Nancy Wilson blurs the line between jazz singer and pop singer, preferring to be called a “song stylist.” Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, on February 20, 1937, she is younger than Elvis, Little Richard and Esther Phillips, and only a year older than Etta James and Tina Turner. Yet, stylistically speaking, she is worlds away from these rhythm rocking contemporaries. Nancy is more like an earlier generation of vocalists such as Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan or Billy Eckstine.
At 15, after appearing at a talent show in Columbus, Ohio, Nancy was given her own twice-a-week television show, Skyline Melodies. She worked at the Carolina Club on Prom Night and six months later with the house band. Cannonball Adderley once told her, “If you ever come to New York give me a call.” He was managed by John Levy,
When Nancy Wilson arrived in New York City in 1959, she knew what she wanted: to launch a national singing career with John Levy as her manager and Capitol as her record label. She got what she wanted and the rest, as they say, is history. “What I heard that night,” recalled Capitol A&R man Dave Cavanaugh, “was the nasal quality of Dinah [Washington] and the tear of Billie [Holiday]. I signed her immediately.”
An early single, 1961’s “Guess Who I Saw Today,” a marvel of sophistication given the teen tenor of the times, became a staple on jazz radio and in black juke box locations throughout urban America. An album in 1962, Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, further raised her jazz profile and provided her with a second juke box hit, an edited-for-45 version of Buddy Johnson’s “Save Your Love For Me.” She also paid tribute to her idol, Little Jimmy Scott, with a much-loved version of “When Did You Leave Heaven.” Nancy’s highest charting Capitol singles, the GRAMMY® Award-winning “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” (#11 Pop, 1964) and “You’re As Right As Rain” (#10 R&B, 1974), are highlights in the total of 20 Pop and/or R&B-charting singles for Capitol.
The two albums which made Nancy Wilson a household name were Broadway My Way and Hollywood My Way, which are just what the titles imply, current and old tunes from the Great White Way and Tinseltown. Broadway’s standout track was Irving Berlin’s “You Can Have Him,” from Miss Liberty. Nancy the actress wrings every drop of irony out of Berlin’s heartbreakingly ironic lyric. The hit from Hollywood was the aforementioned “When Did You Leave Heaven,” the Richard Whiting-Walter Bullock gem from the movie Sing Baby Sing. Both albums came out in 1963 and are part of an extraordinary output of 37 original albums total in her 20 years with the label.
After countless television guest appearances, NBC gave Nancy her own network series, The Nancy Wilson Show, for which she won an Emmy® Award for the 1967-68 season. She also performed on shows like The Andy Williams Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and, over the years, either as herself or in the occasional acting role, on TV series like I Spy, Room 222, Hawaii Five-O, Police Story, The Cosby Show, Soul Food, New York Undercover and, lately, Moesha and The Parkers.
After years with Capitol, during many of which she was second in sales only to the Beatles, surpassing even Sinatra, Peggy Lee, the Beach Boys and early idol Nat King Cole, the business had changed and Nancy felt a new label might bring about a fresh start. So she moved to Columbia, where, despite her usual high aesthetic standards, she found it impossible to compete, sales-wise, with increasingly teen-oriented acts.
One of the more interesting albums from her later period came about in 1991, when singer Barry Manilow was given a sheath full of lyrics written by the late Johnny Mercer which the great songwriter had never put to music. Manilow added melodies and chose Nancy to sing the resultant songs.
In 1995, when National Public Radio (NPR) was looking for an articulate voice with both name value and jazz credibility to host their “Jazz Profiles” series, Nancy was the obvious choice. Not only did she know the music, but she knew the artists personally. Her first profile for this program was the 75th birthday tribute to Charlie Parker.
In the late 1990s, Nancy teamed up with MCG Jazz, a non-profit, independent, specialty record label, to record her only Christmas album, A Nancy Wilson Christmas, released for the 2001 holiday season.
Nancy gave the world of music anther gift on August 25, 2004, R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal). Her second MCG Jazz release features compositions never before recorded in her 50 plus years in the music business and special guests ranging from R&B star Kenny Lattimore to jazz legends George Shearing, Toots Thielemans and Phil Woods. R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) won the 2004 GRAMMY® Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. That was followed by one last recording, Turned To Blue, that won yet another Grammy for 2006.