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Jun 08

DENIECE WILLIAMS – “Free”

FT + Popular55 comments • 4,199 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

  1. 1
    Tom on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Try as I might I can’t edit the picture so it includes a white-space border – sorry.

    Why is Deniece Williams breaking free of some horrible wallpaper?

  2. 2
    LondonLee on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Interior design in the 70s could be very oppressive.

    Lovely record, I’d give it a 9 easy. The 6-minute version is just sublime, has the same sweet, floaty air as Minnie Riperton’s ‘Loving You’ (with the same glass-shattering, squeaky high notes too)

  3. 3
    rosie on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Strangely enough this is one I have no recollection of either. I’ve only listened to it once and there was no flash of recognition.

    On first hearing it seems to be a pleasant and unremarkable bit of soft soul by a Diana Ross wannabe. I think I need to hear it more before I comment further.

  4. 4
    DJ Punctum on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Pacific mid-seventies soul; not the upmarket hustle of Philly, but the cool, long-held gazes of things like Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness,” Smokey Robinson’s “A Quiet Storm” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World,” for three.

    Earth, Wind and Fire’s principal member Maurice White makes a good segue point, as he began his career (when not depping for Roger Blank in the Sun Ra Arkestra) as a studio drummer for Chess Records in the mid-late ’60s. There he encountered the writer, producer and arranger Charles Stepney, a name less celebrated than those of Gamble and Huff, or Whitfield, but a man equally eager to lead soul music into a new and vaguely opulent dawn. Stepney was responsible for some of the most sublime musical art of the first half of that decade; he oversaw and co-wrote for Minnie Riperton’s early group Rotary Connection (an avant-garde Fifth Dimension) as well as orchestrating their still astonishing reworkings of songs like “Respect,” “Sunshine of Your Love” and the Stones’ “Salt Of The Earth,” and also provided the ideal framework for such visionaries as Marlene Shaw and Terry Callier to produce their most committed work.

    Stepney was another one of those who did not survive 1976 – he died that year, aged just 45 – and one of his last works, in collaboration with White, was “Free,” tailored for the then 25-year-old ex-Stevie Wonder backing singer Deniece Williams – ironically, “Free” went on to keep Wonder’s own “Sir Duke” at number two here in the UK. So the record is an elegy, of sorts, and though Williams seems already to be singing as a ghost for Riperton – the latter was still recording, but the breast cancer had already been diagnosed – the record sums up all that was warm and good about the best soul music of this period; the comforting conduit of bubble from the low-pitched electric piano, the distant but stalwart horns, the cloud-like non-motion of the song’s central harmonics – every element flows into each other, like rum into blackcurrant.

    Williams’ voice doesn’t soar quite as high as Riperton’s, but her performance is radiant, albeit slightly impassive. Her expansive tributes to the power of good union (“Whispering in his ear/My magic potion for love,” “Teasing hands, all his might/Give our nights such mystery”) cleverly mask the fact that “Free” is a song about not wanting to be in love, turning away from commitment; thus “But I want to be free, free, free” is a plea for extrication, and the aura of impermanence is discreetly underlined by the couplet, “Let’s not waste ecstasy/’Cos I’ll only be here for awhile.”

    Consider also the superhuman – but so generously so – version performed by Billy MacKenzie on the B.E.F. Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume 2 collection, where he finally becomes the bird he couldn’t quite draw on this pitiless and rather inadequate earth.

  5. 5
    jeff w on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Why is Deniece Williams breaking free of some horrible wallpaper?
    Cause you love her, baby?

    Cor, two excellent #1s in a row. It seems so long since that happened. The backing on this is great – especially the so-laid-back-it’s-almost-horizontal trumpet – and Deniece’s voice soars winningly over the top. In some ways I even prefer this vocal to the one on that other great 70s glass-shatterer, Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You”.

  6. 6
    Mark G on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Sorry, it’s just not my cuppa. I’d give it 4.

  7. 7
    lockedintheattic on 4 Jun 2008 #

    This really is one that I think needs repeated listens to reveal all its charms – every time I hear it I love it more, her voice is stunning on this – really controlled performance at times, soaring just when it needs to. Absolutely beautiful and a class above most of the other ballads this year. I think 7 is a little on the low side, easily worth an 8 for me.

  8. 8
    Tom on 4 Jun 2008 #

    You might be right – it’s gone up and up for me too. A 7 puts it in respectable company mind you. (Does everyone now see the link to the grand list of all entries so far in the top right description box? Much easier to find!)

  9. 9
    wichita lineman on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Blue satin trousers on TOTP, a vivid memory. Really a beautiful performance and lustrous arrangement, the unusual compression on her voice making those sensuous lines fuse with the cascading electric piano (shades of Rock Your Baby) and A&M ba-da-ba’s all the better. It sounds like a spring morning, everything just coming into full bloom.

    Never knew Charles Stepney was involved – did he do the ‘Niecey’ album too? And anyone know if it’s any good? – I always had this down as Gamble and Huff. My general feeling from the time was that everyone seemed pleased for her that this was such a surprisingly big hit. Still doesn’t sound like a no.1 to me, much as I love it (how unusual and balmy is the intro?). Kept her erstwhile boss from the top spot; Sir Duke sticking at 2.

  10. 10
    wichita lineman on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Yes, it’s nice to see Tony Blackburn genuinely chuffed at Deniece’s success on the Youtube TOTP clip, but the BBC backing is crapola compared to the 45 and DW herself slightly overdoes it.

    Blimey, it was a blue satin trouser SUIT!

    Oh, sorry DJP, didn’t notice you’d already bagged the no.2 spot. Must concentrate.

  11. 11
    lockedintheattic on 4 Jun 2008 #

    It doesn’t really sound like a number one to me either – its charms are too subtle, the record much more sophisticated and classy than the kind of ballad that normally resonates with the public enough to hit the top spot. Which makes it stand out as a number one even more, if there were more ballads like this in the world I’d dislike them a hell of a lot less!

    Thanks for the link – hadn’t spotted that (and having done so I still think it would be better company with the 8s than the 7s but then again I’m not the one writing these!)

  12. 12
    Billy Smart on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Ah, six minute full-length version – that makes a lot of sense. My copy of this is on a Ronco 20 Chart Stars album and has always seemed a bit truncated.

    Because if this record has one overriding quality its in its sense of expansiveness, of uncoiling and stretching, reaching outwards onto a higher and most ethereal plane of love. I always think of it and ‘At Last I Am Free’ by Chic together as a kind of internal medley in my head.

    And like Chic, I have a feeling that once you know the full-length version, the radio mix will seem a bit hemmed-in thereafter.

    We must be about to enter the period where some number ones have different versions on 12″s. Have you worked out a policy for which version you’ll be discussing when we get to them, Tom?

  13. 13
    Billy Smart on 4 Jun 2008 #

    The second BEF album also includes ‘I Don’t Know Why I Love You’ sung by Green Gartside as well as Billy Mackenzie’s take on ‘Free’. So, if you like Scritti and The Associates, its something that you really ought to have, if only for these two dreamy and fluid performances.

  14. 14
    Billy Smart on 4 Jun 2008 #

    TOTP Watch: The Tony Blackburn YouTube clip comes from the edition of April 21st 1977. Also in the studio that week were; Eddie & The Hot Rods, OC Smith, Berni Flint, Lynsey DePaul & Mike Moran, Delegation, David Dundas and Peter Gabriel, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Sir Duke’. That looks like a pretty good week to me!

  15. 15
    thevisitor on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Jeff W: Making it a hat-trick of great 70s glass-shatterers alongside Deniece and Minnie was Janet Kay’s Silly Games. Alas, not a number one – but should have been, though. That had a great extended version too.

  16. 16
    Tom on 4 Jun 2008 #

    #12 – good question. I wouldn’t say it was a “policy” but generally I’ve looked for the 7″ or radio edit* (in this case there either wasn’t one or it wasn’t very common). I’ll mention specific remixes or extended mixes sometimes, and of course it’s very much an area I expect the comments crew to weigh in on.

    *the exception being where “radio edit” means “swears taken out” – I’ll generally take the naughty versions then. But we won’t run into that issue for a good while.

  17. 17
    will on 4 Jun 2008 #

    This is another of those records I’ve changed my mind about over the years. As a small child I found it totally dull, but over time its brilliance has gradually unfolded to these (more mature) ears. It might sound light, but there’s a depth and soul to it that, as has already been already noted, is all too rare in Number One hits.

    Funny, the 7 inch that I’ve got lists the B Side as That’s What Friends Are For, which is different to what’s shown on the picture sleeve above.

  18. 18
    LondonLee on 5 Jun 2008 #

    Deniece also sings backing vocals on Minnie Riperton’s great (Stevie W-produced) ‘Perfect Angel’ album, she does some very strange high-pitched wailing on ‘Every Time He Comes Around’

    This reminds me a little of ‘Emotions’ by Samantha Sang which came out the following year, same sort of high dreamy mood but mostly I think because both make me think of end-of-evening slow dances at high street discos and I always have places like that in my mind when I hear them.

  19. 19
    Dan M. on 5 Jun 2008 #

    Ahhhhhhhhhh. That’s all I have to add to previous comments, especially #4…

    I bought her first album when it came out. I remember I liked it. It was in my last days as an R&B purist. Heard “My Aim is True” a few months later and it was all over.

  20. 20
    Tom on 5 Jun 2008 #

    Will #17: The picture sleeves we use tend to be from one European country or another, since UK singles hardly ever had them at this stage. So that explains the different B-Sides too.

  21. 21
    wichita lineman on 5 Jun 2008 #

    Will, That’s What Friends Are For was the follow-up – pretty sweet from memory, good tricksy time changes on the bridge and more glass-shattering towards the end – so I’m guessing you’ve got a re-ish.

  22. 22
    mike on 5 Jun 2008 #

    I remember the start of that April 21st 1977 TOTP. Eddie & the Hot Rods did “I Might Be Lying” (with new member Graeme Douglas from the Kursaal Flyers). As soon as it finished, the whole audience kind of turned their backs on them, in a “Thank God that horrible racket’s over” sort of way, and flocked over to O.C. Smith’s stage as fast as they could. Naturally, I was aghast.

    Which is really the problem that I’m having with making a fair assessment of most of these first-half-of-77 hits. So deeply was I entrenched in my “JOHNNY MOPED AND THE CORTINAS WILL SAVE US ALL!” bunker mentality that just about everything else passed me by.

    In my memory, “Free” is a dreary gloop-fest for The Mindless Brainwashed Masses Who Cannot Or Will Not See THE TRUTH. So I’ll go away and do some work on that perception!

  23. 23
    Drucius on 5 Jun 2008 #

    I was in the same bunker, but had a sneaking regard for this. Sexy, smoochy, beautifully sung and nicely produced, a 7.

  24. 24
    Drucius on 5 Jun 2008 #

    Incidentally, did Johnny Moped or The Cortinas even have a single out by now? I seem to remember them coming later in the year. I expect the Step Forward and Chiswick release dates are somewhere on the interwebs.

  25. 25
    lonepilgrim on 5 Jun 2008 #

    re #12 thanks for expressing my feelings about this song so well. The link to Chic’s ALIAF sprung to mind immediately. I’m a sucker for dreamy, ambient soul -if that’s the right term for it – I recommend ‘Sugar and Poison’ a compilation put together by David Toop a few years ago. I liked ‘Free’at the time and have grown to like it more and more – I’d give it 8.

  26. 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/

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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…

  34. 34
    Mark G on 6 Jun 2008 #

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

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.
    .

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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)

  41. 41
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

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

  42. 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.

  43. 43
    Tom on 10 Jun 2008 #

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

  44. 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)

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 48
    wichita lineman on 24 May 2011 #

    “Subtle”, certainly.

  49. 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

  50. 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.”

  51. 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

  52. 52
    lonepilgrim on 1 Dec 2019 #

    the full version is as ICG says at #51 “lovely hot bubble bath of a record” – the edited version makes the listening experience less soporific and more stimulating – an immense pleasure

  53. 53
    Deb James on 20 Apr 2021 #

    It’s always a great thrill when a record as gorgeous as this gets to number one. 8/10

  54. 54
    Gareth Parker on 11 May 2021 #

    I find this single very relaxing to listen to. Lovely stuff, 8/10 in my opinion.

  55. 55
    Gareth Parker on 11 May 2021 #

    I like the relaxed vibe to this single. I’ll go with 8/10.

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