Deniece Williams - Black Butterfly: The Essential Niecy (2016)

Deniece Williams
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Deniece Williams - Black Butterfly: The Essential Niecy 

Given the depth of finely crafted, often spellbinding, wealth of music which Deniece Williams released from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, there are considerably few retrospectives of her work circulating. UK-based Big Break Records has changed that scenario impressively with a lovingly assembled two-disc anthology, Black Butterfly: The Essential Niecy. While Niecy had a handful of pop-driven hits that might have briefly deflected attention from her soulful R&B essence, this 35-track set solidifies effortlessly the heaping amounts of soul running through her catalog at large.

Deniece Williams - Black Butterfly: The Essential Niecy 

Given the depth of finely crafted, often spellbinding, wealth of music which Deniece Williams released from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, there are considerably few retrospectives of her work circulating. UK-based Big Break Records has changed that scenario impressively with a lovingly assembled two-disc anthology, Black Butterfly: The Essential Niecy. While Niecy had a handful of pop-driven hits that might have briefly deflected attention from her soulful R&B essence, this 35-track set solidifies effortlessly the heaping amounts of soul running through her catalog at large.

Working with remarkable producers such as Maurice White, Thom Bell, George Duke, David Foster, and Ray Parker, Jr., Niecy brought to life a menagerie of alluring and soul-deep ballads, zesty, upbeat tunes, and inspirational numbers with her celestial soprano and alto dexterity consistently in tip-top shape. Of course, a distinctive vocalist of her caliber is able to make the strongest impression when given songs that can stand on their own two feet. And there isn’t a moment when that’s not the case on Black Butterfly. As a contributing writer to no less than 18 of the selections (two being solely her own), it’s all the more noteworthy that she turned out 13 albums over 13 years, all the while maintaining a profound message and melodic context.

Let’s start with the big hits. It would be challenging to overstate the entrancing essence of the blissfully self-affirming “Free,” Williams’ 1976 “debut” (as discussed in the collection’s accompanying liner notes, she had cut a number of singles during the late ‘60s under her maiden name, Deniece Chandler). Likewise, one would be hard-pressed to resist the uplifting sway of 1983’s “Do What You Feel,” the compelling wistfulness of 1982’s “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” (a cover of a 1965 top-40 R&B entry by The Royalettes), or 1979’s propulsive floor-filler “I’ve Got the Next Dance” (included in its full Jim Burgess 12” mix). And whether you claim to love it or hate it, there’s no denying the exhilarating effect of 1984’s “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” (from Footloose, and also appearing in its full 12” version), a timeless anthem which Niecy instilled with a contagiously powerful glee.

Alongside the high-charting singles contained within (seven further entries made the R&B top-20) lies an abundance of priceless treasure. The Duke-produced “Black Butterfly” didn’t quite make the commercial impact it deserved at the time of its release, but the song’s stirring passages of pride and hope (not to mention its soaring melodies and arrangements) remain relevant as ever over 30 years on. An apt example of The Songbird’s knack for exploring matters of social consciousness in an artful yet frank manner, 1986’s seldom acknowledged “Wiser and Weaker” (co-written by her with producer Greg Mathieson and Fritz Baskett) dealt with issues such as environmental pollution, homelessness, and corporate greed—perhaps a bit ahead of its time. On the romantic side of things, there’s the cautionary “It’s Your Conscience,” lushly orchestrated to illustrate the tune’s examination of the correlation between emotion and imagination. Co-produced by Williams, it’s the other side of the coin from the one flipped in “I Found Love,” a joyous composition with the control boards helmed by her and Parker (who contributes some fond memories to the liner notes).

Within the notes for Black Butterfly, Niecy touches upon some of the business-driven difficulties she encountered in attempting to merge a gospel career with her secular one. Fortunately, she was able to offer an inspiring batch of faith-based repertoire despite the obstacles…ranging from the brilliantly simple and effective, self-composed “God Is Amazing” (from 1977’s Song Bird) to 1986’s beautifully emotive “Healing” and 1989’s effervescent “Every Moment.” Furthermore, there’s a special treat for fans to be found in the inclusion of the full-length recording of “Without Us,” her comforting 1983 duet with Johnny Mathis which served as a theme song for the long-running U.S. sitcom, Family Ties. (Three more duets with Mathis, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” appear, as well.)

For the devoted fan and curious listener alike, Black Butterfly: The Essential Niecy will stand the test of time as a glorious and comprehensive chronicle of one of the most gifted, sometimes overlooked, female soul singer-songwriters of the 20th century. Highly recommended.

by Justin Kantor 
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