Nancy Wilson: Grammy-winning singer who wove drama into jazz and pop

Her perfectly enunciated whispers and soulful crescendos secured her place in American music as a much-loved platinum artist

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

Nancy Wilson was an award-winning American singer whose beguiling expressiveness in jazz, R&B, gospel, soul and pop made her a crossover recording star for five decades. Wilson, who died aged 81, also had a prolific career as an actress and activist.

Wilson resisted the label of “jazz singer” for much of her career, although jazz was the form to which she returned time and again and in which she had her greatest critical and popular success. She considered herself above all “a song stylist”. “That’s my essence,” she said, “to weave words, to be dramatic.”

She sought to meld the seemingly incongruous styles of her two greatest influences: the ethereal Jimmy Scott and the penetrating and sultry Dinah Washington. Wilson’s singing was at once regal and vulnerable, and she inspired two generations of singers, including Patti LaBelle, Anita Baker and Nnenna Freelon.

As she looked to expand her audience, Wilson frustrated some critics with what one writer called her “increasingly mannered and even pretentious” string- and synthesiser-laden funk-pop romantic ballad albums of the 1980s and early 1990s. She was, by this reckoning, a stylist who had become too stylised.

Whatever the genre, no matter how glossy the arrangement, Wilson’s trademark remained her talent for achieving emotive crescendos – from sensuous whisper to soaring release – in a single track.

The singer in 1965 (Jack de Nijs/WikiCommons)

She was a supple interpreter of composers as varied as George Gershwin (“Someone to Watch Over Me”), Marvin Gaye (“Come Get to This”), Van Morrison (“Moondance”) and George Michael (“Careless Whisper”). She transformed two gossamer 1960s pop tunes, “Our Day Will Come” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” into soulful dramas.

Trained in church choirs, Wilson became a connoisseur of secular music in her teens and left Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, to pursue a lucrative nightclub-touring career in her native Ohio. She vaulted to prominence in the early 1960s through jazz collaborations with pianist George Shearing and saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Pieces such as “The Things We Did Last Summer,” “He’s My Guy” and “The Masquerade Is Over” were particular showcases for her talent.

“Her repertory is a treatise on variety and taste, spun by a voice of agile grace and knowing jazz inflection and phrasing,” a Time magazine critic wrote in 1964, calling her an heir apparent to Ella Fitzgerald.

In a subsequent flurry of albums, Wilson excelled at jazzy torch songs – stories about melancholy women and once-fiery love affairs burned down to their final embers.

“Guess Who I Saw Today,” one of Wilson’s signature hits, told the story of a housewife who casually informs her indiscreet husband that she saw him during his afternoon tryst. Her brassily rendered “Face It Girl, It’s Over” was an anthem about maintaining pride and strength by ending an unrequited relationship before it gets worse.

Her 1964 release “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” an exhilaratingly optimistic ode to love with a swirling jazz-pop arrangement, earned her a Grammy Award for best rhythm-and-blues recording.

For a period, she became one of Capitol Records’ biggest-selling stars – second only to The Beatles. In addition to making $30,000 a week from concert engagements, she and her first husband, drummer Kenny Dennis, began a management, music publishing and TV production company that reportedly grossed a million dollars a year.

She became one of the first black spokeswomen to appear in national radio and TV ads, pitching products including Thunderbird wine and Campbell’s Soup. She later worked in beer, baby products and car commercials.

Willowy and photogenic, she hosted a self-titled NBC variety show in 1966 and became a regular on similar programmes. She appeared on 1960s TV shows such as I Spy, starring her close friend Bill Cosby, and two decades later played Denise Huxtable’s mother-in-law on The Cosby Show. In the early 1990s, she played the mother of comedian Sinbad on his sitcom The Sinbad Show.

Wilson receives the best jazz vocal album Grammy in 2005

As she began to enjoy the fruits of her labour, she told jazz writer Leonard Feather that she “couldn’t care less” about reviewers who felt that she had strayed too far from her jazz roots or those who tried to narrow her musical boundaries.

“After all, what do you get into this business for in the first place if not to become a success?” she said. “Those jazz critics all want you to sing their way ... If you’re some funky down-and-out, working in a noisy, smoky joint, they’re liable to rave about you. But just you get cleaned up and buy some new clothes and work the big hotel rooms and begin to sell records, and they’ll turn against you for being ‘commercial’.”

She was born Nancy Sue Wilson in Chillicothe, Ohio, in, 1937, and she grew up in Columbus, where her father was an iron worker and her mother was a domestic worker. Her parents divorced but lived within a few blocks of each other. She said the women in her life – her mother, stepmother and grandmother – were “rocks” who encouraged the vocal talent that she first displayed in the church choir.

“When I was four years old, I knew I had a voice,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “The voice was there and it was in my face.”

Aged 15, after participating in a talent contest, she starred on a short-lived local TV show taking song requests from callers. Her hectic performing schedule in a local college led her to drop out after a year to work in a touring outfit led by saxophonist Rusty Bryant.

While on a swing through Columbus, Adderley was impressed with Wilson’s voice and her onstage poise. His recommendation to his manager led to a contract for Wilson with Capitol Records, home to singers such as Nat “King” Cole and Peggy Lee.

Capitol produced several acclaimed albums featuring Wilson backed by big-band arranger Billy May, as well as her well-received collaborations, both in 1961, with Shearing (The Swingin’s Mutual!) and Adderley (Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley).

The releases established her as a commercial force, and she readily adapted to the times by mingling jazz and pop on albums noted for their consistently excellent production qualities: Today, Tomorrow, Forever (1964), Lush Life (1967), Welcome to My Love (1968) – with her tours de force of “For Once in My Life” and “You Don’t Know Me” – and Now I’m a Woman (1970), the last with a lustrous interpretation of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s title song.

Her first marriage ended in divorce and, in 1973, she married Reverend Wiley Burton. He died in 2008. Survivors include a son from her first marriage, Kacy Dennis; two daughters from her second marriage, Samantha Burton and Sheryl Burton; two sisters; and five grandchildren.

In the 1980s, Wilson worked with jazz musicians including pianists Ramsey Lewis and Hank Jones, among others. She became a staple of the “new adult contemporary” radio market, with its emphasis on soothing love ballads with a funk-rhythm beat, such as “If I Had My Way.” She also put out Christmas albums.

Her material was perhaps not to every taste, but Wilson managed to please her core audience and impress reviewers even after a half-century of relentless touring with the impeccable strength of her voice.

She received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award in 2004 and, from 1996 to 2005, hosted the National Public Radio programme Jazz Profiles. She recorded two Grammy-winning celebrity-duet albums – RSVP (Rare Songs, Very Personal) in 2004 and Turned to Blue in 2006 – before gradually winding down her career.

Wilson used her celebrity to draw attention to social causes such as literacy and education among low-income black children. She also participated in civil rights marches, was a spokeswoman for the Urban League and used her stature in black communities to promote Aids awareness, prenatal care and breast-cancer screenings.

She criticised rap and hip-hop performers – and the record companies that she said encouraged them – for denigrating women and romanticising violence through their music.

Reflecting on her own career and the pressures she faced, she told the Kansas City Star in 2007 that she always took complete artistic responsibility for her music. “Never have I gone anywhere and said, ‘Make me somebody’,” she said. “I came here as somebody. Consequently, you can’t turn me away from what I believe. These are the songs I like. And I’ve never recorded anything that totally wasn’t my choice.”

Nancy Wilson, American singer, born 20 February 1937, died 13 December 2018

© Washington Post

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