Tag Archives: Free

Free – Deniece Williams

Those of you who find your way over here regularly and have read pieces I’ve written on the Delfonics, Boz Scaggs, Marvin Gaye, Hall & Oates, the Bee Gees, Bobby Caldwell, Odyssey, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Michael Jackson, and so on, may remember that I like my soul and disco music smooth and opulent: steady-bottomed drums, deep bass, lush orchestration, electric piano, wah-wah guitar. That’s the stuff that really speaks to me.

The opulence of Deniece Williams’s Free was provided by the duo of Earth, Wind & Fire singer Maurice White and writer-arranger-producer Charles Stepney, a man who had already done nearly as much as the more celebrated Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff to move soul into new, rock- and psychedelia-influenced territory – he’d produced Marlena Shaw’s The Spice of Life (California Soul, Woman of the Ghetto), Terry Callier’s What Color is Love, and Minnie Riperton’s work (both solo and with the Rotary Connection). A pair of heavy-duty talents, then.

The full unedited album cut of Free starts out like an out-take from In a Silent Way, all abstract electric piano tinkles and out-of-tempo percussion, while Williams sings in her breathy upper register. After a full minute, the song kicks into life. At first it sounds like nothing so much as an R&B take on Harvest-era Neil Young, with Young’s trademark boom-boom-tssch drum pattern and the simplest of ascending basslines. At the first verse proper, though, Verdine White’s bass starts dancing and the song becomes something else entirely.

It’s a masterpiece of arrangement. White’s intricate bass playing provides all the of the internal movement: Al McKay on guitar plays a simple comp part, the horns are so laid-back they’re practically horizontal, and Jerry Peters’ piano, like the guitar, largely keeps it simple except in his brief solo and during the coda.

Williams’s vocal performance is similarly tasteful and soulful. Capable of nearly the same glass-shattering heights as Minnie Riperton, Williams largely underplays her hand during Free, singing quietly and intimately (appropriately for a song in which she twice sings “Whispering in his ear, my magic potion for love”), and reserving improvistation in her upper ranges for the song’s minute-long coda.

As celebratory of physical intimacy as it is, though, Free is ultimately a song about not wanting to be in love – “I’ll only be here for a while” is the last line of the final verse, while Williams’s plea “I want to be free, free, free” is underlined both by the pushed phrasing of those repeated “free”s (they fall on the quaver before the one) and the increasingly elaborate decoration she applies to the simple upward melody.

Free was a surprisingly big hit on both sides of the Atlantic: number one in the UK two years after it was recorded (and keeping her former employer Stevie Wonder off the top spot) and number two on the US R&B chart. Free, in its way, doesn’t sound like a hit. It’s so intimate, it doesn’t feel like it should be the property of the masses, especially compared to her other big hit, Let’s Hear if for the Boy (from Footloose), which went all the way in the US and hit number two in the UK. Free, as I’ve said, is a masterpiece, one of the very best of its type.

Deniece WIlliams

The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine – Claire Hamill

Another rainy autumn day, so wet I decided not to go for a run this morning, but to put it off till the afternoon instead. Giving me the time to write about of Island lesser-known folk revival-era artists

The cover of Claire Hamill’s debut album, One House Left Standing, shows the 17-year-old singer sitting on the wheel of some machine or other, while behind her stand dozens of cranes, which, far away though they may be, are plainly enormous. Heavy clouds hang threateningly overhead. It’s a striking image, contemporary and monochrome, the individual and the social context, far removed from the sort of thing one normally would expect to see on the cover of an Island Records folk album from the early 1970s. Island weren’t hugely big on making prominent social statements in their album covers back then.

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Hamill, as we have discussed, was very young when her first record was released. Precocious and talented, but callow (callowness is a bit of a recurring theme with British folk-revival artists). She wore her influences on here sleeves, most obviously Joni Mitchell. She covered Urge for Going, backed by Terry Reid, Simon Kirke from Free, Tetsu Yamauchi and Rabbit Bundrick, on her first album. The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine is a dead ringer for Clouds-era Joni  (being particularly reminiscent of the atmospheric medievalisms of Tin Angel). Her reading of Urge for Going, commendably ambitious though it is, is hamstrung by her inability to control her voice in its lower registers.

The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine is much more successful. Once again, it sees Hamill backed by some heavy-duty talent: John Martyn on guitar and Paul Buckmaster (the arranger most famous for his work with Elton John) on cello. That’s the benefit of having Chris Blackwell produce your album: the access to, and money to hire, the best musicians. As well as Reid, Kirke, Martyn, Rabbit and Buckminster, the album saw contributions from saxophonist Ray Warleigh, who had illuminated Nick Drake’s At the Chime of a City Clock the year before, and David Lindley, Kaleidoscope leader and longtime guitarist for Jackson Browne. Seldom will you find an album as full of great instrumental performances as Claire Hamill’s debut.

Tomorrow’s Sunshine is a strong-enough song and performance to justify the input of such stellar musicians. It was not the way of Drake, Martyn, Sandy Denny, Mike Heron or Robin Williamson to include contemporary details in their songs. Probably they were aiming at a timelessness they didn’t feel could be achieved with too many references to what was going on outside their own headspaces. Perhaps they couldn’t see outside themselves, or just weren’t interested, for reasons temperamental, emotional or chemical. The young Hamill did, and while the piling on in The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine is a little overdone (she was only seventeen, remember!), there’s a bracing streak of social-realism to a verse like this:

When he goes out on a Thursday
That’s the only day he leaves
For his unemployment benefit
And his weekly groceries
And he will never say a word
And if he does he’s never heard

And he’s the man who cannot see tomorrow’s sunshine

Hamill never became a big star, or even an enduring cult on the level of Martyn or Reid. Instead she has a solid reputation among fans of this sort of early-seventies singer-songwriter music, but also among fans of the twin-guitar UK prog band Wishbone Ash, whom she joined as backing vocalist in the early 1980s (around the time recent recruit John Wetton, ex-King Crimson, left the band to form the chart-topping horror show Asia), and devotees of new age music (1986’s Voices was composed of layers of her voice, many of which had been sampled and heavily processed – it sounds like Enya sitting in on a Cocteau Twins b-side). She’s a minor figure compared with Denny, Martyn, Drake, Richard Thompson et al., but worth checking out for the curious.

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Claire Hamill, One House Left Standing, 1971