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Soul Express Interview/Article

By Heikki Suosalo


Part 1

Photos courtesy of Bobby Eli

  Deniece Williams is a remarkable singer.  Her distinctive coloratura soprano with a four-octave range is as enchanting as it gets, and her choice of material suits her “nightingale” voice and “girlish” style perfectly.  She has left her mark both on secular and gospel music, and in this first part of her story we feature her latest CD and her early career, including her first 60s recordings.

Deniece Williams Story Part 2 (1975 – 1981)
Deniece Williams Story Part 3 (1982 – 2008)
Deniece Williams Album Discography


  After a lapse of nine years, Deniece finally this year came up with a new CD, Love, Niecy Style (Shanachie 5765;, and a delightful record it is, too.  It is the 17th album in her career, and it’s produced by Bobby Eli.  He also co-arranged it together with the late Nathaniel “Crockett” Wilkie, engineered it at his own new Studio E and he plays guitar on it, too.

  Born Eli Tatarsky in Philadelphia, Bobby started out playing the guitar in a group named the Ivytones, carried on with the Dreamlovers and Herb Johnson & the Impacts, met Gamble & Huff in the mid-60s and eventually became part of the future MFSB.  Prior to his massive session work, Bobby also used to tour in the 60s – one group that he played with on the road was the Vibrations – but gradually, starting from the late 60s, playing in the studio, writing and production work took over.  He has produced the Sons of Robin Stone, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Moore, the Joneses, Jimmy Ruffin, Odia Coates and Atlantic Starr, to name a few.

  Bobby: “I was talking with Shanachie Records about doing projects with them.  They had a series, whereby they’re doing classic soul artists, and they asked me my views on specific artists.  The first person I mentioned was Deniece.  I’ve known her for quite some time.  We met in the early 80s by the Thom Bell sessions.  We struck up a friendship, but we’d been out of touch for a long time.  Deniece and I have a mutual friend in California, and I reached out to her and she contacted Deniece for me.  Then Deniece called me, and she thought it was a good idea to do a project together.”

  Deniece: “A mutual friend came to me and said ‘Bobby Eli is looking for you’.  He wants to talk to you about a potential project, and I really wasn’t looking to do a project at all.  I thought ‘hmm… well, it won’t hurt to hear what he’s saying’.  We started emailing each other.  He told me about the concept and he sent me some songs he was thinking about doing in such a project.  I thought ‘oh, my God, I love these songs he’s talking about’.”

  Bobby: “I told her we wanted to do a sort of classic soul album, mostly remakes, and maybe some originals.  I asked her were there some songs that she’d like to do, and I gave her some ideas of the songs I thought would be nice if she did.  We just went back and forth over a couple of weeks, and we put together a list of songs that we both thought would be appropriate.”

  “Deniece has always been very talented.  I’ve always loved her singing.  She’s one of the people I really wanted to see have another shot, getting a CD out.  I was pleasantly surprised that she wanted to do it, because I thought maybe she wanted to do only gospel.”

  “It just so happens, that right around that time I built a recording studio here in Philadelphia, not far from where I live, and that project was the very first one recorded in my new studio.  I went ahead and started recording tracks.  Then I went to California, and we did the vocals in California.  Then I added live drums and bass in California, as well.  We were able to contact Stevie Wonder, and he played harmonica on one song.  George Duke was on keyboards on one song.  We had Philip Bailey on background vocals.  It was quite a labour of love.”

  Some songs were picked up by Deniece, some by Bobby, but they all get a seal of approval from both of them.  Bobby: “We took our time.  It was a two-three-week period that we kind of got all the songs together.  The people at the company liked all the ideas that we had.  I didn’t want to be adrift too far away from the originals.  With Deniece being the classic artist as she is, I don’t want to get too diverse.  I don’t want to make hip-hop songs.  As far as some of them sounding like the originals, I wanted to stay true to them.  I thought that her voice and her delivery would carry the songs over the top and make them different from the originals.  Her voice is like an instrument.”


  Baby Washington cut in 1963 the original of the oft-recorded ballad called That’s How Heartaches Are Made.  Deniece: “I was a teenager, when I heard that song.  I absolutely loved it and I used to sing it all the time.  I called Stevie Wonder and said ‘I need you to play harmonica on this’.”

  Love’s Holiday derives from Earth, Wind & Fire’s All ‘N All album (1977), and here Deniece has Philip Bailey as her background singer.  Deniece: “With all those years with Earth, Wind & Fire and being backstage and hearing them sing it, when I was their opening act, that’s one of my favourite songs of theirs.  Also that was written by one of my favourite songwriters, Skip Scarborough.  Basically I wanted this to be a project to pay homage to some of the artists that I’ve loved and who influenced me, so I had to do an Earth, Wind & Fire song, and Love’s Holiday was my choice.”

  Another pretty ballad titled This Time I’ll Be Sweeter was co-written by the late Gwen Guthrie (passed away in 1999) and cut at least by Angela Bofill, Roberta Flack, Linda Lewis and Martha Reeves right after the mid-70s.  Deniece: “I used to work with Gwen together with Patti Austin and Lani Groves, when we were in the studio.  I remember the day she said ‘I just wrote this song’, and we heard her demo and I thought to myself that day ‘I sure would like to sing that song’.  And here it is… some thirty odd years later.”

  Stevie Wonder and Syreeta wrote a top-ten hit for Stevie in 1971 called If You Really Love Me, and Deniece as a member of Wonderlove those days would familiarize with the song thoroughly, to say the least.  Deniece: “I could do that in my sleep.  That is one of my favourites of Stevie’s songs.  It came out a little different.  I did more like a jazzier version.  I really like it a lot.”

  Donny Hathaway’s anthem Someday We’ll All Be Free has on this CD Gregg Adams on trumpet.  Deniece: “Donny Hathaway is one of my heroes.  I really love his interpretation, his voice.  There are very few artists that are even able to touch on what Donny Hathaway did vocally… and the passion, and the songwriting.”


  Kool & the Gang earned a gold record with a fascinating ballad called Cherish in 1985.  Deniece: “That was Bobby Eli’s choice.  He said I’d really love you to do Cherish.  I’m a big fan of Kool & the Gang.  We used to tour together, and I thought ‘that’s a beautiful song’.”

  George Benson had a top-30 hit with Lady Love Me in 1983.  Deniece: “I’m a big fan of George Benson, too.  I knew a lot of his music, but that particular song of his was the one that I love.”

  Everette Harp plays tenor sax on The Only Thing Missing, which is the only new song on the set and written by Deniece herself.  “That song is about two years old.  I wrote a song describing something that I’ve done for a boyfriend for a Valentine gift.”

  Luther Vandross hit number one on Billboard’s soul chart with Never Too Much in 1981.  Deniece: “…talking about a hard song to sing.  When Luther was a background singer for Bette Midler, I was a background singer for Stevie.  I wanted to pay homage to him and that was the song we chose, but I have to say ‘boy, it was hard to pull off’.  Luther is such an incredible singer with such a vocal control, but that was my way of saying ‘I love you’.”

  Deniece’s own song, Cause You Love Me Baby, first appeared on the b-side of her first hit, Free, in 1976, but the flip also charted a little later on (# 74-soul).  Deniece: “That’s a song that has been re-recorded quite a bit.  That’s probably the number two song from people that sample me.  It’s a romantic song, a bubbly uptempo love song.”

  The first week after its release, Love, Niecy Style jumped up to # 41-r&b, but that remained its peak position.  Bobby: “It’s consistent.  The record business right now isn’t what it used to be.  If things were different out there, I think we’d have a better all-round showing.  In my opinion the kind of music we’re doing basically appeals to people of thirty-five and over.  I think it’s going to re-emerge, although it’s really hard on classic artists these days.”

  After the Niecy project Bobby’s Studio E has been in constant use.  Bobby: “Right now I’m working on a George Clinton CD, and then on 25th of September we have the Three Philly Tenors of Soul CD released (  The name of the CD is All The Way from Philadelphia.  That’s also a song that Hall & Oates wrote for this CD.  They do also guest vocals on it.  The rest of the songs are classic.  The CD features three lead singers of the three prominent Philly soul groups, the Stylistics, Blue Magic and the Delfonics Russell Thompkins Jr., Ted Mills and William Hart.” (on the pic above with Bobby Eli; photo courtesy of Bobby Eli


  June Deniece Chandler was born on June 3 in 1950.  Deniece: “I was born in Gary, Indiana, in the Midwestern part of the United States.  I really loved growing up in Gary, Indiana.  It was a beautiful city by the Lake Michigan.  It was a time of innocence, I believe.  My school and the area, where I was raised, was really, I think, the only melting pot of races and culture.  I went to school with Latinos.  I had friends that were Polish.  I had friends that were white, that were black, friends that were Oriental.  We were in fact the only area and only school in our town out of four other schools that had a melting pot of mixtures of people.  I really have been very grateful for that, because that prepared me for the world.”

  “Also our city was next to Chicago, Illinois, which was a very large music mecca at the time with Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway… so we had music.  A lot of music was coming out of our area, from thirty miles down the road.  Our local talent was pretty incredible.  I grew up with Jackson 5, who were also from Gary, Indiana.  They were doing things locally way before I started.  During my last two high school years I started doing things locally.  So I remember a wonderful, wonderful childhood in Gary, Indiana.  There were about twenty children that lived on my block, and we’d be on streets playing hide and seek.  It was a great, great time and a great, great upbringing.  Leave It to Beaver was a big television show, and we thought all white people would wax their floors and clean their houses, while they wore pearl necklaces” (laughing).

  Both of Deniece’s parents, Alma and Lee, were engaged in music.  “My father has a beautiful, beautiful voice.  His father was a pastor of a church.  He sang in church.  My mother sang in a church choir.  I can take no credit for my vocal talent, because, both my father, and mother have beautiful, beautiful voices.”

  “My uncle, William O. Blakely, was the Bishop for the state of Indiana for our particular church sector, which was Pentecostal.  My younger brother from time to time still does sound engineering, and my sister did sing with Lou Rawls.  She was a background singer for years.  But I am the only one, who’s made a career out of the music business.”

  Deniece’s wide taste in music comes out in the list of artists that influenced her in the early and somewhat latter days.  “I was in love with Doris Day.  I loved to watch Lena Horne and listen to her.  Jackie Gleason was a comedian here, but he had an orchestra called the Jackie Gleason Orchestra and they would sing all these standard songs, but they wouldn’t say the lyrics.  They would do the songs in uuh – aah.  I was a huge fan of Minnie Riperton, and Earth, Wind & Fire, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, Aretha Franklin…  Then I loved classical music.  I loved jazz, too – Dakota Staton and Nancy Wilson, Ed Townsend and I still to this day love Little Jimmy Scott.  I spoke to him several months ago, when we finally met.  I listen just across the board to various artists and various music genres.”

  Deniece learned to play the flute in school, but does she play any other instrument?  “No, and I hardly play flute (laughing).  To be up there and try to play with Hubert Laws or somebody like that… I love the flute, and I love my music teacher, who got me into playing the flute, when I was in the sixth grade.  It was wonderful, and it’s something that I pick up every now and then just for my own personal passion, but that is the only instrument I can play.”


  Church of God in Christ was Deniece’s church those days.  “One day I was singing on the back porch, and I didn’t know that my aunt was watching me.  I said ‘we will now have a selection from Deniece’ and I sang a song.  She said ‘if I were to ask you to sing that song in church on Sunday, would you do it’?  I told her I would do it.  I did it.  I was three years old, and I guess I’ve been singing ever since.”

  It was not only for her Faith Temple church that Deniece sang.  She sang at least with four different church choirs.  “I was a member of one church, but in the state of Indiana we also had different choral groups that I was involved in.  We had our local church choir, and then our Pentecostal church had a choir for the entire state of Indiana, and I sang for that choir.  That choir went to the New York State Fair, where I was a soloist for that choir.  And I sang in small gospel groups with my church.”

  Inspirational music, however, wasn’t the only thing Deniece was hearing those days.  “I love country & western.  I think c&w has some of the most emotional, passionate songs that I’ve ever heard performed, because it’s all about hardship and heartbreak… somebody did somebody wrong.  A lot of c&w – not all of it – is painful, and the expression is very passionate.  I love c&w music, but of course being raised in church and to gospel music, that was my background for many, many years.”

  While still in Tolleston High School in Gary, Indiana, Deniece decided to earn some pocket money.  “I was working in a record store at home.  One of my school teachers, who taught math, owned the record store, so I asked him for a job.  I said I need to make some extra money after school.  My mother said it was okay for me to have this part-time job, so he was gracious enough to give me this job.”

  “When he wasn’t there and there were no customers, I would put on one of the records in the store and I would sing along.  One day I was in the record store singing and I didn’t know that my teacher was in the back.  He came out and said ‘I didn’t know you could sing like that’, and I said to him ‘that’s because you don’t go to church’.”


  “Then he talked to my mother about bringing some record music people from Chicago, Illinois, over to hear me sing.  My mom said ‘sure’.  Some music people showed up.  It was a gentleman named Ernie Leaner, who owned the record label called Toddlin’ Town, and also Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites, who was a songwriter, artist and a singer.  They came over and then Eugene Record and another singer/songwriter named Barbara Acklin wrote a song for me called Love Is Tears and I’m Walking Away.”  At that point Deniece’s math teacher became her manager.

  Tony Leaner, Ernie’s son, was the co-owner of Toddlin’ Town.  “I remember Ernie being very, very nice.  He was a gentleman.  He laughed a lot.  He was a good man with a great ear for music and an ability to find talent.  I don’t remember how many sessions we did.  My mom was just incredible, because she was taking me back and forth to Chicago.  Of course, my mother worked in Chicago, so she would work her job, come home and have to turn around and take me back.  I was in and out of Chicago quite a bit those days.”

  The main producer on Deniece’s sides those days was Clarence Johnson.  “He was very nice.  He also had worked with another young group called the Lovelites, so he was used to working with young teenage artists.  And he was a lot of fun, too.  He was a musician himself.  He introduced me to a lot of musicians.”

  Love Is Tears, a dramatic and richly orchestrated beat ballad, was produced by Kenneth Wells and Clarence Johnson and arranged by Johnny Cameron.  It was released in early summer in 1968 under the name of Deniece Chandler on Toddlin’ Town 107, and re-released a year later on Lock 752.  “It was a local, regional kind of success.  I don’t think that we would call it successful as much as record sales, but what it did do was that later it got me an audition for Stevie Wonder’s background group, Wonderlove.”  The b-side, I’m Walking Away, is a mediocre dancer.

  Right after Deniece’s single, Toddlin’ Town Records hit the charts with three dance records – The Funky Judge by Bull and the Matadors (Toddlin’ Town 108; # 9–r&b, # 39-pop), Keep on Dancing by Alvin Cash (111; # 13–r&b, # 66-pop) and I Get a Groove by Thomas East and the Fabulous Playboys (112; # 46–r&b) - but Deniece wasn’t as lucky with her one single in 1968 (Love Is Tears) and six more in 1969.


  Deniece’s second single, a mid-paced poppy ditty called Hey Baby (Toddlin’ Town 113 in 1969; b/w Glorious Feeling) was also her first duet, with the masculine-voiced Lee Sain.  Lee, who is 62 today, was born in Muskegon Heights in Michigan.  He had a local hit with I Can’t Fight It (Broach 6724) in 1968, had releases on a couple of other small labels (Glow Star, McVoutie), but he’s best remembered for his dance single, Them Hot Pants (We Produce 1804), in 1971.

  Hey Baby was written by George Vineyard and also co-produced by him together with Clarence Johnson.  “We ended up doing a duet together, but I cannot say I know very much about Lee Sain.  We were in the studio together.  It was an opportunity to sing, do my first duet and it was wonderful.”

  The third single was a pleading, big-voiced beat ballad titled I Don’t Wanna Cry (Toddlin’ Town 118), and it was produced by Clarence Johnson and Eddie Sullivan.  “I don’t remember that I ever met Mr. Sullivan.  I do remember that they brought the song to me.  When I went into the studio, the music was already done, I learned the song and I sang it.”  On the flip there was a “from-tears-to-joy” ballad called Good Bye, Cruel World, written by the same Mr. Sullivan.

  The last single on Toddlin’ Town was an energetic dancer named Come on Home to Me Baby (127), co-produced and arranged, as accustomed, by Johnny Cameron.  Eddie Sullivan’s Shy Boy on the b-side was also a catchy, uptempo song.

  Toddlin’ Town collapsed in 1971, but already in 1969 Deniece had switched to another local Chicago label called Lock Records, which had come into existence a year earlier.  The main figures behind the label were Clarence Johnson, Johnny Cameron, Eddie Sullivan and an entrepreneur named Eddie O’Kelly.  “Clarence Johnson was producing all of those records, and I think at a certain period of time he was able to get his own production company, maybe own label, and I think his artists that he was producing and working with at the time probably shifted from Toddlin’ Town to Lock.”

  “I worked very close to Clarence Johnson.  He was very protective of me.  I was shielded because of my age, still being under eighteen.  I went into the studio and I sang the songs that Clarence brought me.  I trusted his taste.  I trusted him not to bring me anything that would embarrass me or my position as a Christian.”


  The first Lock single in 1969 was an uptempo song called Mama I Wish I Stayed At Home (Lock 600; b/w with a ballad, I Believe Him).  “It was just a song about a teenage girl that got in trouble and regretted it.”  After the re-release of Love Is Tears, Denise’s – as she was named on Lock – final record in the 60s was a cover of Barbara Mason’s ’65 hit, Yes I’m Ready (Lock 753).  “That was Clarence Johnson’s choice.  I had heard the song, so I was pretty excited to have an opportunity to do it.”

  Lock closed its doors in 1970.  Clarence had cut an albumful of material on Deniece – twelve tracks altogether – but the LP never materialized.  During its history Lock had one hit single, How Can I Tell My Mom and Dad (Lock 723; # 15-soul, # 60-pop) by the Lovelites.  It hit the charts after it was leased to Uni in 1969.

  The original line-up of the Lovelites was Patti Hamilton, Rozena Petty and Barbara Peterman.  Barbara was replaced by Ardell McDaniel in 1969, and Rozena replaced by Joni Berlmon a year later.  In 1972 Ardell was replaced by Rhonda Grayson.  On some later compilations Deniece is listed as one of the voices on a few Lovelites tracks.  “I remember doing one or two shows with them.  I just performed with them.  I did not record with them.”


  Deniece’s mother worked in a hospital in Chicago as a licensed practical nurse, and also Deniece wanted to become a registered nurse, an anaesthetist.  She studied for a year and a half at Morgan State College in Baltimore, but was dropped out.  “You have to be a good student to be in college, and I wasn’t.”  On the side, Deniece also performed those days.  “I got a part-time job singing at a club, Casino Royal, and I liked it.  It was a lot of fun.”  Those years Deniece worked also in a telephone company and as a ward clerk in the Chicago Mercy Hospital.

  Deniece’s cousin, John Harris, used to work for Stevie Wonder at the time, and he had given a copy of Love Is Tears to Stevie.  Stevie called, Deniece flew to Detroit, sang Teach Me Tonight at the audition, returned to Indiana and received another call telling that she had become one of the three Wonderlove girls, Stevie’s backup voices, in 1971.  The two others were Lani Groves and Gloria Barley.  Gloria was later replaced by Shirley Brewer and Lani by Susaye Green.

“When I joined Wonderlove, I was already engaged.”  With Wonderlove, Deniece was on and off.  Her plan was to earn some money for her newly-founded family and then return to college.  “I went back home.  I got married.  I had a child.  I came back to fill in for a singer that had a surgery.  I took over, and when she came back I went back home.  Then I came back at another point of time to fill in for someone, and I ended up staying.  Then I met Maurice White about to do my solo project.  Then I left.”

  “We met with my husband, when we were eleven years old.  We married and we have two sons together.  Ken was born in 1971 and Kevin in 1973.  He is one of my dearest, dearest friends.  But we were children, and we had no idea what we wanted out of life or where we would go.  We kind of went in two different directions.”

  Deniece sings background on four of Stevie’s albums - Talking Book (’72), Innervisions (’73), Fulfillingness’ first Finale (’74) and Songs in the Key of Life (’76).  She also decided to follow Stevie’s example.  She left Gary, Indiana, and moved to California.  “I came out to California in 1973.  Stevie had just moved to California, and I got the job with him and then came out several months later.  Kevin, my youngest son, was like three or four months old.”

  Besides singing with Wonderlove, Deniece drifted into doing jingles.  “There was a young lady that used to come and hang around with Stevie and with us, vocal singers.  Her name was Patti Austin.  She was a very big jingle singer at the time.  She wanted to be a solo artist, but she was really doing a lot of sessions in the studio.  She was working with Quincy Jones, doing background for him and his artists, and she was doing jingle work.  Another singer for Stevie, Lani Groves, and I got very close to Patti Austin, so she then got us involved in doing some of the jingle sessions with her.”

  Deniece’s unique voice was used more and more on background for other artists.  She did sessions for Roberta Flack, Minnie Riperton, Esther Phillips, Syreeta, Albert King, G.C. Cameron, D.J. Rodgers, the Weather Girls, Nancy Wilson, Joe Cocker, Tom Jones, James Taylor etc. etc.  “It was wonderful.  Like I said before, I grew up listening to all genres of music, and so I sang for a lot of different artists.  I sang for a rock group called the Tubes.  Music was music.  I really loved that, because it caused me to grow and stretch my musical taste and my musical awareness, so I did a lot of different types of sessions for various types of artists.”

  Already those days Deniece became known as a prolific songwriter, too.  As “J.D. Williams” she started writing seriously in 1974 – ‘75, and her songs were recorded by Merry Clayton, the Whispers, Frankie Valli, Billy Preston, the Emotions and many, many more.  “One of my sweethearts recorded some of my songs, too.  That’s Johnny Mathis.  I can’t even tell you the names of all the hip-hop and rap artists that have recorded my music.  Will Smith is probably the most well-known.  Eazy-E, who was one of the big rappers years ago, and Lil’ Kim have done my music... across the board they’ve all recorded something of mine at some point in time.”

  Deniece’s acquaintance with Maurice White resulted in one the biggest hits in her career, Free, but more about that in the second and concluding part of the story.

(Acknowledgements to Deniece Williams, Valerie Enloe, Bobby Eli / sources – books: Chicago Soul by Robert Pruter, Soul Harmony Singles 1960-1990 by Jeff Beckman, Jim Hunt & Tom Kline and The R&B Indies by Bob McGrath; magazines: Blues & Soul, Black Music).

Heikki Suosalo

Deniece Williams Story Part 2 (1975 – 1981)
Deniece Williams Story Part 3 (1982 – 2008)
Deniece Williams Album Discography

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