Nancy Wilson is the last great female song stylist of the 1950s and the first American female pop-soul singer of the 1960s. Though she began by performing locally in her hometown in the 1950s, her Capitol career started at the tail end of 1959, just as one era was ending and another was beginning. Throughout the 1960s, Nancy was known for brassy updates of jazz standards and hip pop soul and rock renditions. And yet today, she hasn't been properly credited or celebrated by our national cultural institutions for transforming both. Nor has she been fully recognized for confronting and easing the racial barriers that made the 1960s a very different world from the decades that followed. Today, Nancy makes a select number of concert and club appearances (she will be appearing in New York in May).Nancy's career truly is remarkable. She recorded more than 50 albums—two albums a year for Capitol between 1959 and 1970 (her most recent album was recorded in 2007). Eleven of her singles appeared on Billboard's Top Pop Singles chart—while 22 landed on Billboard's Top R&B Singles chart. Nancy was nominated for 20 Grammy Awards—and won 3. Her polite, sultry style, her confident phrasing, and her exciting delivery paved the way for Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and so many other female pop and soul vocalists. As Whitney Houston said during a 1992 tribute: "Nancy Wilson's artistry has outlived the trends of various decades." How true. [Photo of Nancy Wilson by Robert W. Kelley for Life]
In Part 1 of my five-part interview with Nancy, 73, the statuesque songstress talks about growing up in Ohio, her early vocal influences, where she did most of her singing as a child, and how she wound up singing regularly on local TV at age 15 in 1952:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Nancy Wilson: I was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, but I grew up just outside of Columbus. My parents had six children. I’m the oldest so I had to keep the others in line growing up [laughs]. I have a brother who is close to me in age. My other siblings are younger by 10 years or more.
JW: What did your parents do for a living?
NW: They both worked. My mom was a hairdresser. My father was a supervisor at an iron foundry. He was a strong guy—6 feet-3 inches tall and 240 pounds.
JW: Did you learn to sing in church?
NW: Not really. I learned on my own. I did sing in church, but not my mother’s church. When my father remarried, I was 8 years old. My mother was Apostolic— which is Pentecostal. I wasn’t allowed to sing in my mother’s church because I liked to sings songs like Margie, Street of Dreams and The Nearness of You. So I went over to the Methodist Church to sing in its choir. By the time I was 10 years old, I was the choir’s lead singer.
JW: Did you have a childhood?
NW: [Laughs] No.
JW: Did you sing in concerts as a pre-teen?
NW: Yes, in a gospel concert. With my aunt and sisters—or they sang with me [laughs]. During a separate part of the show, Clara Ward [pictured], the great gospel singer, performed. For a little kid like me who loved to sing, hearing Clara Ward was a big deal. It was so moving. I loved it.
JW: But where did you get your training?JW: What a great image.
NW: It’s all natural. I was taken to singing lessons but the teacher told my mom that my voice would soon change, so lessons would be a waste. But my voice didn’t change. The confident attitude didn’t change either [laughs].
JW: How did you learn?
NW: I listened to the radio a great deal and heard a lot of male singers. My dad listened quite a bit to records by singers like "Little" Jimmy Scott [pictured], Billy Eckstine and Nat Cole.
JW: When were you listening to female jazz singers?
NW: When I was a little older I would go to the nearby coffee shop where there was a jukebox. I'd listen to Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker. I loved Dinah [pictured] most of all. When I think of me and the humor I use in my songs, much relates to Dinah'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.
JW: When I watch you sing in clips, there’s a show going on.
NW: What do you mean?
JW: Your facial expressions, your eyes, your body language, most of all your hands—you're acting while you're singing.
NW: That comes from years of performing on stage and in front of television cameras. I was always aware that there was an audience out there and that as a performer I had to make a warm connection. Audiences want to see a song as well as hear it.
NW: That’s why I've always enjoyed performing in smaller venues. People can see all of me there. In large venues, audiences miss the essence of who I am. Part of what I do is in my body language, my hands, my arms—all of that. You miss a lot by just hearing my voice. It’s a performance, it really is, and I love doing it.
JW: Which pop singer taught you the most about phrasing?
NW: “Little” Jimmy Scott. I used to love how he made one word sound like three, just bending the notes. I heard him when I was 10, when he was with Lionel Hampton’s band. Jimmy is from Cleveland, and my father had his early records, like The Show Must Go On and Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.
JW: You two share an artistic closeness, don't you?
NW: Oh, yes. We are very much soulmates as far as the lyric and delivering them is concerned. In 1966, I recorded a song that I had never heard Jimmy sing. It was I Wish I Didn’t Love You So. When I finally heard his 1962 version some years later, I realized that our intros and first 15 bars were identical. We had approached the song the exact same way. We feel the same way about songs.
JW: And you both have that deep passion.
NW: Oh yes.
JW: I read you won a contest and appeared on TV at age 15. True?
NW: Actually I didn’t win that contest. Where do these things come from? I want to clear that up. At the time, there was a citywide talent contest in Columbus. I was sent to represent my school. But when I auditioned at radio station WTVN and they heard me, I was asked not to participate.
JW: What do you mean, "not participate?"
NW: Just that. They wanted to have a contest and felt that if I were included, I would run away with it.
JW: How did they make it up to you?
NW: [Laughs] They gave me a TV show. I sang on the air twice a week. I was 15 years old.
JW: Were you nervous?
NW: The stage never bothered me. I enjoyed it. On TV, viewers would write in asking me to dedicate a song to someone. I was on the air 15 minutes twice a week, after the news. The show was called Skyline Melody.
JW: Your singing career started just like that?
NW: Just like that. Career-wise, things for me have always just come and have been there. But I’ve also been very selective about what was best for me.
JW: For example?
NW: Like knowing early on that I didn’t want to go out on the national level until I knew who I was as a person. 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.
Tomorrow, Nancy talks about attending college briefly, joining a local band, meeting Cannonball Adderley in New York, working as a switchboard operator and secretary, and her critical meeting with manager John Levy.
JazzWax note on appearances: Nancy Wilson will be making rare club appearances in New York on May 9th at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill and on May 10th at the Blue Note. She will appear again in New York on October 8th and 9th at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room. For Nancy's 2010 schedule, go here.
JazzWax tracks: Nancy Wilson's biggest influences were "Little" Jimmy Scott and Dinah Washington. One of the best collections of Scott's early recordings is The Savoy Years and More. It's available at iTunes or here. Dinah Washington's recordings from Nancy's youth are on Mercury. Some of this material is out of print. But Vol. 4 from The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury (1954-56) is at iTunes or here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Nancy Wilson in 1966 with Andy Williams singing On a Clear Day. Nancy's expressive interpretation locks you in (and certainly locked in Williams), making it impossible to take your eyes off of her...
In 1992, the Essence Awards honored Nancy Wilson. Here's a clip from the event hosted by Whitney Houston...