She memorably sang “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” on the iconic soundtrack of “Footloose” (1984).
This Saturday, Deniece Williams performs live at Bethesda Blues & Jazz in Maryland.
“This is going to be at least my third time performing there,” Williams told WTOP. “It’s one of the clubs that I really love to perform at because it’s very intimate, we have a lot of fun there visiting. I always see it as like my living room, you come to see me and we chat and we talk and I sing, so it’s an incredible venue. I’m excited to be there.”
Born in Gary, Indiana, in 1951, Williams grew up listening to all of the music greats.
“I was listening to The Supremes, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Lena Horne, just a plethora of different people,” Williams said. “My mom had a record collection and when she’d go to work, after school before she got home, I’d sneak into her room and play all of her records. … In the high school band, we played a lot of music from theater, ‘West Side Story’ and others, so I had a very well-rounded taste bud as far as music was concerned.”
She briefly attended Morgan State University in Baltimore before heading back to Indiana. She broke into the music business as a backup vocalist for Steve Wonder on iconic albums such as “Talking Book” and “Songs in the Key of Life,” followed by singing backup vocals on Roberta Flack’s album “Feel Like Makin’ Love” (1975).
“I’m actually on those tracks,” Williams said. “My cousin from Detroit, Michigan, would come to Gary, Indiana, with his grandmother and he would always brag about how he knew Stevie. … He got me an audition with Stevie and I sang as a background singer with him for three and a half years, an incredible music journey there. … Then I left him and went to sing with Roberta Flack, which was also an incredible experience. I learned so much.”
She eventually signed with Columbia Records for her debut album “This is Niecy” (1976) with the hit song “Free.”
“We’d be at rehearsal waiting for Stevie, so we started to write songs,” Williams said. “Right before Stevie would come out on the stage, he’d let [his backing band] Wonder Love do a song. One night, they said, ‘Let’s do Deniece’s song,’ so we went out and did ‘Free.’ What I didn’t know was sitting in the front row was Maurice White, Verdine White and Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire. After the show, their manager said, ‘Whose song was that?'”
Her career was off to the races, including duets with a childhood favorite, the legendary crooner Johnny Mathis. Together, they recorded the No. 1 hit “Too Much Too Little Too Late” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
“It was incredible,” Williams said. “We went into the studio, both very afraid. He’s this legend and I’m this neophyte. He said, ‘Listen, I’ve never sang with anybody before, so just tell me what to sing. You’ve done a lot of background work.’ We got in there and had a bottle of wine and at the end of that bottle of wine, we weren’t nervous anymore and sang that song. … He is the kindest, most humble person I’ve ever worked with in the industry. Just a sweetheart.”
In 1979, she expanded to different genres with the disco hit “I’ve Got the Next Dance,” followed by her first Grammy nomination for the R&B song “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” (1983).
“The record labels wanted us to all do disco-dance stuff because my friend, who I miss, Donna Summer, had come over and changed the face of music,” Williams said. “I’m on a television show and in the dressing room and all of a sudden I hear them say, ‘Disco divas Grace Jones, Vicki Sue Robinson and Deniece Williams!’ I said, ‘Huh? Now I’m a disco queen?’ I said, ‘OK, I’ve got a new identity.”
In 1984, Williams recorded “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” which was not only a No. 1 radio hit but was also nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars for the film “Footloose” about a Chicago teenager (Kevin Bacon) who moves to a small town and attempts to overturn a ban on dancing by the local minister (John Lithgow).
“A lot of people gravitated to that movie because of the message,” Williams said. “For me to be sitting there, I didn’t know where [in the movie] my song was, so when I saw Chris Penn learning how to dance to my song, it was kind of like the payoff, I sat there and cried. I really cried. I was like, ‘If my song could be anywhere in the film, this was the perfect spot.’ It’s just wonderful. I can’t go anywhere without singing, ‘Let’s Hear it for the Boy.'”
Williams even won Grammys in gospel categories for “I Surrender All,” “They Say,” “I Believe in You” and “This is My Song.”
“I had always put a gospel song on each one of my secular projects,” Williams said. “They knew it wasn’t just something I was jumping into. It was part of who I was.”
Today, her wardrobe from “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” is hanging up at a Hard Rock Cafe in Indiana, while she also just received the symbolic “keys to the city” in Kingston, Jamaica, on May 14.