Over her 45-year recording career, singer Nancy Wilson has always delivered with distinctive style, an actress’s flair, and class. To TIME Magazine, “She is, all at once, cool and sweet, both singer and storyteller.” NEA Jazz Master, three-time Grammy winner, Emmy-winning TV host, and hitmaker on the pop and R&B charts, she has an enviable resume – and her music richly rewards a journey of rediscovery.
Nancy Wilson was born February 20, 1937 in the Chillicothe, Ohio, the first of six children born to Olden Wilson, a foundry worker, and Lillian Ryan, a maid. While Nancy sang in church choirs, she also caught the sounds of a nearby jukebox: Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, and fellow Ohioan Little Jimmy Scott (a key influence). At an early age, she knew she would be a performer. At high school in nearby Columbus, she won a talent contest that led to hosting a local television show called Skyline Melodies.
After a year at an area state college, she said to herself: “Look girl, if you’re ever going to be a singer, you’ve got to stop this stalling around and get out there and sing.” She soon was singing with saxophonist Rusty Bryant’s band that toured the Midwest. Along the way, she met the great Cannonball Adderley, who encouraged her to New York. Her break came when she filled in for the fabled blues / jazz singer Irene Reid. That gig brought executives from Adderley’s Capitol Records, who signed her to begin a long and fruitful relationship.
Her first popular success was 1959’s “Guess Who I Saw Today”, which remains a favorite of ballad connoisseurs. Her 1960s Capitol albums (some, unhappily, not currently available) were arranged by the likes of Billy May, Gerald Wilson, and Oliver Nelson, and feature excellent vocal work, whether on classic standards or pop tunes of the day. Her jazz chops, though, rest on two stellar albums with masters who were also Capitol artists: pianist George Shearing (The Swingin’s Mutual) and especially Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley. Nancy only sings on seven tracks, but delivers masterpieces ranging from R&B man Buddy Johnson’s “Save Your Love For Me”, to a tune from a minor Frank Loesser show called “Never Will I Marry”, to a haunting “The Masquerade is Over”, evoking her hero Jimmy Scott. She also had several mid-sixties popular hits, most notably the very soulful “How Glad I Am”, which won the 1964 Grammy for best rhythm and blues performance.
As the sixties came to an end, the rock era’s predominance pretty much ended the record labels’ commitment to high-quality jazz-and-standards recordings. Producer Dave Cavanaugh, happily, had Nancy do a final session in 1969: the intimate But Beautiful, She’s accompanied only by an exceptional quartet: Hank Jones on piano, Gene Bertoncini on guitar, young Ron Carter on bass, and drummer Grady Tate. It’s well worth tracking down among many fine Nancy Wilson recordings.
Ms. Wilson was a frequent and popular performer on television variety programs. Her poise and presence led to The Nancy Wilson Show on NBC. It only ran for one season, 1967-68, but won an Emmy. She also built a long list of TV acting credits, ranging from I Spy and Hawaii Five-O to The Cosby Show and The Parkers. From 1986 to 2005, she hosted National Public Radio’s Jazz Profiles series, carried on WICN and stations around the country and world.
Nancy continued to enjoy commercial success in the 1970s and onward, albeit in the service of more smooth / rhythm and blues / light jazz material. Her returns to jazz performance in those years tended to be as the subject of a “diva-esque” tribute. However – as she headed towards retirement from performance and recording in the early 2000s, she was named a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master in 2004. Around that time, she delivered superb valedictory statement to her musical roots in the American Songbook and jazz. She teamed up with the estimable Manchester Craftsman’s Guild (MCG) out of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit, minority-directed, arts and learning organization. She first put out a final Christmas album, the proceeds of which supported MCG. Then came R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) and Turned to Blue. Those two related projects were her “duets” albums, with guest artists the likes of George Shearing, Gary Burton, Hubert Laws, and Jimmy Heath on most tracks. Critic and scholar Will Friedwald states it well in his indispensable Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers: “Nearing seventy, she sounds better than ever; the voice is still dark…but light in the sense of weightlessness, as if she could take flight at any moment, and she still combines the best attributes of Jimmy Scott and Dinah Washington.” Both albums won Grammys for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.
With those recordings, and a final appearances at the 2007 JVC Jazz Festival and a 2011 concert at Ohio University near her home, Nancy Wilson retired from music performance. In 2008, her husband, Rev. Wiley Burton, died of cancer. She has had health issues but remains with us, turning 80 on February 20, 2017.
In addition to the Grammys and Emmy, Nancy Wilson has been honored as an NEA Jazz Master (2004), NAACP Image Award for Best Jazz Recording Artist (2005), United Negro College Fund (UNCF) Trumpet Award, and Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Award. Also in 2005, she was inducted on the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, recognizing her as a major figure in the 1960s civil rights marches. “This award means more to me that anything else I have ever received.”
Guess Who I Saw Today, 1994 performance:
I Wish You Love, 1960 recording - Billy May, arranger; Ben Webster, tenor sax:
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