The silken voice of jazz and pop chanteuse Nancy Wilson was stilled two years ago in the Christmas season when she died at age 81 after a long illness at her Pioneertown, California. Although often identified as a jazz artist, she preferred to characterize herself as a song interpreter for the way she caressed lyrics, she said, “I do not do runs and—you know. I take a lyric and make it mine. I consider myself an interpreter of the lyric.”
Wilson was born on February 20, 1939 in Chillicothe, Ohio to working class parents who filled their home with recording by Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Jimmy Scott with Lionel Hampton’s Big Band, and especially Dinah Washington. At an early age she was singing their songs around the house and was also featured in her church choir. She said she knew she would be a singer by age 12.
The family moved to Columbus, Ohio where at the age of 15 and still in high school she won a talent contest. The prize was an appearance on Skyline Melodies, a twice-a-week local TV show on WTVN. She so impressed the station that she was soon made the regular host of the program. Until graduating from high school two years later she regularly performed in local clubs.
Her parents were leery of the chances for a successful career as a singer, so she enrolled in Central State College, a historically Black school to prepare to be a teacher. That did not last long. She dropped out to pursue her dreams. Wilson won a spot with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band in 1956 and toured with them throughout Canada and the Midwest for two years. She made her first recordings with the band on Dot Records.Nancy Wilson with jazz sax legend Cannonball Adderley, her mentor and sometimes collaborator.
Her big break came when she met saxophonist and jazz superstar Cannonball Adderley who became her mentor and eventually collaborator. He encouraged her to abandon touring with the band and to move to New York City where there was opportunity for a singer of her talent. Within weeks she secured a regular four-night-a-week gig at the popular night club The Blue Morocco. Adderley’s manager John Levy hooked her up with Capital Records which released her first solo single Guess Who I Saw Today which was so successful that Capital released five of her albums from 1960 to 62 beginning with Like in Love showcasing a Rhythm & Blues style. The collaboration Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley cemented her reputation as a jazz singer.
By the mid-60’s Wilson was a star in her own right. 1964 she released what became her biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100, (You Don't Know) How Glad I Am, which peaked at No. 11. From 1963 to 1971 Wilson logged eleven songs on the Hot 100, including two Christmas singles.Nancy Wilson at the peak of her career.
Wilson was featured on all of the top variety shows including the Ed Sullivan Show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Show, and Carol Burnett as well as on talk shows from the Tonight Show with both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, to Mike Douglas, and Arsenio Hall. She had her own series on NBC, The Nancy Wilson Show in the 1967–1968 season—a stunning breakthrough for a Black female artist—for which she won an Emmy.
Her good looks and statuesque figure led to acting. At first appearing as herself or fictional singers on programs like I Spy and The FBI she was soon doing dramatic guest spots on several series including Room 222, Hawaii Five-O, and Police Story. More recently she had recurring roles on Moesha, and The Parkers.Nancy Wilson, Eartha Kitt, Sydney Poitier, and Sammy Davis Jr. at Martin Luther King's funeral.
Despite a booming career in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and warning that it would kill her career with white audiences, Wilson found time to be an active supporter of and participant in the Civil Rights Movement including participation in the Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights. In recognition of that work she was won the Urban Leagues Whitney Young Award, and NAACP Image Award, was honored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site of which she said, “This award means more to me than anything else I have ever received.”
Although her days of hit singles were over by the mid-70’s Wilson continued to record critically praised albums for decades. She won two of her three Grammy Awards—the first was in 1965 for Best R&B Recording for How Glad I Am—for jazz albums late in her career, R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) in 2005 and Turned to Blue in 2007, both on the MCG Jazz label.Wilson at the 2007 Grammy Awards.
Wilson reaped many more honors and continued to record, tour, and act until ill health forced her to retire from touring 2008. She made a final public appearance on September 10, 2011, at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio where she noted “I’m not going to be doing it anymore, and what better place to end it than where I started—in Ohio.”
In 2001 Wilson released A Nancy Wilson Christmas with all proceeds benefiting the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a Pittsburg non-profit that promotes music and the arts to poor and minority children. That fine LP, did not, however, include her wonderful 1969 cover of The Christmas Waltz originally written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne for Frank Sinatra in 1954. No one has ever done that lovely song better.
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