Nancy Wilson, whose skilled and flexible approach to singing provided a key bridge between the sophisticated jazz-pop vocalists of the 1950s and the powerhouse pop-soul singers of the 1960s and ‘70s, died Thursday at her home in Pioneertown, California. She was 81.
Wilson’s death, which came after a long illness, was confirmed by her manager, Devra Hall Levy.
In her long and celebrated career, Wilson performed American standards, jazz ballads, Broadway show tunes, R&B torch songs and middle-of-the-road pop pieces, all delivered with a heightened sense of a song’s narrative.
“I have a gift for telling stories, making them seem larger than life,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “I love the vignette, the plays within the song.”
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Some of Wilson’s best-known recordings told tales of heartbreak, with attitude. A forerunner of the modern female empowerment singer, with the brassy inflections and biting inflections to fuel it, Wilson could infuse even the saddest song with a sense of strength.
In her canny signature piece from 1960, “Guess Who I Saw Today,” a woman baits her husband by dryly telling him a story in which he turns out to be the central villain. In her 1968 hit, “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” Wilson first seems to throw cold water in the face of a woman who fails to notice her lover has lost interest in her. Only later does she reveal that she is the benighted woman scorned. The latter number, an epic soul blowout, became one of the singer’s biggest chart scores, making the Top 30 of Billboard’s pop chart and Top 15 on its R&B list.
Her biggest hit came in 1964, when “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” a rapturous R&B ballad delivered with panache, reached No. 11 on Billboard’s pop chart. A hardworking and highly efficient singer, Wilson released more than 70 albums in a recording career that lasted five decades. She won three Grammy Awards, one for best rhythm and blues recording for the 1964 album “How Glad I Am,” and two for best jazz vocal album, in 2005 and 2007.
For her lifelong work as an advocate of civil rights, which included marching in the 1965 protest in Selma, Alabama, she received an award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in 1993, and an NAACP Hall of Fame Image Award in 1998. In 2005, she was inducted into the International Civil Rights: Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. In 1967, Wilson became one of the few African-Americans of the day to host a TV program, the Emmy-winning “Nancy Wilson Show” on NBC. “As an artist then, taking such a political stand came with professional risks,” she told the blog Jazz Wax in 2010. “But it had to be done.”
Nancy Wilson was born Feb. 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, Ohio, the first of six children born to Olden Wilson, a supervisor at an iron foundry, and Lilian Ryan, a maid. Her father introduced her to records by mainly male artists, like Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine and Jimmy Scott, when he sang with Lionel Hampton’s Big Band. “Much of my phrasing is so similar to Jimmy Scott’s,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
From the age of 4, Wilson sang avidly, and by the time she was 10, she was the lead singer in the local choir. She had no formal training. “It’s all natural,” she told Jazz Wax.
As a teenager, Wilson became entranced by the female singers she heard on a local jukebox, especially Dinah Washington, whose ear for irony, and keen sense of drama, affected her deeply. “The general humor is a lot of Dinah,” the singer said of her style in an interview for the National Endowment for the Arts’ website in 2004. As the inspiration for her glamorous presentation, she cited Lena Horne.
At 15, while she was still a student at West High School in Columbus, Ohio, Wilson entered a talent contest held by the local television station WTVN, which led to a twice-weekly gig on its show “Skyline Melodies.” Until her graduation, she sang at nightclubs, sometimes with the 18-piece band Sir Raleigh Randolph and His Sultans of Swing.
Wilson spent one year at Central State College in Ohio before dropping out to pursue music full time. Still, she took care to hone her skills over a long period, touring continuously in the Midwest and Canada with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band, with whom she cut her first recordings, for Dot Records. Seven years passed before she felt ready to move to New York in 1959.
She came armed with a mandate to achieve three goals: to get signed by a key jazz manager, John Levy, who worked with Cannonball Adderley and George Shearing; to be signed by Capitol Records, which was then known for singers like Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee; and to have her first album produced by David Cavanaugh, who worked with those singers.
Within five months she fulfilled all three goals, despite holding down a day job as a secretary at The New York Institute of Technology. A high-profile gig at the Blue Morocco club had led to the contract with Levy, who got her the label deal, which connected her with Cavanaugh to produce her debut in April 1960. With splashy arrangements by Billy May, the album, titled “Like in Love,” was pure jazz, although, in the style of the day, it passed as pop.
For an early album, “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley,” she paired with the titular saxophonist to create a jazz touchstone. Her style impressed the critics. Writing in Downbeat in 1965, Leonard Feather hailed her performance at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles as an “extraordinary demonstration of the attainment, by a splendid singer, of an almost unprecedented mixture of commercial appeal, physical and music charm, and artistic integrity.”
Live performances, particularly in intimate nightclubs where audiences could see her gestures, became a hallmark. “Audiences want to see a song as well as hear it,” Wilson told Jazz Wax. “Part of what I do is in my body language, my hands, my arms. You miss a lot by just hearing my voice.”
At the same time, Wilson worked tirelessly in the studio, releasing three albums in a single year during her prime. She also made many guest appearances on TV shows, singing on variety programs (like “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show”) and acting in hit series (like “I Spy” and “Room 222”). She used her high profile to break down racial stereotypes. “That’s what I loved about doing ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’” she told Jazz Wax. “I didn’t have to play ‘black characters.’ I could just do comedy, which I loved.”
Over the years, Wilson’s music moved with the times. She cut songs written by the Beatles and Stevie Wonder on her 1966 album “A Touch of Today,” and later incorporated disco and modern R&B styles before moving back to jazz on her later albums, culminating in 2006’s “Turned to Blue.”
Throughout her career, Wilson kept the focus on music rather than celebrity, while making sure to carve out time for her private life. She married drummer Kenny Dennis in 1960, divorcing him a decade later. In 1973, she married Wiley Burton, a Presbyterian minister with whom she remained until his death in 2008.
She is survived by her three children, Kacy Dennis, Sheryl Burton and Samantha Burton; two sisters, Karen Davis and Brenda Vann; and five grandchildren.
Wilson remained proud of her holistic approach to music, preferring to call herself a “song stylist” rather than a follower of any genre. “I don’t put labels on it, I just sing,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s all in the ear of the listener. Let them decide.”