Deniece Williams' Footloose Hit Brings a Former Backup Singer to the Front of the Pack

UPDATED 06/18/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/18/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

Gliding through the living room of her Bel Air, Calif. home, Deniece Williams shows off a klieg-light smile—and the most fabulous fingernails in town. They are nearly two inches long, lacquered a brilliant pink and totally free of chips or breaks. "I'm just very careful, and I live with super glue," she confides, the way a skinny person might whisper diet secrets. "That was the only thing I had in school. I had no legs, no boobs, no behind. My claim to fame was that I always had nice hands."

Well, there was one thing more, perhaps. There was Williams' voice, a distinctive mix of righteous soul and sweet sensuality that first took flight from a gospel choir in Gary, Ind. Those pipes led Williams into Stevie Wonder's backup group, then to seven solo albums and now into a headlong run up the charts with Let's Hear It for the Boy, her joyous, up-tempo contribution to the Footloose movie sound track.

The No. 1 single has "kept a lot of Dom Perignon crossing this doorstep lately," says the singer happily. It has also wakened in Williams a sense of what it means to be famous. Driving near home recently, she passed four little boys at a lemonade stand. One of them recognized her, shouted out "Let's hear it for the boy!" and gave chase. Such incidents have persuaded Williams to heed her friend and neighbor Tito Jackson. Michael's big brother has advised getting "a house with a gate," and Williams has planted a FOR SALE sign in her front yard.

Like Tito and his famous brothers, Williams grew up in the shadows of Gary's steel mills. Her father headed the security force at one of the plants and her mother was a nurse. "We were lower middle class, not even middle," says Williams, 33, the oldest of four children. "It gave me goals to strive for." On Sundays she sang in church with fellow Pentecostalists; on weekdays she listened to records by Carmen McRae, whose precise articulation became a model for the young vocalist. Even now, Williams says, she sometimes sits in front of her radio angrily shouting, "Enunciate! Enunciate!" at mumbly rock singers.

Williams cut her own first single at 17, but when the song failed to penetrate radio playlists outside of Gary, she enrolled in nursing courses at Purdue University. By her second year, she recalls, "I felt like I was wasting the state's money and my time. I was studying other things—good times, mostly." At 19, she dropped out, married her childhood sweetheart and began preparing for a family. Then a cousin in Detroit arranged for an audition with his boss, Stevie Wonder, and Williams was suddenly hired to sing with Wonderlove, backing him up. Much of her next three years was spent on the road, and Williams now laments the time lost with sons Kenderick, 13, and Kevin, 11. The boys share their mother's six-bedroom home these days, but their father and mother divorced long ago. Last year Williams was wed again, this time to a Los Angeles minister, but she called it quits after nine months. "I married because I felt I should stop dating around and settle down," explains the singer. "It came from my head, not my heart."

Happily, the marriage of Williams to vinyl has proved more successful. This Is Niecy, her first solo album, went gold in 1977 followed by Too Much, Too Little, Too Late, a 1978 hit single recorded with Johnny Mathis, and It's Gonna Take a Miracle, an R&B number that earned her a 1983 Grammy nomination. Royalties from those songs and her current smash have helped fill Williams' closets ("I'm a clothesaholic") and her five-car fleet (two Mercedes, a Jaguar, a Karmann-Ghia and a Ford Granada) and have helped support her penchant for collecting Oriental fans and musical instruments from around the world.

Bibles, too, are prominent in the Williams' living room, and the singer plans an all-gospel album for her next release. In the meantime much of her own Scripture reading may be done in hotels, courtesy of the ubiquitous Gideons. Just back from a tour of England and Holland, she is preparing for some U.S. concert dates before returning to Germany and France later this month. A third try at marriage might be nice one day, she muses, and "once I settle down, I'm gonna be real settled." But not quite yet. "I feel the best I've ever felt in my life," says Williams confidently. "Right now, it's all just amazingly fun."

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