Deniece Williams – Full Circle

After a stellar career in pop music, complete with accolades and awards, she’s glad to be back to her first love–gospel music.

by Teresa E. Harris

The life and times of Deniece Williams could easily be a made-for-TV movie.

At 48, she’s had more than her share of drama. After a "very Pentecostal" church upbringing–with many more "thou shalt not’s" than "you can’s" (her uncle was the COGIC bishop for the state of Indiana), she found her way to a lucrative pop career highlighted by hits that sent her life in an upward spiral toward success. Williams soared from background singer for Stevie Wonder to opening act for groups like Earth, Wind and Fire, to headliner, with hits like "Silly," "It’s Gonna Take A Miracle," and "Let’s Hear It For the Boy." But while the exterior was shiny and dazzling, real success was illusive. Inside, Williams was uncomfortable and unsatisfied.

Struggling and searching to find peace within herself led her back to her roots of gospel music and Jesus Christ. After her fourth child, a second divorce and a renewed recording career–this time in the Christian arena, Williams is on an entirely different track!

On a cold, rainy day in New York City, I met Williams at a rather plush hotel on Manhattan’s upper west side. Upon first glance, she’s rather unassuming, well, expect for that serious fur coat. As we go to the room that’s been arranged, we exchange the typical rhetoric about the weather, then we begin. She seems a bit reserved initially, but that quickly passes. "I gave my life to the Lord when I was 10 years old," she says as we do the let’s-start-at-the-beginning segment. "I remember everything about that day as if it were yesterday. It is very vivid in my mind. I remember what I said, I believe I even remember what I was wearing." Williams admits that her relationship with the Lord (like so many baby Christians) existed not really on her own, but on the strength of her grandmother’s relationship.

Williams grew up in Gary, Indiana. Her formative years were filled with her home church (three to four times a week) and gospel music. "I was involved with various groups and choirs, such as the Indiana State COGIC Choir. I had a close relationship with the Lord, but didn’t understand how to walk with Him. Unfortunately, in those days we weren’t being taught the Word of God." Williams’ grandfater was also a COGIC preacher. "The Scriptures they knew were the Scriptures that most of us know. We wore out Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the Easter story and the Christmas story; we were constantly reminded of the Scripture "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19-24, KJV)

However, as that Word went forth, Williams’ mind drifted into a lifestyle of affluence. "I would sit in the back of the church saying. ‘I want a house on the hill, a brand new car, and a couple of diamonds.’" She remembers thinking, "I refuse to stay on welfare!" Although Williams’ early Christian experience taught more about fear than freedom, she confirms that it also was a deterrent from temptation. "It kept me out of trouble," she says. "My grandmother had this face of Jesus that sat in my bedroom. No matter where I moved–He was watching." We laugh.

After high school, Williams attended college at Morgan State in Baltimore, MD. "It never crossed my mind that I would have a singing career. I went to school to study nursing. My mother was a licensed practical nurse. I wanted to be a registered nurse." Williams’ college career was cut shore, however, when she returned home to marry her high school sweetheart. Around the same time, a cousin from Detroit called and asked her if she’d be interested in auditioning to sing background for Stevie Wonder. Williams flew to Detroit, auditioned and returned to Indiana. "I never thought for a second that I’d get it," she recalled. But to her surprise, she ended up being one of the three chosen for the job. "I was scared. I didn’t know how to tell anybody at home that I had done this. I was going to blame my cousin," she said.

Williams decided to sing for a year to help build the couple’s finances (her husband was a college student), and then return to college. But her plans didn’t match up with God’s plan.

Williams toured with Wonder, had her first son, and then a second. During this time, she discovered within herself a desire and talent to write music (she’d always enjoyed writing poetry). According to Williams, "One of the songs I wrote was "Free to Be Me." I put a demo (demonstration tape) together and sent it out. Someone came back and said, ‘Who could sing this music but her?" I was writing in three octaves, not knowing that most people don’t sing in three and a half octaves."

One of the tapes went to Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire. As a result, in 1975, Maurice White, leader of EWF reached out to Williams, recorded her first solo project for his production company (with Columbia Records) and eventually helped her make the transition from background singer to writer and artist. Williams spent fourteen years at Columbia Records. One of the things she’s most proud of in her illustrious career that includes three Grammy Awards, an Oscar Nomination and an American Music Award was the formula of doing a gospel song on each of her recordings.

In 1980, Williams joined with friends, Phillip Bailey, Billy and Marilyn McCoo to present a gospel show at a popular Los Angeles club. "Jesus At the Roxy" fulfilled it purpose. Reports Williams, "God did something miraculous. Over three hundred people were saved." After that, Williams and Bailey decided to pursue careers in Christian music. "I was in the studio at that time with Tom Bell working on the album with the song "Silly" on it. I decided I was not going to do it. But God spoke to me and said ‘I need you to be uncompromising and stand still and be a light in a dark place. I think it was the first time I really felt I was in the right place."

Six years later, Williams remarried, left Columbia and went to Sparrow Records to pursue Christian music. Bailey, likewise went to Word. "We both prayed about it and felt God told us not to do traditional gospel records," she said. "I couldn’t anyway. I wasn’t a traditional gospel singer. But we felt God wanted us to do a gospel album with an urban, pop formula, similar to what we had done in the secular industry. The goal for Phillip and me was to get more gospel on R&B radio stations. That was the desire of our hearts and it happened."

Unfortunately, neither the marriage to her second husband nor the relationship with Sparrow was to last. "I went through a devastating divorce. It made me take a step back. I just wanted to lay down and not get back up. The righteous get knocked down, but they don’t stay down, they get back up. But I thought, ‘maybe I’ll just lay here for a while.’" By now, Williams had two more sons.

Somehow she found the strength and courage to get up. "I decided I had to get up and take a stand because nobody else was going to do it," Williams stated. "I thought ‘I guess I’d better search the Word of God and find some promises for me and my children and trust God that He’s going to do it."

So she got up, and she survived. But at first it was a survival filled with anger. "I was angry with God because I begged a long time for God to heal my marriage. But I learned out of that, that God doesn’t force anyone to do anything. God gave us a free will. He gives us a choice–the power to choose," Williams said. "God began to heal me."

Williams took the first step and God met her there. A theatrical production based in London made it possible for her to take her two youngest boys and live and work in London. The move was the fulfillment of a dream. She starred in the role of "Sister Carrie" in the London production of the play, Mama, I Want to Sing. From there she was able to achieve other goals–both entrepreneurial and musical. Presently, she has just released her new project on Harmony Records, headed by longtime friend and industry veteran, Raina Bundy. "There’s a family feeling (at Harmony), which I enjoy. Raina has a lot of respect for what I do. She compliments my weaknesses, and I think I do the same of her. We get along quite well and we both seek to glorify the Lord with the gifts and abilities that He has given us. All that we have learned in the secular industry we use to the glory of God."

Williams is committed to the label and says she plans to record more projects there. Her current release, This Is My Song is a collection of songs that Williams says reflects her own experience of "finding peace, hope and security in Christ alone, not in a career or an industry or a person."

Coming full circle, Williams has found comfort in her relationship with her church. In 1981, she rededicated her life and lifestyle to the Lord. She’s even dealing comfortably with life as a single woman and mother. She says, "I’m going to write a book one day. I don’t know when, but my new slogan is: God, send me an Isaac, I’m sick of Ishmael!"

"I know God hates divorce, but He loves the divorcee. God loves me," She affirms. "I always encourage people to walk with God and be patient and wait. So many of us are single and divorced because we didn’t wait on God. We hopped up in desperation and got married to someone we had no business getting married to in the first place. A lot of us get caught in relationships because of sin of one type or another. When you get caught in sin, you can’t hear from Jesus, you’re just not listening.

"Everyday, I ask God to give me balance in my life and strengthen me in my priorities. Everything in life is a decision. I had to decide on what I would be able to operate on financially, because it might mean having a fabulous house, but not having time with my children. It takes a sacrifice. At the beginning of my career I was on the road five or six months at a time and my mother was raising my children. I was uncomfortable with that. It takes a lot of faith, a lot of praying and a lot of trusing in God that He’s going to make it all work out for you, and that the bills are going to be met–food on the table and clothes for your children. It’s not easy.

"It’s been difficult at times, but it has built my faith and caused me to know that God is a promise keeper and not a promise breaker."

Reprinted from Gospel Today Magazine. For more information, please call 1-800-472-6731.