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1950–1975: Early life and career
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 also worked in a telephone company and as a ward clerk at the Chicago Mercy Hospital. As Deniece 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 No. 2 on the Black Singles chart, No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100, and No. 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-one 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 twenty R&B smash hit "Silly" in 1981. The following year, yet another famed producer, Thom Bell, helped Williams score another number-one 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 No. 10. Williams released the album Let's Hear It for the Boy in 1984. The title track reached No. 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. During this time, she hit a low point in her career and decided to reinvent herself.
Although Williams had recorded one inspirational song on almost each of her secular albums, it was in 1980 that her musical career path began to 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 1985, Williams sang a Gospel song at the 27th Annual Grammy Awards instead of singing her number-one 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; #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 United Kingdom, 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, The disc charted at No. 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 Rededication", recorded with Wanda Vaughn of The Emotions and Sherree Brown debuted at No. 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 the same date was an inspirational anthem entitled "A Change We Can Believe In". The song was written by Williams, percussionist Jerry Peters, and songwriter Harvey Mason. On June 27, 2010, Williams performed her song "Silly" at the BET Awards featuring Monica. In January 2011, she performed "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 about forgotten R&B, soul and gospel artists from the last 30 years.
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".