Nancy Wilson's eyes and eyebrows are a big part of her act. From a young age, Nancy intuitively knew how to use them to dramatic effect, allowing her to put more meaning behind a song's lyrics than the original lyricist probably intended. In a single song, Nancy's eyes convey confidence, innocence, vulnerability and passion. But just as you become seduced by those tender expressions and arched brows, Nancy tilts her head back and unleashes notes like fireballs, hurled with enormous propulsion and precision. All of this—the theatrical interpretation, the dynamic phrasing and flashing doe-like glances—makes Nancy the greatest song stylist of the pop-soul era.As Nancy said in yesterday's installment, listening to her sing on record is only half the story. If you can't see her sell those songs with delicate body movements and facial expressions, you're missing much of the meaning. No one else during the 1960s and beyond could match Nancy's vocal finesse, delicate delivery or polish. Dionne Warwick, while a fabulous studio singer, was admittedly no actress. Shirley Bassey, though a powerful vocalist, was consistently over the top. And Dusty Springfield, while a delightful songstress, lacked accessibility.
In Part 2 of my interview series with Nancy, the sultry recording star talks about being torn between Ohio and a bigger stage, meeting Cannonball Adderley, moving to New York, working odd jobs, and singing at a club in the Bronx with hopes of attracting one of jazz and pop's top personal managers.
JazzWax: You said you wanted to know yourself better before committing to show business. How did you discover who you were?
Nancy Wilson: Well, it wasn’t something that came to mind when I woke up one day. I grew up very knowledgeable about life. I was blessed with a little common sense and a family that supported me. No one in my family was in show business, but I knew the deal and knew I had to proceed cautiously. I had to be sure I knew what I wanted and that I was making the best possible choices.
JW: So you resisted the pull?
NW: I just didn’t want to be swept away by show business too soon. I was very proud of being my mom and dad’s daughter. They never really fought against any of the decisions I made. When I was 18 years old, I decided against joining a band and went to college instead. I studied education, but the singing work was always there, beckoning. That constant lure made attending college for four years difficult, especially after having been on the stage so often when I was young. I was bitten.
JW: Did you enjoy college?
NW: Very much. I attended Central State College in Ohio for a year on a scholarship and was a good student. College had always been part of the plan for me. But no one had to sit me down with the rules and regulations about what to do after high school. I just wanted to go to college and try to live an ordinary life. At college, I wasn’t allowed to declare a major, but I did take a few music classes. To this day I still don’t know how to read music.
JW: How then do you know so many songs?
NW: The ears. If a song was played on the piano once or a band played a song down, I knew it.
JW: But how did you capture the melodies of songs that were new when you sang them?
NW: There are only so many places a note can go [laughs]. I was a very careful listener.
JW: Did you sing in college?
NW: As a freshman you weren’t supposed to go off campus on the weekends. Which made it hard because there was always work for me singing. I was constantly being pulled toward show business. After my first year, the pull was too strong. I loved performing too much. So I decided to leave college in 1956 to join Rusty Bryant's Carolyn Club Big Band. We toured for two years and recorded for Dot Records.
JW: How did you meet alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley?
NW: I met Cannon in 1958. Talk about a cliché—I met him on the corner of 52nd Street and Broadway. I was still with Rusty. The band was in New York to record before heading up to perform in Buffalo, N.Y.
JW: What happened?
NW: Rusty and I were walking down the street when we ran into Cannon. Rusty and Cannon knew each other. The three of us talked for a while. Cannon said his band was breaking up. Nat was going with Lionel Hampton and Cannon was going with Miles Davis. Soon after meeting Cannon, I saw him again in Columbus, Ohio. Rusty and I were playing at a club there called Marty’s 502. Cannon played there with Miles.
JW: Did you talk to Adderley?
NW: Yes. I knew he was managed by John Levy [pictured]. John managed all the greats—George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis, Dakota Staton and so many other superb artists. John had a huge reputation for being smart, tough and honest. So John was very much on my radar. I wanted him to represent me.
JW: Did you return to New York?
NW: Yes. In August 1959. My purpose was to meet John and get him to hear me sing. He wasn’t going to escape from this little girl from Columbus [laughs]. I took a job at the Triangle Handbag Co. for about a minute [laughs]. Then I learned the P.B.X. board, to be a phone operator. I ended up at the New York Institute of Technology as their switchboard operator and soon became secretary to the dean because his secretary quit. They were wonderful to me.
JW: How so?
NW: As things progressed for me, they allowed me time off to take publicity photographs and whatever else I had to do. My hours were from noon to 8 p.m., which allowed me time to sing at night. They went along and helped me out. I don’t know that things would have gone my way if they hadn’t been so supportive and accommodating. They wanted to help and were very good about it.
JW: Where were you performing in New York?
NW: I would hang out at this club in the Bronx called the Blue Morocco with my roommate, Sonja La Forte, who sang with organist Johnny "Hammond" Smith. Irene Reid was the house singer. I sat in with the band a few times. One day Irene broke her leg, so the club called me to replace her. I don’t remember all of the band members but I do recall that Arthur Jenkins was on piano.
JW: What was the next step?
NW: To get John Levy up there to hear me perform. I thought the impact would be stronger if John saw and heard me rather than just sending him a demo tape.
JW: How did you get John to make the trip?
NW: Oh, that was easy. [pause... laughs]. Look, when his assistant is from Ohio and knows you personally, and Cannon knew what I wanted, it didn't take much. I told Cannon, “I’m going to be singing at the Blue Morocco.” So John's assistant and Cannon both called him and urged him to go. He had always been telling them, “Look, I need to see her first.”
Tomorrow, Nancy talks about the song she sang that won over John Levy, what Capitol Records' A&R chief Dave Cavanaugh told John when he heard Nancy's demo, Nancy's first album for the label at the end of 1959, and what Nancy is thinking when singing a song.
JazzWax clip: To see Nancy's eyes and eyebrows in action, dig this late-1960s clip of Face It Girl, It's Over. Watch the clip once for Nancy's visual delivery—and a second time for the soulful vocal. There's a lot going on...