Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Wilson, Nancy

Singer Nancy Wilson came into her own voice on discs for Capitol and Blue Note in the early 1960s, with a youthful joy and agility that appealed to a wide range of listeners, not only jazz fans. But her jazz roots run deep, and since the 1990s she has rededicated herself to the genre, both as a performer and as a broadcaster.

Nancy Wilson

Nancy Wilson was born in 1937 in Chillicothe, Ohio, a medium-sized town that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. One of six children, her father was a foundry worker, and her mother cleaned houses.

Wilson has claimed she knew she wanted to be a singer by age four, and she began learning her craft by listening to records in her father's collection and singing in church choirs. Of the singers she listened to as a child, she has cited Ruth Brown, Nat "King" Cole, Billy Eckstine, Dinah Washington and Little Jimmy Scott as early influences.

Wilson's family moved to nearby Columbus when she was in her teens, and this larger city expanded her musical world. At fifteen, Wilson won first prize in a talent contest, which earned her a television show of her own called Skyline Melodies, for which she sang pop tunes by telephone request.

Even as she enjoyed this early success as a singer, Wilson had a backup plan to become a teacher, and enrolled at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, one of the first historically Black colleges in the United States. But in 1956, after one year of college, she dropped to go on the road with saxophonist Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band. While in New York with the band, she got a chance to sit in with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley after meeting him at a recording session.

Adderley was impressed with Wilson's talent and encouraged the young singer to move away from pop and towards a more sophisticated jazz style. In 1959, Wilson left Bryant's band and moved to New York, where she was soon filling in for vocalist Irene Reid at the Blue Morocco club. An introduction from Adderley led her to a contract with Capitol, which launched her career in a big way.

Wilson’s musical output is prodigious by any standard, encompassing over 70 albums. The first of these, Like in Love, featured Willie Smith on alto saxophone, and the tracks included Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower” and Ahmad Jamal’s “Night Mist.”

In 1962, Wilson joined Adderley for a record that remains a highlight of her career. Wilson’s exuberant duet with Adderley on the “guy’s song” “Never Will I Marry," which Anthony Perkins first sang in the Broadway show Greenwillow, is a standout. “Guess Who I Saw Today” is a dramatic one-two punch of a song about a cheating husband. It became Wilson’s first hit single and remains her signature song and a karaoke favorite around the world.

Despite Adderley’s encouragement towards jazz, Wilson’s subsequent recordings mined her appeal to broader audiences. A rhythm 'n' blues album, How Glad I Am, released in 1964, earned her the first of her three Grammys, and she enjoyed commercial success in an era when the well seemed to have run dry for many jazz musicians.

While the audience for jazz dwindled precipitously after the Beatles arrived in America in 1963, Wilson was a headliner in Las Vegas in the same venues as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Her records were among Capitol's best-sellers, and her television appearances were growing in number. By the mid-sixties, she had her own variety show on NBC, which earned her an Emmy for the 1967-68 season.

While some jazz purists viewed this kind of commercial success with a jaundiced eye, it should be remembered that Wilson never abandoned her love for jazz. Because of her ability to produce quality recordings very quickly, she covered a lot of ground in a short period of time, and many of these recordings count as classic jazz vocal performances.

On "Midnight Sun," from Wilson's 1967 album Lush Life, she enhances Johnny Mercer’s word-painting lyricism with her own dramatic delivery. Wilson also had the ability to invigorate shopworn pop songs like “Can’t Take My Eyes off You” and bring them closer to jazz territory.

Wilson's remarkable success at an early age, however, had its downside. In 1970, Wilson divorced drummer Kenny Dennis, with whom she had a son, after ten years of marriage and married Reverend Wiley Burton, with whom she had two daughters, Samantha, and Sheryl.

She chose to cut back her professional appearances while she raised her children and kept this promise, although she continued to perform on a smaller scale, mostly overseas. The family made their home in a small California desert town called Pioneerville. Wilson’s version of Jerome Kern’s classic “Folks Who Live on the Hill” provides a picture of the life she strove to live at that time. On her Live in Las Vegas album she commented about those “folks” as she closed the song: “They’re called the Burtons.”

In the 1980s, Wilson recorded mostly for Japanese labels because she was unhappy with the technical “enhancements” of American recordings at that time, and she was not afraid to voice opinion on this and other matters. In an interview for the Palm Springs Life magazine, she said, “When we were recording those Capitol albums, all of the musicians were in the same room playing…Now you record all by yourself with headphones on.”

In the 1990s, Wilson rededicated herself to jazz, and became something of an ambassador for jazz. In 1998 she was chosen to host Jazz Profiles, a nationally syndicated show on National Public Radio, which profiled a long list of jazz greats including a few interesting surprises, like Ella Fitzgerald's accompanist, Ellis Larkins. Wilson also hosted a biographical television special called Forever Ella for the Arts and Entertainment network.

In the new millennium, Wilson released two Grammy-winning jazz albums, in 2005 and 2007, and celebrated her seventieth birthday in 2007 with an extravaganza at the Hollywood Bowl that was hosted hosted by Arsenio Hall and featured performances by Ramsey Lewis and Natalie Cole. But in 2009 she suffered a collapsed lung that forced her to cancel an upcoming concert. She now considers herself “semi-retired.”

Select Discography

Like in Love, Capitol, 1960

Something Wonderful, Blue Note, 1960

(available as a two-CD set from EMI Gold Imports)

The Swingin’s Musical, with George Shearing, Blue Note, 1961

(reissued on CD in 2004 as Blue Note as B0001BKAU8 with extra tracks)

Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, Blue Note ,1962

(reissued on CD in 1993 as Blue Note B000005HBG)

Yesterday’s Love Songs/Today’s Blues. Blue Note, 1963

(reissued in 1993 as Blue Note B000007O1F)

How Glad I Am, Capitol, 1964

(rare; only available on vinyl)

Hollywood: My Way. Blue Note, 1963

(remastered in 2006 as Blue Note B000G5R90I)

Lush Life, Blue Note, 1967

(reissued in 1995 as Blue Note B000005H05)

Welcome to My Love, Blue Note, 1969

(reissued in 1994 as Blue Note B000005GXG)

But Beautiful, Blue Note, 1969

(reissued in 1989 as Blue Note B000005HFD)

What’s New, Toshiba EMI, 1982

I’ll Be a Song, Nipon Columbia, 1983

Nancy Wilson Live from Las Vegas, Capitol, 2005

RSVP, MCG Jazz, 2005 (Grammy winner)

Turned to Blue, MCG Jazz, 2007 (Grammy winner)


The Best of Nancy Wilson: The Jazz and Blues Sessions, Blue Note 1996

The Very Best of Nancy Wilson: The Capitol Recordings 1960-1976

(import from EMI Gold, 2007)

The Essence of Nancy Wilson: Four Decades of Music. Capitol, 2002

Contributor: Sue Russell