Andy Williams’ prescient introduction of Nancy Wilson stated “To make a common name like Wilson stand out… you have to have an uncommon talent like Miss Nancy Wilson.” When googling “Nancy Wilson” many of the results include Nancy Wilson, one of the duo from the rock group Heart or the similar sounding Mary Wilson, the least controversial Supremes.
Wilson, who recently died from a long illness was born in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1937 (like Judy Garland’s spunky heroine in The Harvey Girls), to an iron-worker father and a domestic servant mother. After winning a local TV talent show at 15, she worked at many nightclubs in addition to her regular appearance on a local TV show Skyline Melodies. In the next few years, Wilson caught the attention of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who encouraged her to move to New York.
In 1960, she signed with Capitol Records, making her debut album Something Wonderful. It was a solid first effort featuring her signature song “Guess Who I Saw Today.” Her next album, a collaboration with Adderley, she grew in range and it might be her best recorded work, featuring another famous tune “Save Your Love for Me.” Throughout the 60s, she made recordings that were in a pop-jazz style, veering more into R&B/soul by the end of the decade throughout the mid-1970s. It is her work in the latter era that I think has her most underrated, consistently good material. “But Beautiful,” which features earthy, minimalist renditions of classic jazz standards and “Kaleidoscope,” which has slick and slightly funky orchestral arrangements that accentuate Wilson’s sultry vocals.
As was the norm for artists signed to a major record label in the mid-century, Wilson constantly churned out album after album, most of which contained a few gems, but a lot of filler. It would be fair to say that most of Wilson’s albums don’t fully capture her vitality, which is readily apparent in all of her live performances.
In the 1980s and early 1990s Wilson’s albums were the equivalent of heirloom strawberries topped with cool whip. In her middle age, Wilson was at the zenith of her vocal prowess. Her rich velvety tones were enriched like fruit soaked in rum, her phrasing and vocal range got only stronger, and her ability to go from whisper to a roar in a split second dramatically increased. The dated electronica arrangements (which thankfully died with the 80s), on the other hand, often sound like rejected Sonic the Hedgehog scores.
Wilson’s greatest asset as a singer was her unique ability to internalize every lyric of a song and turn it into a personal narrative (hence the term “song stylist”). This proved especially useful for cumbersome and corny songs such as “You Can Have Him” and “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” (which have tripped up vocal greats like Ella and Nina Simone).
Although she resisted the term “jazz singer” (not only because it’s box office anathema, but because she crossed over into virtually every genre), Wilson returned to straight ahead jazz for her final records, winning two of her three Grammys for her final two albums, RSVP and Turned to Blue. She lost a little bit of the projection from her prime, but her feeling and phrasing remained impeccable to the end.
Unlike most singers who take 20 years to retire, Wilson actually retired when she said she would (save for a couple of guest tracks). Her ability to quit while she was ahead further proved her class and good sense.
Here are 5 tracks that show the mastery of Miss Nancy Wilson.
The Masquerade is Over
This early track demonstrates how sophisticated and confident Wilson from the beginning as well as giving insight into her storytelling skills.
Ode to Billie Joe
Wilson’s more personable approach magnifies the cruelty and tragedy of Bobbie Gentry’s haunting ballad.
Guess Who I Saw Today/Teach Me Tonight
In the first of the double bill, Wilson projects a calculating sweetness that belies a simmering rage, while on the second Wilson swings out with a classy sauciness.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight
Wilson’s rawness and the soulful arrangement elevate this 70s standard.
How Glad I Am
This 1987 live performance of one of her most famous songs demonstrates Wilson’s exuberance for her craft.