Yet again – and this is happening a lot recently – a record comes along that I realise I know as soon as the vocals begin.
Free, by Deniece Williams (her 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 1st – 15th May 1977
But before we get to the lyrics, we have a sexy, slinky bass-line that enters and wraps itself around us. Mmm yes… Is there a more seventies sound than a funky bass-line? And I just got to be me… Free… Deniece Williams’ voice is very pure, crystal clear. She sounds very young. Was she?
Not particularly, she was twenty-six when she recorded her one and only chart-topper. Still, there’s something very girlish about the way she sings, teasing the words around the beat. Whispering in his ear, My magic potion for love… On first listen, this is standard light-soul fare. Except, she just wants to be free. She wants a man, but not the commitment. How that man pleases me… But I want to be free…
That’s quite the feminist statement, and not one that we’ve heard much so far in our four hundred plus chart-toppers. Women can be steadfast (Cilla, Dusty), they can be playful (Connie Francis, Rosemary Clooney), and they can definitely be disappointed by the men in their lives (Freda Payne, Tammy Wynette). But Williams here is brazen in wanting her cake and eating it too. And good for her!
Perhaps the message is the best bit of this song. On the whole, it’s a bit too slickly soulful, with a bit too much tinkly, shimmering production for my tastes. I’ve noticed that in the first throws of this disco/soul era, around 1974, the production was very thick and layered. Here it’s stripped back and feels a little lightweight. My heart sank when I saw ‘Free’s runtime of close to six minutes, but the single edit chopped things down to three. Actually, though, the six-minute version works as an extended slow jam, with a bit more guitar.
Deniece Williams (from Gary, Indiana, like a certain pop icon we’ll be hearing from very soon) had been releasing singles since the late sixties. ‘Free’ was her big breakthrough hit, though it only hit #1 in the UK. She would have to wait a few months to reach top spot in her homeland, in a duet with our most recent Christmas chart-topper, Johnny Mathis. Then came ‘Footloose’, and the classic ‘Let’s Hear It For the Boy’.
I suppose, in a way, this song brings us back to the easy listening, balladry that was bogging us down a few posts ago. But I can stomach this kind of short, sweet and slightly sassy kind of easy-listening. Next up… a whole double ‘A’-side of hardcore balladry. Party on!