February 20, 1937 - December 13, 2018
Among my favorite memories is of a night in New York City, around 1960, standing outside the Café Bohemia, a young man without enough money to go inside and longing to. The poster on the sidewalk announced the presence inside of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, adding, enticingly, “and introducing the exciting new singer Nancy Wilson!”
About two years later I found out what I’d missed that night when the album Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley was released. I fell in love immediately, of course, with the woman who possessed this charming, expressive, penetrating voice, and have remained smitten ever since.
Nancy Wilson died on Thursday, December 13, at 81 at her home in Pioneertown, California, after a 60-year career during which she sang jazz, R&B, gospel, soul and pop, performed as an actress in television productions and commercials, was active in the Civil Rights movement, and hosted her own television and radio shows.
Like Sarah Vaughan, Ms.Wilson never wanted to be considered a jazz singer, preferring in her case to be known as a “song stylist.” In an NPR interview with Marian McPartland, she said she loved a song “with a good story and good lyrics, a song that has a beginning, middle and an end.” As noted, she brought that bias to a number of musical genres. The jazz historian and critic Will Friedwald, in A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, called Nancy Wilson “a formidable presence in pop, jazz and blues” and “the most important vocalist to come along after these three genres were codified and move freely among them.”
Nancy Wilson was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1937 and said she started singing around age 3 or 4. Her early training came in church choirs, but she expanded into secular music in her teens. Her two greatest influences, she said, were the ethereal Jimmy Scott and the sultry Dinah Washington. She attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio, leaving after one year to pursue a lucrative nightclub-touring career in Ohio. It was during these years, her 20s, when she met saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. He suggested she move to New York, and in 1959 she did.
Once “discovered,” Ms. Wilson became prominent on the music scene of the day. And in addition to her collaborations with Adderley, she performed with pianist George Shearing and in other contexts. She became known for her treatments of “The Things We Did Last Summer,” “He’s My Guy,” and “The Masquerade Is Over.” Her signature song, though, beginning in 1960, was “Guess Who I Saw Today,” a song with a particularly dramatic story and a wonderful showcase for her kind of singing. The song of course remained in her repertoire for the rest of her life.
During her long and illustrious career, Nancy Wilson released more than 70 albums. 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. In 2004, she was honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
I got to see Nancy Wilson in performance just once, at Sculler’s in Boston sometime in the mid-’90s. The next day, I happened to be in an elevator at the indoor shopping mall Copley Place in the city. Incredibly, sharing the elevator with me were two women, one of whom was Nancy Wilson. I kept my mouth shut. This time, though, it wasn’t money I was lacking. It was temerity.
Guess who I miss today.
Sources: The Washington Post, Wikipedia, New York Times, National Public Radio