No other jazz-pop singer is as fluent in post-War American music as Nancy Wilson. She has always understood that a Tin Pan Alley standard requires a different approach and attitude than a jazz standard and that Broadway showstoppers have a different sound than a pop, rock or soul hit. Remarkably, Nancy approaches each genre with a completely different feel and interpretation. And if we're being completely honest, Nancy is the only classic pop singer who can deliver 60s hits (pop, rock and soul) with complete authority and credibility. Which is why each of Nancy's more than 100 albums stands alone as a completely different listening experience.
Which brings me to Nancy's 47 albums for Capitol recorded between 1959 and 1979. These albums remain a staggering and stellar body of work. Every single style of music is captured here—from jazz sessions with George Shearing, Cannonball Adderley and Hank Jones to pop dates that showcase the latest Hollywood and Broadway hits arranged by Jimmy Jones. There are Beatles tunes, soul hits, bossa nova classics and offbeat r&b torch songs. Taken as a whole, these Capitol sessions alone set Nancy apart from all other singers. It's high time that EMI (or a more august jazz label) released them all, remastered, in a box set, perhaps titled The Complete Nancy Wilson Capitol Recordings.In Part 3 of my five-part interview with Nancy, the legendary vocalist talks about the song she sang in 1959 that took everyone's breath away, winning over Capitol Records, her rapid rise in the pop and jazz world, why she prefers to be called a "song stylist," and the power of luck and how she tilted the tables in her favor:
JazzWax: When John Levy came up to the Bronx to hear you sing, what was the showstopper?
Nancy Wilson: Guess Who I Saw Today. After he heard me sing that song, he told me later, he was won over. He called me the next day and said, “We’re going into the studio, and you’re going to record four demos with [pianist] Ray Bryant."
JW: What were the songs?
NW: One was Sometimes I’m Happy, another was Guess Who I Saw Today, and for the life of me I can’t remember the other two. After we recorded them, I went back to work as a secretary at the New York Institute of Technology.
JW: What happened next?
NW: John sent the demos to [A&R chief] David Cavanaugh at Capitol Records. John and I had already talked, and he knew the direction I wanted to go in. The day David received them he called John and said Capitol was interested. David also said, “Don’t let anyone else hear those demos.”
JW: A lot of dreams came true for you pretty fast.
NW: Within five months of arriving in New York to accomplish a specific set of goals, they had all been reached. John Levy was representing me and Capitol Records had signed me to a contract. In December, I recorded my first Capitol album, Like in Love.
JW: Why was John Levy the key for you?
NW: Because of his reputation. John [pictured] was known for caring about the artist and the artist’s career, not just the money. Everyone said so, starting with Cannonball. John had been a prominent recording artist himself, as a bassist, so he knew the artist from the inside. But he had said before he met me that after representing Dakota [Staton], he was finished representing girl singers.
JW: What happened?
NW: I made him change his mind [laughs].
JW: Seriously, what was the turning point?
NW: He loved what I did with Guess Who I Saw Today. It took his breath away. I had heard Carmen McRae sing that song when I was really young. I had already been singing it for six years by the time I met John.
JW: Did other people like it?
NW: They did, but when I was young they used to say to me, “Why are you singing a song that’s so heavy at your young age?” I said that I didn’t need to be hit over the head with a hammer to understand the pain and betrayal in that song.
JW: So where was that pain coming from?
NW: Nowhere. I just sing the song, child. I just get the message across. The song is so clear. I didn’t have to think about anything other than the story. The simplest thing to do on any song was to sing the words that were in front of me.
JW: What did John see in you?
NW: Passion. John knew I loved that song and that I didn’t have a diva’s attitude. He also knew that I needed him to accomplish what I wanted, which was to have as many people as possible hear me sing. After all these years, we’re still together.
JW: I read that alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley warned you to steer clear of pop.
NW: No he didn’t. I don’t know where that came from. The main thing that John and I set out to do was play supper clubs. See, when I think of voices, I think of “Little” Jimmy Scott. When I think of humor, I think of Dinah Washington. But how can you ignore Lena Horne [pictured], with the gorgeous clothes and sophisticated attitude and poise? She was my role model on stage.
JW: So there is no one single influence?
NW: Stylistically, I'm a combination of people. Not on purpose, but that’s what it boils down to. I wanted to wear great gowns. I wanted to play the Coconut Grove at the Hotel Ambassador in Los Angeles.
JW: What’s the difference between a jazz singer and a song stylist?
NW: I have no idea. I don’t know.
JW: Whenever you’re asked, you have a strong reaction about being a song stylist, not a jazz singer.
NW: I just leave it alone. [Pause]. I just tell people I’m a song stylist. A song stylist allows me the freedom to sing anything I want. If the lyrics and melody please me, then that should be the only criteria for what I choose to sing.
JW: Did you ever have acting lessons?
JW: You have enormous natural ability to sing and perform in a taut, passionate way.
NW: But I don’t understand. You can’t learn that in acting school. Not as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t get it. You either have it or you don’t.
JW: You can’t teach acting?
NW: I was a professor for a minute [laughs]. I taught a singing class briefly at Cal Poly in Pomona. But I found it was very difficult for me to critique performers.
NW: Because I’m of the opinion that it shouldn’t matter to you what I think. It’s what you think. Are you doing what you think you should be doing? That’s far more important than me telling you what you should be doing. It’s very important that you know who you are first.
JW: Which gets back to the point you made about coming to this discovery before committing to a life in show business.
NW: That’s right.
JW: As an artist, what are you thinking as you’re doing all the little things you do physically on stage? Is it a conscious thing?
NW: Nope [laughs]. I never think about it at all. I just do it. And it has always been that way. It’s a gift. If I had studied how to do all those things, who would teach me? See what I mean? It can’t be taught.
JW: Were you driven coming up?
NW: I didn't have to be. When you’re a kid singer like I was and you’re singing and working on stage all the time, it’s a forgone conclusion about what you’re going to do in life. For me, the work just came. I didn’t have to hustle or push myself into situations. They were always there.
JW: But we both know that opportunity doesn’t just fall into someone’s lap.
NW: Of course not. You have to take the steps first to put yourself in the right positions.
JW: How does this play out in Nancy Wilson’s career?
NW: I thought Rusty Bryant’s band was perfect for me to hone my craft. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to go to New York sooner than I did. But I played with a lot of local bands before Rusty.
JW: For example?
NW: I remember working with a big band—Sir Rolly Randolph and His Sultans of Swing in Ohio [laughs]. I played the maracas and sang three songs a set. I was 16 years old. My dad would go with me as my bodyguard. But he didn’t have to. At age 16 I was driving and was very responsible. I was adult even when I was a kid [laughs].
JW: Were you being urged to make the leap to New York sooner?
NW: Oh, goodness, everyone was trying to get me to sign contracts and everything. I said, “No, I’m not ready. Not for the national thing.” I needed to make sure I was comfortable with me.
JW: But there must have been something else holding you back.
NW: I was a big fish in a small pond in the Columbus area. I had had a TV show at age 15. That experience did a lot for me. It gave me confidence, but it also gave me a taste of what would be coming. So I already knew and found I wasn’t impatient. It wasn't fear. It was knowledge. When you take that kind of step, there’s no going back. You’re in it. Either you’re prepared and succeed or you fall short and never get another shot. I didn’t go to New York until I was 22 years old. I worked those seven years preparing for New York.
Tomorrow, Nancy talks about her recording schedule for Capitol, how she approached a recording session, why she doesn't listen to her recordings today, what the 1960s were like through her eyes, and why she was mostly unaware about rock.
JazzWax tracks: Nancy Wilson's first two albums for Capitol, Like in Love (1959) and Something Wonderful (1960) were American Songbook outings with Billy May arrangements. The two that followed, The Swinging's Mutual with George Shearing (1960) and With Cannonball Adderley (1961) are now jazz classics. Hello Young Lovers (1962) came next and was arranged by George Shearing.
The jazz dates are marked by sophistication, playfulness and enormous art. Listen as she performs like the sixth instrument in George Shearing's quintet—or how she sounds like the vocal version of Miles Davis against Cannonball Adderley.
And then in late 1962, something happened. Dave Cavanaugh at Capitol decided Nancy needed to be singing much younger and more exciting popular material. The result was Broadway My Way, a dynamite album arranged by Jimmy Jones and featuring trumpeter Don Fagerquist and tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins. Dig Make Someone Happy, Getting to Know You and Joey, Joey, Joey. Only Tony Bennett is Nancy's peer on Broadway renditions.
The followup in 1963 was Hollywood My Way, also arranged by Jimmy Jones. Here Nancy recorded drop-dead versions of Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, The Look of Love, More, The Shadow of Your Smile and others.
All of these albums (except Hello Young Lovers) have been remastered and are available at iTunes or at Amazon. Do yourself a favor and download at least one of them. You'll be hooked.
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 clip: Here's Nancy with Art Farmer and Benny Golson at the 1982 Playboy Jazz Festival...