Years ago when Deniece Williams was nervous before performing a duet, she was handed a glass of wine to soothe her nerves.
The person who handed her the glass was full-time singing legend and part-time sommelier Johnny Mathis.
The two were about to record a song together. They had not worked together. They hadn’t even recorded a duet, yet, with anyone.
“I was so afraid to sing with him. I was afraid to even come to the studio,” Williams said in a recent phone interview. “I only had two projects out, and now I am singing with a legend I knew only from watching TV. He brought a bottle of wine and created such a level of comfort. Then we started.”
The album was the 1978 release “That’s What Friends are For.” The sessions produced “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
“When I told my mom I was singing with Johnny Mathis, she about had the Big One,” Williams said, laughing. “She was such a fan.”
Williams is singing with another master vocalist this weekend at Cabaret Jazz at Smith Center for the Performing Arts when she joins Clint Holmes tonight and Saturday during Holmes’ monthly appearances at the club (tickets are $35 and $45 and available on the Smith Center website).
Williams and Holmes will join for “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” her first hit “Free,” and her universally familiar No. 1 hit from 1984 Kevin Bacon dance/protest film “Footloose,” “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.”
Holmes and Williams hadn’t planned on singing together until they bumped into each other on June 24 during the Michael McDonald/Donald Fagen/Boz Scaggs “Dukes of September” show the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel. (The event was otherwise noteworthy because a valet attendant mistook Holmes for Clint Black when parking Holmes’ car.)
“I’ve known Clint for a long time, but I have not seen him for years,” Williams, who lives in Las Vegas, said. “He was talking about his shows at the Smith Center, and he said, ‘Come to the show!’ So I saw his show, and it was just incredible. He is so strong vocally and is looking so well.”
Afterward, Williams recalls, “We got to chatting so much, we decided we’d love to sing together.”
It is offered to Williams that an artist’s hit songs, the ones fans come to shows expecting to hear, have been called “mortgage songs.” As in, they are the songs that pay the mortgage.
“I actually was very fortunate to have about five mortgage songs, and I am more amazed that 35 years later, people still want to hear them,” Williams said. “It just astounds me that they want to hear me sing ‘Let’s Hear it for the Boy,’ or ‘Free,’ and when I listen to music with my grandchildren, I wonder how many of these songs are songs people will listen to with their grandchildren.”
Some prove their quality over time, similar to a fine wine. Or even a fine singer.