company (ARC) in the early 1980s where she scored the top ten R&B smash hit "Silly" in 1981. The following year, yet another famed producer, Thom Bell, helped Williams score another number-1 R&B chart-topper with her remake of The Royalettes' "It's Gonna Take a Miracle", which became a Top 10 pop hit as well, reaching number 10 and number 6 on the Adult Contemporary chart as well.
"Let's Hear It For The Boy"
In 1984, Williams released the album Let's Hear It for the Boy
, in which the title track reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was featured on the soundtrack to Footloose
. The song would prove to be the biggest pop hit of her career - and the last. She also contributed vocals, along with Maurice White, to the song "And Then" from Weather Report's album Mr. Gone
released in 1978.Williams continued releasing albums during the 1980s such as Hot On The Trail
(1986), Water Under The Bridge
(1987), and As Good As It Gets
(1988), which featured her last Top Ten hit to date, "I Can't Wait", written by Skylark. However, in part due to a lack of promotion from her record label, her mainstream popularity faded.
Although Williams had recorded one inspirational song on almost each of her secular albums, it was in 1980 that her musical career path began change favoring Gospel music. Williams joined with friends Philip Bailey (Earth, Wind & Fire fame), Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo to present a gospel show at a popular Los Angeles club named The Roxy. The show was called "Jesus At the Roxy". Williams later reported that "God did something miraculous. Over three hundred people were saved." After that, both Bailey and Williams decided to pursue careers in Christian music.In 1983, Williams and Bailey recorded "They Say", an atmospheric, slow praise song that builds towards the end with rousing words of praise. The song was written by songwriters Skip Scarborough and Terri McFaddin and received airplay on both Urban and Gospel Black radio. Williams later recorded the song with Christian artist Sandi Patti and won a Grammy for it.In 1984, Williams sang a Gospel song at the 27th Annual Grammy Awards instead of singing her number-1 hit song "Let's Hear It For The Boy" much to her record company's disdain as reported in the liner notes from the 1996 release From The Beginning
. She sang an a cappella version of her 1977 composition "God Is Amazing". In 1986, she released her first full-length gospel album, So Glad I Know
(Sparrow 1121; number 8-gospel) which won her two Grammy awards.Williams would continue to write, record and release Gospel music for the next several years. From 1996 to 2004, she presented her own BBC radio show in the UK, showcasing new gospel and inspirational music. During that time (1999) she recorded the Gospel album This Is My Song
which brought her another Grammy award for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album.
In 2003, Williams appeared in the holiday movie Christmas Child
. In December 2005, she appeared on the reality-dating show Elimidate
as part of their "Celebrity Week". Other participants included fellow 1970s icons Leif Garrett and Jimmie Walker.After more than a decade Williams' new R&B album, entitled Love, Niecy Style
, was released on April 24, 2007, on Shanachie Records. The disc was produced by veteran "Sound of Philly" man Bobby Eli. It has received positive review from Starpulse, soultracks.com, and Jet
. The disc charted at number 41 on Billboard R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart.Williams returned to her hometown of Gary, Indiana for a performance to mark the re-opening of the historic Glen Theater on October 13, 2007. After the performance, Williams was recognized by Indiana State Representative Vernon G. Smith as an Outstanding Hoosier.Williams returned to Gospel music, charting again in October 2007. The song, "Grateful-The Redication", recorded with Wanda Vaughn of The Emotions and Sherree Brown debuted at number 40 debut on the Billboard Adult R&B Singles chart. This was Williams' first entry on the singles chart since 1989.On April 29, 2008, Williams announced that she was preparing a proposal to establish a program called KOP—Kids of Promise—in her hometown of Gary, Indiana. Williams said the program would include a center with classes and programs dedicated to education and the performing arts.On August 27, 2008, a new song/video entitled "One Kiss" was posted on YouTube. The song is produced by the Haven Media Group and the video directed by director Dabling Harward (Idlewild, When We Were Kings). Also posted on same date was an inspirational Barack Obama anthem entitled '"A Change We Can Believe In"'. The song is written by Williams, percussionist Jerry Peters and songwriter Harvey Mason. To date, there are three versions of "A Change We Can Believe In," a "universal" version which features a 160-voice chorus; a second R&B/Gospel-infused version featuring Williams on lead vocal; and the final, orchestral/instrumental arrangement for a variety of post-production applications.On June 27, 2010, Williams performed her song "Silly" at the BET Awards featuring Monica.In January 2011, she gave a trilling performance of her hit "Free" on Way Black When: Looking Back
at the 1970s on TVOne.On June 6, 2011, Williams was featured on Unsung
, TV One's signature music biography series which sheds a deserving light on some of the most influential, talented and yet, somehow forgotten R&B, soul and gospel artists of the last 30 years. In the episode, she was heralded as a singers’ singer, whose four octave range thrilled listeners on songs that ranged from ballads like "Black Butterfly" to gospel standards like "God is Amazing" to pop hits such as “Let's Hear it for the Boy.” It chronicled her career which started in Gary Indiana, cutting local singles at age 17, then moving on to make her mark with Stevie Wonder’s band Wonderlove, and ultimately emerging as a songwriter of uncommon gifts, as evidenced by modern day standards like “Silly” and “Free”. But it was Deniece’s refusal to compromise her ideas and put music first that came with a heavy cost – ostracized from her church, three marriages that ended in divorce, and ultimately the dissolution of her career as a pop star. In the personally revealing episode of Unsung
, Williams tells her story with poignancy and humor, and is helped along by exclusive interviews with an all-star cast of her admirers that includes Johnny Mathis, Ray Parker Jr., Philip Bailey, Verdine White, George Duke and Stevie Wonder.
Deniece Williams has a four octave range and distinctive soprano voice. Her vocal range was also pointed out by The New York Times
, "Miss Williams mounted a spectacular vocal display in which her penetrating, feline soprano soared effortlessly to E flat above high C, and she worked various vowel sounds into prolonged feats of vocal gymnastics."In pointing to Williams's similar vocal ability as her former musical icon and colleague (Minnie Riperton), Mark Anthony Neal in referencing Jill Scott's agility in displaying vocal acrobatics, states, "Scott draws on her upper register recalling the artistry of the late Minnie Riperton and "songbird" Deniece Williams." According to Monica Haynes of Post-Gazette.com, Williams "has the kind of range that would make Mariah Carey quiver".