“Free” by Deniece Williams (1976)

Deniece Williams is the most famous musician to emerge from Gary. Indiana whose last name isn’t Jackson. Much like Michael and his famous family, though, Niecy has a Motown connection. Her initial entry into stardom was a stint as a background singer for Stevie Wonder-she sings on the majority of his classic ‘70s albums. “Free” was her first single release on her own (barring a couple of “underground” releases as a youngster), and it remains my favorite song of hers.

There is no question that Deniece is an amazing vocalist. She’s the rare singer that has a “powerhouse” button, but uses it sparingly. Throughout “Free”, she is in service of the melody. Her vocal here is almost a whisper. She sounds enraptured, only letting loose towards the song’s conclusion. Think of Mariah’s “breathy” voice with a little more oomph to it. The lengthy (1:30) opening literally sounds like Deniece is floating in from the heavens. Then she hits the ground, the music starts, and your head is nodding to the mid-paced groove, cut with just a hint of funk courtesy of producers Maurice White and Charles Stephney.

Pop audiences generally know Niecy via the peppy “Let’s Hear It For The Boy”, a song that might be a little too cute for its own good. I used to hate it as a kid. I’ve grown to tolerate/begrudgingly appreciate it as the years have passed. “Free” feels featherweight, but in an ethereal, deeply soulful way. I’ve loved it since I was a kid, and my appreciation grows with each successive listen.

(also, “Free”‘s B-side, “Cause You Love Me Baby”, is almost as good as its flip. Deniece really stepped out of the gate with a bang.)

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