Soul and gospel star DENIECE WILLIAMS talks to Eric Stephens about her career and faith.
"I'm sending out this friendly invitation I hope to touch each corner of the world* I send it out m love and dedication. Its message more precious than gold or pearls..." "Special Love"
There are many ways to stand up for what you believe in, and there are even more ways to pass those beliefs onto to others. With a pure, yet distinctive voice, and the skilful blending of contemporary R&B/ pop rhythms with an inherent lyrical message, Deniece Williams uses the platform of her music to touch and encourage people with the words of the Gospel. "We need to take the Gospel out to the corners of the world," says Deniece. "There are a lot of people who have never read the Bible or heed the word of God. They never listen to Christian radio or watch Christian television. I'm reaching these people with spiritual songs that stress brotherly love, peace, caring and kindness. "There's not enough of that in music these days and I'm petitioning with several people to mainstream gospel."
With the help of a handful of artists such as Take 6, Amy Grant, David Mullen, BeBe and CeCe Winans, and Deniece Williams, the task of bringing the gospel to the mainstream listener is a dream that is gradually becoming a reality. "I want to see the veil removed from pop and urban radio," Williams demands. "The boundaries are senseless. You can turn on R&B radio and hear rock, rap, even a bit of country. We should be given the chance to crossover. The discriminating wall of gospel music on the mainstream format has to come down."
Ecclesiastes says, "There is a season, there is a time for everything." Many years ago Andrae Crouch tried to crossover his gospel music, but it just didn't happen. I think it's just a matter of God saying it's time. It's great, I asked the Lord to put me smack in the middle of it and here I am." But being in the middle of things is nothing new to Deniece. Though she is best known for her secular successes, the 1 song "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" (an unforgettable duet with Johnny Mathis), and the number one single from 1984's 'Footloose soundtrack', "Let's Hear It For The Boy", Deniece has been taking gospel music to mainstream audiences ever since her first album, 'This is Niecy' Deniece has managed to include one gospel song on each of her 11 albums with CBS Records, but she wasn't able to release a pure gospel LP until 1986's 'So Glad I Know'. "The desire was there to do a total album that would be a testimony of my faith and love for Jesus," she told CCM in 1987.
But, 'So Glad I Know' did more than fulfil a long-held heartfelt desire. It sold 250,000 copies worldwide, earned Deniece two Grammy Awards, and alerted many admirers in the pop and R&B world to yet another dimension of her musical career. The success of that first all-gospel album was a confirmation that Deniece was moving in the right direction. "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge, and that fear helped me realise, for once, how my music was affecting life for positive change, encouraging and inspiring people to truth. When I accepted my two Grammys for So Glad To Know, I was able to stand up on stage and thank the Lord for his blessings in front of millions of people."
But it wasn't until she heard one of her sons say "shake your booty," that she realised for the first time the effect music has on children. It was that incident that inspired Williams' decision to record another all-gospel album. "Young people need to know that we're in the music business, but we're promoting God, not drugs or sex. I get fan mail from girls who write how much they want to look like me, but like me. They tell me that they love what I am saying to them in my music. I asked myself how was I going to utilize this. People are taking what I say as valid. I' not saying my secular career was any - different. My songs spoke of love between a man and a woman, and that's reality too. But here I was, a successful artist, with the chance to reach a whole new audience with the Word of God."
While striving to satisfy the public's hunger for a positive uplifting message, the move to include R&B/ pop music with her gospel message ended up to be controversial to both Christians and to the secular world, who were not yet ready to accept mainstream gospel music. "I know that there are a lot of Christians that don't understand what I do, or what Amy Grant does, but I've got one judge and He doesn't look anything like them. "I remember seeing the movie, 'Say Amen, Somebody'. When Sally Martin and Tommy Dorsey came into the church with a guitar and a tambourine, everyone shouted that it was Satan's music. Now, it's the same kind of music the churches are fighting to keep. We could, as Christians, lock ourselves into one sanctified group, but we're told to go out and take the Good News to all ends of the earth. When I'm judged, one question God won't ask me is why I didn't get the message out to the audience that He gave me - I will never be accused of that. I know that God has me exactly where He wants me now."
Deniece has tried to follow God's lead ever since her voice first rattled the rafters of her Pentecostal church in Gary, Indiana. It was there she received her formal training in singing. While working at a local record store, several years later, she was discovered singing along with the latest hits. The store's owner, a teacher of hers, heard her talent and helped her record a single. Unfortunately, it didn't go anywhere. Once again, opportunity knocked. Deniece's cousin got her an audition with Stevie Wonder's backing group. Wonder-love. "I'm the only one who didn't show up with a piano player or music," she reminisces. "So Stevie taught me a song to sing and I ended up getting the job."
Being thrown into the world of popular music had its effects on Deniece. Growing up believing that singing pop music was a sin, it took only four months for the guilt to sink in. It became too much for the little girl from Indiana, and she left Stevie's band and went to work for the Indiana phone company. But God works in mysterious ways. One year later Deniece received a phone call from Stevie asking her to fill in for three weeks on the tour because one of the backup singers had taken ill. Three weeks became three years. "Even when I got a solo record deal, I was not really trying to get a deal," she said. "I sent a demo tape to Earth, Wind And Fire because I wanted Philip Bailey to sing my song. Maurice White heard the tape, called me up and said he wanted to produce a record for me. 12 albums later, here I am. Even the duet I sang with Johnny Mathis came about unexpectedly. One day I was wondering what else the Lord had in store for me when I received a call from Johnny Mathis' producer saying they wanted me to sing a duet with him. I believe the true success is being obedient to Christ and following the Word of God-letting Him exalt you in His own time. I look back at my career in music and I see how God gave me my mainstream success to use for His glory and to spread His message to a wider audience."
The message couldn't be any clearer than on her newest all-gospel album 'Special Love', produced by husband/manager Bad Westering (who also produced 'So Glad I Know'). The album features instrumental contributions from such stellar R&B players as Jay Gruska, Greg Phillingaines, Michael Landau, Kirk Whalum and Paul Jackson Jnr. The songs, including six co-written by Deniece, are also top-notch. But her favourite is the rapturous version of the old hymn "His Eye Is On The Sparrow." "No matter how large or small your problems may be," she says, "God is in control. He sees all, hears all, and He's working it out." You know it's coming from the heart when Deniece sings. "I sing because I'm happy! I sing because I am free/His eye is on the sparrow/and I know He watches over me."
Joining that classic hymn is the first single for the Christian market "Healing," as well as a special duet with friend Natalie Cole titled "We Sing Praises." "It was Brad's brain-storming that got Natalie to appear on the album," says Deniece. "He wanted to hear our voices together. The main thing that propelled us to working with her is the fact that she is a brand new Christian as of last year. She has committed her life to the Lord. It was incredible singing with such a talent. It was very quick, very enjoyable. Maybe her record company will give her the opportunity to record a gospel album and I'll run over and sing on hers.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.