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Nancy Wilson: 1937-2018

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Nancy Wilson, a sassy and sultry jazz-pop singer with extraordinary vocal and visual performing talents who emerged in 1959 just as the pop charts were starting to be dominated by soft Brazilian voices, vocal harmonies by beach bands, British invaders and back-beat soul from Detroit and Memphis, died yesterday. She was 81.

Nancy was first and foremost a superb story-singer who let songs run through her and whose face and voice perfectly expressed the elation or pained determination detailed in the words. Never one to over-emote or over dramatize, Nancy sang with a soulful integrity, as if the songs were about something she herself experienced. Hearing Nancy on albums delivered only half the story. To see Nancy sing was to become part of the song's agony or ecstasy, and she never disappointed audiences, emerging from a song's turmoil with her head down in a bow, raising it with a broad smile.

She came up at the dawn of the 1960s during this country's most difficult and tumultuous time, especially for an African-American songbook singer. Young audiences were flocking to music with a beat, the Civil Rights movement was becoming increasingly visual and violent, and her black and white competition was formidable. The fact that she became established and revered so quickly in the very early 1960s is astonishing. And despite the rise of female pop singers such as Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey in the U.K., Diana Ross, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark and Aretha Franklin, Nancy remained the godmother of the pop vocal whose voice who could seduce or tear your heart out with vocal power.

I interviewed Nancy several times over the past 10 years, once for The Wall Street Journal and again for JazzWax, where her lengthy interview is posted for free and is among the blog's most popular reads. When I think of Nancy, I think of two things. First, her hands, which I was able to touch when seeing her backstage at B.B. King's some years ago. She had impossibly long and graceful fingers that slashed the air when she sang. And her mouth, which was a wonder to watch as she performed, curling to let out a note, dipping on one side to release a fusillade of emotion. First Aretha. And now Nancy. What a year. Sigh.

In tribute to Nancy, here is my original five-part interview with her in 2010 combined in its entirety:

Nancy Wilson was the last great female song stylist of the 1950s and the first American female pop-soul singer of the 1960s. Though she began by performing locally in her hometown in the 1950s, her Capitol career started at the tail end of 1959, just as one era was ending and another was beginning. Throughout the 1960s, Nancy was known for brassy updates of jazz standards and hip pop soul and rock renditions. And yet today, she hasn't been properly credited or celebrated by our national cultural institutions for transforming both. Nor has she been fully recognized for confronting and easing the racial barriers that made the 1960s a very different world from the decades that followed. 

Nancy's career truly was remarkable. She recorded more than 50 albums—two albums a year for Capitol between 1959 and 1970 (her most recent album was recorded in 2007). Eleven of her singles appeared on Billboard's Top Pop Singles chart—while 22 landed on Billboard's Top R&B Singles chart. Nancy was nominated for 20 Grammy Awards—and won 3. Her polite, sultry style, her confident phrasing, and her exciting delivery paved the way for Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and so many other female pop and soul vocalists. As Whitney Houston said during a 1992 tribute: “Nancy Wilson's artistry has outlived the trends of various decades." How true.

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?

Nancy Wilson: I was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, but I grew up just outside of Columbus. My parents had six  children. I’m the oldest so I had to keep the others in line growing up [laughs]. I have a brother who is close to me in age. My other siblings are younger by 10 years or more.

JW: What did your parents do for a living?

NW: They both worked. My mom was a hairdresser. My father was a supervisor at an iron foundry. He was a strong guy—6 feet-3 inches tall and 240 pounds.

JW: Did you learn to sing in church?

NW: Not really. I learned on my own. I did sing in church, but not my mother’s church. When my father  remarried, I was 8 years old. My mother was Apostolic— which is Pentecostal. I wasn’t allowed to sing in my mother’s church because I liked to sings songs like Margie, Street of Dreams and The Nearness of You. So I went over to the Methodist Church to sing in its choir. By the time I was 10 years old, I was the choir’s lead singer.

JW: Did you have a childhood?

NW: [Laughs] No.

JW: Did you sing in concerts as a pre-teen?

NW: Yes, in a gospel concert. With my aunt and sisters—or they sang with me [laughs]. During a separate part of the show, Clara Ward [pictured], the great gospel singer, performed. For a little kid like me who loved to sing, hearing Clara Ward was a big deal. It was so moving. I loved it.

JW: But where did you get your training?

NW: It’s all natural. I was taken to singing lessons but the teacher told my mom that my voice would soon change, so lessons would be a waste. But my voice didn’t change. The confident attitude didn’t change either [laughs].

JW: How did you learn?

NW: I listened to the radio a great deal and heard a lot of male singers. My dad listened quite a bit to records by singers like “Little" Jimmy Scott [pictured], Billy Eckstine and Nat Cole.

JW: When were you listening to female jazz singers?

NW:  When I was a little older I would go to the nearby coffee shop where there was a jukebox. I'd listen to Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker. I loved Dinah [pictured] most of all. When I think of me and the humor I use in my songs, much relates to Dinah's approach. She was of the song, talk-singing the story—and having a ball. It’s one thing to sing. It’s another thing to have fun doing it.

JW: When I watch you sing in clips, there’s a show going on.

NW: What do you mean?

JW: Your facial expressions, your eyes, your body language, most of all your hands—you're acting while you're singing.

NW: That comes from years of performing on stage and in front of television cameras. I was always aware that there was an audience out there and that as a performer I had to make a warm connection. Audiences want to see a song as well as hear it.

JW: What a great image.

NW: That’s why I've always enjoyed performing in smaller venues. People can see all of me there. In large venues, audiences miss the essence of who I am. Part of what I do is in my body language, my hands, my arms—all of that. You miss a lot by just hearing my voice. It’s a performance, it really is, and I love doing it.

JW: Which pop singer taught you the most about phrasing?

NW: “Little” Jimmy Scott. I used to love how he made one word sound like three, just bending the notes. I heard him when I was 10, when he was with Lionel Hampton’s band. Jimmy is from Cleveland, and my father had his early records, like The Show Must Go On and Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.

JW: You two share an artistic closeness, don't you?

NW: Oh, yes. We are very much soulmates as far as the lyric and delivering them is concerned. In 1966, I recorded a song that I had never heard Jimmy sing. It was I Wish I Didn’t Love You So. When I finally heard his 1962 version some years later, I realized that our intros and first 15 bars were identical. We had approached the song the exact same way. We feel the same way about songs.

JW: And you both have that deep passion.

NW: Oh yes.

JW: I read you won a contest and appeared on TV at age 15. True?

NW: Actually I didn’t win that contest. Where do these things come from? I want to clear that up. At the time, there was a citywide talent contest in Columbus. I was sent to represent my school. But when I auditioned at radio station WTVN and they heard me, I was asked not to participate.

JW: What do you mean, “not participate?"

NW: Just that. They wanted to have a contest and felt that if I were included, I would run away with it.

JW: How did they make it up to you?

NW: [Laughs] They gave me a TV show. I sang on the air twice a week. I was 15 years old.

JW: Were you nervous?

NW: The stage never bothered me. I enjoyed it. On TV, viewers would write in asking me to dedicate a song to someone. I was on the air 15 minutes twice a week, after the news. The show was called Skyline Melody.

JW: Your singing career started just like that?

NW: Just like that. Career-wise, things for me have always just come and have been there. But I’ve also been very selective about what was best for me.

JW: For example?

NW: Like knowing early on that I didn’t want to go out on the national level until I knew who I was as a person. I resisted the pull as long as possible. I knew that show business was not the greatest thing for your personal life. So I waited until I was sure.

JW: You said you wanted to know yourself better before committing to show business. How did you discover who you were?

NW: Well, it wasn’t something that came to mind when I woke up one day. I grew up very knowledgeable about life. I was blessed with a little common sense and a family that supported me. No one in my family was in show business, but I knew the deal and knew I had to proceed cautiously. I had to be sure I knew what I wanted and that I was making the best possible choices.

JW: So you resisted the pull?

NW: I just didn’t want to be swept away by show business too soon. I was very proud of being my mom and dad’s daughter. They never really fought against any of the decisions I made. When I was 18 years old, I decided against joining a band and went to college instead. I studied education, but the singing work was always there, beckoning. That constant lure made attending college for four years difficult, especially after having been on the stage so often when I was young. I was bitten.

JW: Did you enjoy college?

NW: Very much. I attended Central State College in Ohio for a year on a scholarship and was a good student. College had always been part of the plan for me. But no one had to sit me down with the rules and regulations about what to do after high school. I just wanted to go to college and try to live an ordinary life. At college, I wasn’t allowed to declare a major, but I did take a few music classes. To this day I still don’t know how to read music.

JW: How then do you know so many songs?

NW: The ears. If a song was played on the piano once or a band played a song down, I knew it.

JW: But how did you capture the melodies of songs that were new when you sang them?

NW: There are only so many places a note can go [laughs]. I was a very careful listener.

JW: Did you sing in college?

NW: As a freshman you weren’t supposed to go off campus on the weekends. Which made it hard because there was always work for me singing. I was constantly being pulled toward show business. After my first year, the pull was too strong. I loved performing too much. So I decided to leave college in 1956 to join Rusty Bryant's Carolyn Club Big Band. We toured for two years and recorded for Dot Records.

JW: How did you meet alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley?

NW: I met Cannon in 1958. Talk about a cliché—I met him on the corner of 52nd Street and Broadway. I was still with Rusty. The band was in New York to record before heading up to perform in Buffalo, N.Y.

JW: What happened?

NW: Rusty and I were walking down the street when we ran into Cannon. Rusty and Cannon knew each other. The three of us talked for a while. Cannon said his band was breaking up. Nat was going with Lionel Hampton and Cannon was going with Miles Davis. Soon after meeting Cannon, I saw him again in Columbus, Ohio. Rusty and I were playing at a club there called Marty’s 502. Cannon played there with Miles.

JW: Did you talk to Adderley?

NW: Yes. I knew he was managed by John Levy. John managed all the greats—George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis, Dakota Staton and so many other superb artists. John had a huge reputation for being smart, tough and honest. So John was very much on my radar. I wanted him to represent me. 

JW: Did you return to New York?

NW: Yes. In August 1959. My purpose was to meet John and get him to hear me sing. He wasn’t going to escape from this little girl from Columbus  [laughs]. I took a job at the Triangle Handbag Co. for about a minute [laughs]. Then I learned the P.B.X. board, to be a phone operator. I ended up at the New York Institute of Technology as their switchboard operator and soon became secretary to the dean because his secretary quit. They were wonderful to me.

JW: How so?

NW: As things progressed for me, they allowed me time off to take publicity photographs and whatever else I had to do. My hours were from noon to 8 p.m., which allowed me time to sing at night. They went along and helped me out. I don’t know that things would have gone my way if they hadn’t been so supportive and accommodating. They wanted to help and were very good about it.

JW: Where were you performing in New York?

NW: I would hang out at this club in the Bronx called the Blue Morocco with my roommate, Sonja La Forte, who sang with organist Johnny “Hammond" Smith. Irene Reid was the house singer. I sat in with the band a few times. One day Irene broke her leg, so the club called me to replace her. I don’t remember all of the band members but I do recall that Arthur Jenkins was on piano.

JW: What was the next step?

NW: To get John Levy up there to hear me perform. I thought the impact would be stronger if John saw and heard me rather than just sending him a demo tape.

JW: How did you get John to make the trip?

NW: Oh, that was easy. [pause... laughs]. Look, when his assistant is from Ohio and knows you personally, and Cannon knew what I wanted, it didn't take much. I told Cannon, “I’m going to be singing at the Blue Morocco.” So John's assistant and Cannon both called him and urged him to go. He had always been telling them, “Look, I need to see her first.”

JW: As you’re recording in the 1960s, female soul-pop singers such as Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield are entering your space.

NW: Well, yes, they were on the radio [laughs]. Radio made it possible for everyone. When I was coming up in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a jazz station on at least one AM radio in every city. You could hear jazz all the time on the dial, no matter what time of day. Now you have to hunt for it. Back in the early 1960s, more and more singers were being featured on the radio, and listeners were exposed to many good singers who sang many different styles.

JW: As the 1960s wore on, were times increasingly hard for song stylists with a jazz feel?

NW: I think so. If I were 22 years old now starting out, I probably would not choose to do what I did because the marketing is very different today. Few record labels even have jazz divisions now.

JW: Did radio allow for greater competition among female soul-pop singers?

NW: Yes. But AM radio played my records a lot. Some of the disc jockeys talked about me so much on the air it was embarrassing [laughs].

JW: Why was AM radio so important?

NW: It was the frequency that older people listened to in cars when they drove to work and teens listened to on transistor radios. AM radio was everything for artists then. It's how your music got out.

JW: Was recording 47 albums for Capitol challenging for you?

NW: Not at all. We all did it at Capitol Records—Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dakota Staton. Every six months you were in the studio recording.

JW: That sounds like a tight period of time per album.

NW: It wasn’t, at least not for me. It took only three days to make an album then.

JW: Three days? Would you rehearse the music beforehand?

NW: No [laughs]. I would pick the songs with John  [Levy] and Dave [Cavanaugh]. Then I’d hear the chart for the first time at 8 pm on a Wednesday night or whenever we’d record. The band would run it down. That would be the first time I heard how it would sound. Then we’d record three songs a night over three days.

JW: No rehearsing?

NW: No. I’d just pick up a chart and sing it. I would know the melody lines to the songs I picked in advance, of course. I would listen to demos of the songs and have the words and melody down. I was always extremely prepared before I entered the studio. I knew the material. But my approach on a song—how I would phrase the notes, tell the story—was always decided on the spot after hearing the arrangement.

JW: Do you listen to your Capitol recordings today?

NW: No.

JW: Why not?

NW: It’s all in my head and in my body.

JW: Because you don’t like the way you sound?

NW: No, no, no. I just don’t have an appetite for it. It kind of gets on my nerves when I go to someone’s house and they think they’re doing me a favor by playing my records for me. [Pictured: Nancy Wilson in a Johnson & Johnson ad with daughter Samantha]

JW: I don't understand.

NW: I have all that music in my head. I don't have to hear it again. I know the charts. I can hear them playing and me singing.

JW: Is that true of music in general?

NW: Pretty much. I prefer to listen to books more than music. And I read. I’m more of a reader and a listener of books.

JW: What were the 1960s like from inside the music business?

NW: It was a great time. I was having a ball, especially after I really caught on in 1964. That was the year of my popular live album [The Nancy Wilson Show!] and How Glad I Am, my biggest hit. At that point, I looked back and realized how lucky I had been over four and a half short years—recording on Capitol and with George Shearing, Cannonball [Adderley], Ronnell Bright, Jimmy Jones, Gerald Wilson and everyone. It doesn’t get better than that.

JW: But you were experiencing the '60s, weren't you? Or were you always stuck in the studio?

NW: Records took only 14 hours every six months. I was in supper clubs most of the time.

JW: How often did you sing in clubs?

NW: One year I worked 48 weeks. Eventually I had to put my foot down. No more.

JW: Was there much interaction between you and the Beatles? You were both on Capitol.

NW: I love Yesterday and recorded it as well as some of their other songs. But I didn’t know them or come in contact with them. I knew who they were, of course, but I didn’t pay much attention to the whole rock scene. It just wasn't my focus. Audiences followed that but as a performer, I didn't have the luxury or the time to follow music trends closely. Few recording artists did then. You're just too busy trying to remain out there. One time I was in Japan doing an interview... [pause]. By the way, is Cream a group Eric Clapton was in?

JW: Yes.

NW: Did I know that when I was asked? No [laughs]. The interviewer asked me something about Cream and I didn’t have a clue. It took me years to know what that question was about. Remember, I was constantly working or I was traveling to perform. The sixties for me were about work.

JW: So there were many different 1960s, depending on who you were and where you were.

NW: The 1960s were about Selma, Alabama, where I marched in 1965. Those years to me were more about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights struggle than the music scene. As an artist then, taking such a political stand came with professional risks. But it had to be done.

JW: Did you face racism growing up?

NW: Not really. In Ohio, I didn’t grow up with segregation, and I never went down South until way later. So I didn’t experience what many others did. But I’m so grateful to singers like Bessie Smith, Lena Horne and Nat Cole for breaking barriers in the music industry. And on TV. I did a lot of television in the 1960s, including shows hosted by Carol Burnett, Nat Cole and The Smothers Brothers. And I had my own TV show on NBC, of course, in the late 1960s.

JW: Performing so often in clubs, did you get weary of the material you sang?

NW: Goodness no. When you pick good songs with different paths to where you want to go, you never get tired of the material. Also, each audience is different, so the feeling in the room changes. That's where my humor comes in, making songs fun to sing, you know?

JW: Did Burt Bacharach ever consider using you instead of Dionne Warwick to record his songs?

NW: I have no idea. He was always tied to Dionne. They have a musical thing. We met once. That’s about it.

JW: Your TV show in 1967 and 1968 featured a wide range of guests.

NW: The show was great. I was able to let audiences know that there was more to me than singing in nightclubs. Cannonball [Adderley] was my favorite guest.

JW: You were close with the Adderley brothers, weren’t you?

NW: Yes. We were all card players together. Cannon didn’t play pinochle all that well, but Nat and his wife did, and we were tight. We played cards at our homes whenever I was in New York or they were in Los Angeles. Nat's house in Teaneck, N.J., was my home away from home. 

JW: You’ve worked with amazing arrangers.

NW: Sid Feller was a doll, a sweetheart of a man. Oliver Nelson, though—oh, my—Don’t Rain on My Parade and The Grass Is Greener. That was a biggie. Oliver wrote beautifully. And Jimmy Jones—oh my [sighs]. Another sweet man. Ronnell Bright was my conductor for quite a few years. Llew Matthews has been my conductor for 18 years. I had the same bassist for 20-something years. And drummer Roy McCurdy, who was with Cannonball, has been with me since Cannon passed [in 1975].

JW: Looking back, would you have done anything different?

NW: No. I’m content with where I am. Any little change could have made things different. I’m glad the way things went. It’s nice to reach my age and be comfortable in my house. I’m only doing six shows for the rest of year. I cut back starting in 2008.

JW: Why?

NW: My late husband was so ill before he passed away that year, I cut my schedule back dramatically to be with him. It amazed my husband that I would do that given how much work was a part of me. We were so close. It was so sad.

JW: When you were coming up, did you ever wish you had received more media attention, like your contemporaries in rock and soul?

NW: I’ve never been into all that “who I am” thing or comparing myself to others. I was a husband’s wife and a kid’s mother early on. I was 26 years old when I had Kacy with Kenny Dennis, my first husband. I was 39 years old when I had Samantha with Wiley Burton, whom I married in 1974.

JW: Did you want to be a sensation?

NW: You know, I was never really an A-list person.

JW: What?

NW: I mean the kind of person who would be at parties, getting in trouble and all the rest. When I wasn’t working, I was home with my family, where I wanted to be. And it’s the same way today. I love being home.

JW: Do you think your mature and graceful presence on albums, in clubs and on TV played a role in helping America get beyond race in the 1960s? NW: How do you mean?

JW: When I watch you sing and perform in clips, you seem to be telegraphing a message to audiences—“We’re all the same. See?”

NW: I like to think so. I didn’t encounter prejudice as I was coming up the way many earlier artists did. Fortunately, I came along at the right time. I have a feeling that if I had come along 10 years earlier it would have been a different story. That’s what I loved about doing The Carol Burnett Show. There was no color involved. I didn’t have to play black characters. I could just do comedy, which I loved to do.

JW: I think the more you appeared on TV with your warm personality, the greater your influence on integration. 

NW: I was trying to pull audiences together, to make people see that harmony wasn’t that hard, that being  black or white made no difference. My message was about artistry, and my audiences were made up of people. I had no idea who was in the camera lens or in a darkened club. They were just people who wanted me to do my best. I was completely comfortable, and they became comfortable, too. Music can do that. It can change the way people feel and think.

JW: There was always a ministerial quality about your approach, perhaps a result of your gospel roots?

NW: I had an uncle who was a bishop. And he knew  how I felt and still feel about God and the supreme being. Gospel is in my blood. In fact, I have four sisters and we all married reverends [laughs]. My second husband was ordained the week we were married.

JW: What did he say to you?

NW: He asked me when I planned to get in the pulpit. I said, “Uncle Nelson, you have your pulpit and I have mine” [laughs]. My mom’s mother once said to her, “Nancy should be singing for the glory of the Lord.” My grandmother’s comment put my mother in tears. The comment hurt her because she was so proud of me. I said to my mom, “What makes her assume I’m not doing that now?”

JW: So the subtext of your performances and the image you conveyed was harmony?

NW: Yes, exactly.

JW: Did your mother ever hear you perform?

NW: Not in the nightclubs. No, no, no. She would never do that. But she heard me in concerts.

JW: Throughout your career, you've always charted a graceful course.

NW: That’s the gift. Truly. I knew the path I wanted to take. That’s part of the thing you talked about. Being given the gift to sing and perform is one thing. Having the sense to handle it is another. I wanted to stay on the path I chose for myself.

JW: But you must have been a charmer, too.

NW: I knew how to get out of situations [laughs]. That’s part of the gift, too.

JW: What would you do back then when asked to do things you didn’t want to do?

NW: I would laugh. No one ever told me what to wear or how to sing. It just did not happen that way.

JW: But situations must have come up.

NW: I have a little finesse about me [laughs]. I can get out of things by keeping the mood easy and light. You just have to stay out of the way of those who want to put you on the wrong track.

JW: So looking back, it’s all good?

NW: The one good thing about reaching this point is that I can look back and know that I’ve used my life wisely, I’m proud of my kids, and I get time off to do nothing, which is wonderful. I couldn’t be happier.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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