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Jun 08

DENIECE WILLIAMS – “Free”

FT + Popular51 comments • 2,430 views

#404, 7th May 1977

This is one of the last songs I didn’t know at all before starting the project: unlike the very last (and surprisingly late) one, it’s a little gem. There’s a YouTube clip with Tony Blackburn introducing Williams on Top Of The Pops, and bless him, he looks genuinely and thoroughly delighted that for once the Great British P have taken the classy option. As well he might: “Free” is not the kind of record we’ll often encounter – a langourous, confidently smoochy, cocktail-ready soul ballad. Atmospheric without being naff, high on technique without labouring any points, grown-up without being sleazy, and a terrifically teasing performance from Williams, slipping easily between contentment and caprice.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Tom on 5 Jun 2008 #

    There won’t be a Popular entry today since I’m working on tomorrow’s DOUBLE SIZE EXTRAVAGANZA, but meanwhile here’s a poll rewind to 1965:

    http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2005/05/popular-65/

  2. 27
    will on 5 Jun 2008 #

    Re: 21. I picked it up from a charity shop bargain bucket about a decade back, so it could well be.

  3. 28
    mike on 5 Jun 2008 #

    Re: 24. I’m fairly sure that Johnny Moped’s “No One”/”Incendiary Device” was out by now. (“STICK IT IN ‘ER LUG’OLE! STICK IT IN HER OTHER PARTS!” OK, so some of this stuff has worn better.) But yeah, The Cortinas’ first single wasn’t for another month or so.

    I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of Deniece’s follow-up “That’s What Friends Are For”, and am a bit gob-smacked to find that it went Top Ten in July 1977. Of all the muscial obsessions that I’ve had over the years, punk seems to have been the only one that managed to kill, albeit temporarily, my continuing interest in the singles charts.

  4. 29
    henry s on 5 Jun 2008 #

    Have to admit, I’ve never been much impressed with the glass-shattering vocals of Deniece Williams, Minnie Riperton et al. That’s What Theremins Are For.

  5. 30
    wichita lineman on 5 Jun 2008 #

    Re 28. Chart black-spots are intriguing. I’m sure Mike and I aren’t alone.

    Mine were early/mid ’75 when my football/Subbuteo obsession overrode everything including, it seems, listening to the radio. I remember Honey by Bobby Goldsboro suddenly being no.2 and Mud’s Oh Boy being no.1 when I’d never heard either before; I blame this blanking out on a combination of Bye Bye Baby and Telly Savalas’s mind-numbing runs at the top.

    My only other lapse was ’87. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Rod Stewart’s Every Beat Of My Heart (have I missed anything?). This was a point when I was deeply into fanzine/DIY culture, to an embarrassingly dogmatic degree.

    Having said that, I don’t think I could have retrospectively picked two better moments to zone out.

  6. 31
    Tom on 5 Jun 2008 #

    We’ll get to my chart blackspots in greater detail, but since we’re not even in my first real chart awareness yet (and not for a good while even) I’ll hold off on those details right now: autumn 86 to spring 87, basically, and I think no other time really, though there were spells where I followed the charts without much real enthusiasm for what was happening in them.

  7. 32
    Chris Brown on 5 Jun 2008 #

    By an odd coincidence, I heard on the radio today one of the last few I can think of that I hadn’t heard – but I’ll stop there as it’s fairly imminent.

    I don’t actually think I’ve heard this one for a while, but in my head it’s an excellent tune. I looked it up on a download site and found that the Niecey album has a six-minute version and one at 2:50, so I presume the latter is the 7″ cut. The Pale Fountains version is quite good too.

  8. 33
    Drucius on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Re: 28: “I’m fairly sure that Johnny Moped’s “No One”/”Incendiary Device” was out by now. (”STICK IT IN ‘ER LUG’OLE! STICK IT IN HER OTHER PARTS!” OK, so some of this stuff has worn better.) But yeah, The Cortinas’ first single wasn’t for another month or so”

    Yeah, Johnny was rather…unsubtle. Brilliant single though.

    A quick skek at the Wikipedia reveals that Fascist Dictator came out in June and No-One came out in August. I think my entire punk rock record collection at this time consisted of six or seven lonesome looking singles…

  9. 34
    Mark G on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Never heard that JMoped track until this morning: It’s on Mojo’s CD this month.

  10. 35
    Drucius on 6 Jun 2008 #

    I noticed that, 30 years later too. God, I feel old.

    It might sound pretty ordinary now, but it sounded like psycho bovver boys from outer space to me at the time.

  11. 36
    Mark G on 6 Jun 2008 #

    It sounds like that bloke on the anti-drink driving ads, the one with the barman doing all the voices.

  12. 37
    Waldo on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Deniece Williams was a bunch of smiles when she delivered this pert little number with a degree of luxury. “Free” was a pleasing enough little slow step but that said, it floated around as if in a dream sequence and never really came down to land any place but just drifted away tamely on a fade. My overall impression is that this is one of the chart toppers that may as well never have existed. Indeed it was only when I saw it on the listing that I was reminded of it. Forgotten also in the Waldo memory bank until I flipped through “Guinness” recently had been “Let’s Here It For The Boy”, a perfectly nice little jaunt from Deniece all of eight years later, which peaked at number two here but was number one in the US.

    One thing: Deniece is, like Suzy Q, a confirmed anglophile, and, also like Suzy, no stranger to BBC Radio broadcasts. Extremely likeable and decent lady by all accounts.
    .

  13. 38
    richard thompson on 7 Jun 2008 #

    A lot of chart music at this time seemed contrary to the punk scene, I thought it was Minnie at the time as well, I was 14 then, Noel Edmonds must have played this one as well.

  14. 39
    mike on 9 Jun 2008 #

    OK, having played the full-length version of “Free” several times of the weekend, I have reached the considered conclusion that it’s absoloutely bloody…

    gorgeous. One point to the Great British Record Buying Public, Gawd Bless ‘Em.

  15. 40
    Erithian on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Yes, another one that wasn’t my typical choice of listening back then, but was by no means unwelcome at the top. A quality piece of smooth soul, and you knew she meant it – can you say that of much RnB today? (cat amongst pigeons there possibly)

  16. 41
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Well yes but describing it would be Spoiler Bunny Orange Alert so…

  17. 42
    Tom on 10 Jun 2008 #

    I think you can, or just as high a proportion: soul singing is a set of techniques designed to convince an audience that the song is felt – the techniques change to fit the expectations of the audience, is all.

  18. 43
    Tom on 10 Jun 2008 #

    As DJP says, ample opportunity to discuss specific examples in the eras to come :)

  19. 44
    Tom on 10 Jun 2008 #

    (the techniques aren’t just ‘fooling the audience’ obv, they’re also techniques to allow the singer to access the emotions and feel them more during the performance – soul after all came out of a pretty intensive live performance culture so there’s the expectation of “meaning it” night after night, mood after mood – the much-maligned reality TV setup has actually brought this back as a feature)

  20. 45
    lex on 4 Aug 2010 #

    I’ve only just discovered this song – it’s SO GORGEOUS. I must have heard it loads before because my initial reaction was “oh it’s THAT one” – am sure it must have been sampled heavily throughout the ’90s. So languorous, the way the horns ascend with her voice is beautiful.

    Impetus for discovery – listening to Chicago juke producer DJ Nate’s forthcoming Da Trak Genious album (highly recommended btw), which is very reliant on cut-up and recontextualised pop/hip-hop/soul samples; his own “Free” stood out as one of the more obviously “classic” samples; it rung a bell of recognition but I couldn’t place it, googled the lyrics, found this on Youtube, had a revelation and immediately proceeded to itunes to acquire the This Is Niecy album (which is excellent all the way through, fyi).

    10 10 10 10, and I’m so happy that this sort of song can occasionally get to No 1 – would that it happened more often.

  21. 46
    thefatgit on 4 Aug 2010 #

    I was a kid when this was on the radio and I must admit I didn’t get it, but listening to it now reinforces why something as lush as this would sail over the heads of the pre-pubescent. There’s not a single aspect of the production, arrangement, performance or the song as a whole, that isn’t polished or out of place. Try to strip down the component parts, and there is quality right down to the twinkly bits. Deniece’s vocal technique isn’t the focus on this record, because she’s singing what she feels rather than singing what she wants us to think she feels, and I think that’s the main difference between Soul then and Soul now. There’s that gorgeous upstepping chord progression punctuating each verse which smoothes out leading to the chorus, where she cuts loose and plays with those high notes effortlessly. You feel it would be no trouble for her to match Riperton note for note, but like I said technique isn’t the focus, but feel is. If you concentrate on how it feels, then this is where it becomes a rewarding listen. Those smooth horns play alongside those bv’s and the barely-there but always-there bass and understated percussion carves a landscape of luxury where everything is bejewelled and opulent, but not garishly so. Close your eyes and she’ll take you there. You could lose yourself in such a landscape. A 9.

  22. 47
    nixon on 22 May 2011 #

    Deniece was from Gary, Indiana, the same town as the Jacksons, and now that I know that, it’s all I can hear in her accent.

    Gorgeous song, I had absolutely no idea this got to #1 but the fact that it did makes me smile inside. Like Tony Blackburn, I’m pleasantly surprised that the British Listening Public would go for something so… tasteful? Is that the word I’m looking for? It’s the sort of thing I’d *want* to be number one, but never *expect* to get there.

  23. 48
    wichita lineman on 24 May 2011 #

    “Subtle”, certainly.

  24. 49
    swanstep on 7 Feb 2012 #

    Only recently discovered this record (the 6 minute version), loved it, and was bowled over to discover that it got to #1 in the UK (hence that it had a Popular entry). Just fabulous playing, singing, and writing here (one feels sure that Rod Temperton, Quincy Jones, Chic etc. all heard this and knew they had to lift their games to compete):
    (An easy) 9

  25. 50
    Larry on 15 Nov 2014 #

    The previous commenters have categorized this record as “soul,” but to me there’s a strong jazz influence, and I also hear influences of Joni Mitchell in the swoopy vocals and key signatures. First time hearing it. I would give it 8.

    US #1 at the time- the oh-so-70s “Hotel California.”

  26. 51
    Inanimate Carbon God on 25 Jan 2015 #

    Terrific. A lovely hot bubble bath of a record. Just what we need before diving into the punk bearpit.

    I’m mashing it up with this, though – stuff the Sugarhill Gang, and stuff Jamaican toasters, these are the true roots of hip-hop.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yF6cBf133rA

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