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Nancy Wilson death: Grammy award winning singer dies aged 81

The New York Times called her a 'forerunner of the modern female empowerment singer'

Wilson celebrates her 70th birthday at Carnegie Hall in 2007
Wilson celebrates her 70th birthday at Carnegie Hall in 2007

Nancy Wilson, the three-time Grammy award-winning musician, has died aged 81 after a long illness, her manager has said.

Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, the vocalist made her debut in 1961 with the single "Guess Who I Saw Today", although she recalled in interviews that she first began singing around age 3 or 4.

"I have always just sung," she told NPR's Piano Jazz in 1994. "I have never questioned what it is. I thank God for it and I just do it." To the Los Angeles Times she said: "I have a gift for telling stories, making them seem larger than life. I love the vignette, the plays within the song."

She initially focused on R&B music, before establishing herself as a gifted "song stylist" of jazz ballads and torch songs in a career that spanned more than five decades. She left Central State College in Ohio after one year to pursue music full time. She had been touring continuously in her twenties when she met saxophonist Cannonball Adderly, who suggested she move to New York.

In 1959, she did, and what followed was a successful career that included a number of hit songs and albums, along with several prestigious awards.

The New York Times called her a "forerunner of the modern female empowerment singer... with the brass inflections and biting inflections to fuel it, Ms Wilson could infuse even the saddest song with a sense of strength". She spent her teenage years listening to the female singers she heard on a local jukebox, such as Dinah Washington, who had a sense of drama and ironic tone that impacted Wilson's own work.

Her biggest hit was the ballad "(You Don't Know) How Glad I Am". Released in 1964, it reached number 11 on the Billboard pop chart. Wilson released more than 70 albums.

As reported in Variety, she will also be remembered by the millions of TV viewers who followed her 1974-1975 NBC variety series, The Nancy Wilson Show, for which she won an Emmy.

In 1998, she received the NAACP Image Award, to acknowledge her active participation in the civil rights movement, including the 1965 march on Selma, Alabama.

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In 2004, The National Endowment for the Arts honoured her with a "Jazz Masters Fellowship" for lifetime achievement. She won three Grammy Awards, one for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording for her 1964 album How Glad I Am, and two for Best Jazz Vocal album, in 2005 and 2007.

According to AP, when she turned 70, in 2007, she was the guest of honour at a Carnegie Hall gala, where she said, laughing: "After 55 years of doing what I do professionally, I have a right to ask how long? I'm trying to reitre, people." She left the stage to a standing ovation. Four years later, she stopped touring after a show at Ohio University.

Wilson is survived by her three children, two sisters, and five grandchildren. According to a family statement, she did not want a funeral. A celebration of her life will be held at a later date.

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