Jazz Master of the Month: Nancy Wilson

Feb 13, 2017

With more than sixty years in the music business, over seventy albums, and three Grammys, 79-year-old singer self-described “song stylist” Nancy Wilson still holds an audience in the palm of her hand when she sings. 

Wilson was born in 1937. At age 15, she won a talent contest and began working night clubs in Columbus Ohio before leaving West High School. While studying to become a teacher at Central State University (then central State College), Wilson began brief tours in the Midwest, singing with big bands and making a regional first recording on the Dot label. 

Alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, himself a recent arrival in New York after the death of Charlie Parker, convinced Wilson to make New York her home and also persuaded her to sign with his personal manager. This eventually resulted in a Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley recording collaboration on Capital records that went to the top of the Billboard charts. That collaboration was ”Guess Who I saw Today,” which is a classic today!

In a few short years, four of Nancy Wilson’s albums had entered the Billboard top ten. By 1964 she recorded what became her biggest Billboard hit of all, “You Don’t know How Glad I am.” And after many TV appearances, Wilson got her own show on NBC called “The Nancy Wilson Show.” The show aired from 1967-1968, and won an Emmy. Wilson appeared either as an actress or as herself on many other TV episodes. “I didn't want to go out on the national level until I knew who I was as a person,” she said. “I resisted the pull as long as possible. I knew that show business was not the greatest thing for your personal life. So I waited until I was sure.”

Wilson felt good enough to make successful appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, The Tonight Show, Hawaii Five-0, Andy Williams Show, Smothers Brothers, Carrol Burnett, Cosby, Lou Rawls, Flip Wilson and  so many more including Arsenio Hall who gained his recognition by first performing as an opening act on a Nancy Wilson tour. 

Wilson was recognized as a great singer in multiple genres because of her sophisticated stage presence, smooth and sultry voice, and flawless articulation. She was called a “DIVA,” “The Baby,” “Miss Nancy,” “The girl with the honey coated voice,” “Sweet Nancy,” Fancy Miss Nancy.” But she was always most appreciated as a jazz performer, not only appearing with Julian Cannonball Adderley but also touring and singing alongside Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, Lavern Baker, Ruth Brown and recording with Ramsey Lewis, Benny Golson, Hank Jones and Art Farmer.

By early 2014 Nancy Wilson had been nominated multiple times for Grammys and received trophies for Best Rhythm & Blues recording for “How Glad I am” and best Jazz Vocal album for “R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs very personal)”(2004) and “Turned To Blue” (2006). Wilson also won the 2002 George Foster Peabody award for her NPR radio show “Jazz Profiles,” a show that ran from the mid 1990’s thru 2005.

“When I think of me and the humor I use in my songs, much relates to Dinah [Washington]'s approach. She was of the song, talk-singing the story—and having a ball. It's one thing to sing. It's another thing to have fun doing it.”

Wilson is the recipient of “the Whitney Young Jr.” award from the Urban League, the “Playboy Readers Poll award” best Jazz vocalist. She is the recipient of the National Endowment of The Arts “NEA Jazz Masters” fellowships award in 2002, NAACP “Image Award” Best Recording Jazz Artist” Wilson is a star on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame,” has been inducted into the “Big Band Jazz Hall Of Fame,” and has honorary degrees from The Berkley School of Music as well as Central State University. There is a street named after her in hometown Chillicothe, Ohio.

Wilson married twice, and has a son from her first marriage and two daughters (one adopted) from her second marriage.

Wilson performed her last concert on September 10th 2010 in the Baker Center Auditorium on the Ohio University campus in Athens Ohio. Of her very last concert Wilson said…

 “I just have a feeling that I’ll enjoy it. Because I enjoy what I do, and knowing it’s the last performance in front of a good-sized audience, it’ll just be fun for me. It won’t be sad. I won’t feel sorrowful about it. I think I’ll have a ball.”

According to Wilson, her idea was to come full-circle: “I’m not going to be doing it anymore, and what better place to end it than where I started—in Ohio.”

Nancy Wilson is presently 79 years old.