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.