As Nancy Wilson's visibility and popularity grew in the early 1960s, so did her workload. In the days before scandals were built into marketing plans and stadium concerts provided artists with instant mass exposure, pop singers had to work tirelessly in hotel supper clubs and recording studios. They also hoped their singles would win AM-radio airplay and that they would be invited on nationally broadcast TV specials. This is how Nancy sang her way into the hearts of millions, becoming one of the most highly regarded song stylists of her generation.But such a work schedule also hemmed Nancy into near-seclusion. Most of us view the 1960s from the outside, as a time of cultural upheaval and shifting musical tastes: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Motown and Stax. But there was another 1960s viewed through the eyes of a black female singer who was striving to remain relevant as public tastes and song choices changed.
In Part 4 of my five-part conversation with Nancy, the singer talks about her relentless performing schedule, her recording approach at Capitol, her growing social consciousness and responsibility, and the albums that were a turning point for her career:
JazzWax: As you’re recording in the 1960s, female soul-pop singers such as Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield are entering your space.
Nancy Wilson: Well, yes, they were on the radio [laughs]. Radio made it possible for everyone. When I was coming up in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a jazz station on at least one AM radio in every city. You could hear jazz all the time on the dial, no matter what time of day. Now you have to hunt for it. Back in the early 1960s, more and more singers were being featured on the radio, and listeners were exposed to many good singers who sang many different styles.
JW: As the 1960s wore on, were times increasingly hard for song stylists with a jazz feel?
NW: I think so. If I were 22 years old now starting out, I probably would not choose to do what I did because the marketing is very different today. Few record labels even have jazz divisions now.
JW: Did radio allow for greater competition among female soul-pop singers?
NW: Yes. But AM radio played my records a lot. Some of the disc jockeys talked about me so much on the air it was embarrassing [laughs].
JW: Why was AM radio so important?
NW: It was the frequency that older people listened to in cars when they drove to work and teens listened to on transistor radios. AM radio was everything for artists then. It's how your music got out.
JW: Was recording 47 albums for Capitol challenging for you?
NW: Not at all. We all did it at Capitol Records—Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dakota Staton. Every six months you were in the studio recording.
JW: That sounds like a tight period of time per album.
NW: It wasn’t, at least not for me. It took only three days to make an album then.
JW: Three days? Would you rehearse the music beforehand?
NW: No [laughs]. I would pick the songs with John [Levy] and Dave [Cavanaugh]. Then I’d hear the chart for the first time at 8 pm on a Wednesday night or whenever we’d record. The band would run it down. That would be the first time I heard how it would sound. Then we’d record three songs a night over three days.
JW: No rehearsing?
NW: No. I’d just pick up a chart and sing it. I would know the melody lines to the songs I picked in advance, of course. I would listen to demos of the songs and have the words and melody down. I was always extremely prepared before I entered the studio. I knew the material. But my approach on a song—how I would phrase the notes, tell the story—was always decided on the spot after hearing the arrangement.
JW: Do you listen to your Capitol recordings today?
JW: Why not?
NW: It’s all in my head and in my body.
JW: Because you don’t like the way you sound?
NW: No, no, no. I just don’t have an appetite for it. It kind of gets on my nerves when I go to someone’s house and they think they’re doing me a favor by playing my records for me. [Pictured: Nancy Wilson in a Johnson & Johnson ad with daughter Samantha]
JW: I don't understand.
NW: I have all that music in my head. I don't have to hear it again. I know the charts. I can hear them playing and me singing.
JW: Is that true of music in general?
NW: Pretty much. I prefer to listen to books more than music. And I read. I’m more of a reader and a listener of books.
JW: What were the 1960s like from inside the music business?
NW: It was a great time. I was having a ball, especially after I really caught on in 1964. That was the year of my popular live album [The Nancy Wilson Show!] and How Glad I Am, my biggest hit. At that point, I looked back and realized how lucky I had been over four and a half short years—recording on Capitol and with George Shearing, Cannonball [Adderley], Ronnell Bright, Jimmy Jones, Gerald Wilson and everyone. It doesn’t get better than that.
JW: But you were experiencing the '60s, weren't you? Or were you always stuck in the studio?
NW: Records took only 14 hours every six months. I was in supper clubs most of the time.
JW: How often did you sing in clubs?
NW: One year I worked 48 weeks. Eventually I had to put my foot down. No more.
JW: Was there much interaction between you and the Beatles? You were both on Capitol.
NW: I love Yesterday and recorded it as well as some of their other songs. But I didn’t know them or come in contact with them. I knew who they were, of course, but I didn’t pay much attention to the whole rock scene. It just wasn't my focus. Audiences followed that but as a performer, I didn't have the luxury or the time to follow music trends closely. Few recording artists did then. You're just too busy trying to remain out there. One time I was in Japan doing an interview... [pause]. By the way, is Cream a group Eric Clapton was in?
NW: Did I know that when I was asked? No [laughs]. The interviewer asked me something about Cream and I didn’t have a clue. It took me years to know what that question was about. Remember, I was constantly working or I was traveling to perform. The sixties for me were about work.
JW: So there were many different 1960s, depending on who you were and where you were.
NW: The 1960s were about Selma, Alabama, where I marched in 1965. Those years to me were more about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights struggle than the music scene. As an artist then, taking such a political stand came with professional risks. But it had to be done.
JW: Did you face racism growing up?
NW: Not really. In Ohio, I didn’t grow up with segregation, and I never went down South until way later. So I didn’t experience what many others did. But I’m so grateful to singers like Bessie Smith, Lena Horne and Nat Cole for breaking barriers in the music industry. And on TV. I did a lot of television in the 1960s, including shows hosted by Carol Burnett, Nat Cole and The Smothers Brothers. And I had my own TV show on NBC, of course, in the late 1960s.
JW: Performing so often in clubs, did you get weary of the material you sang?
NW: Goodness no. When you pick good songs with different paths to where you want to go, you never get tired of the material. Also, each audience is different, so the feeling in the room changes. That's where my humor comes in, making songs fun to sing, you know?
JW: Did Burt Bacharach ever consider using you instead of Dionne Warwick to record his songs?
NW: I have no idea. He was always tied to Dionne. They have a musical thing. We met once. That’s about it.
Tomorrow, Nancy talks about her view of publicity, why she never considered herself an A-list celebrity, and coming to the realization that she played a vital role in transforming America's thinking about integration in the 1960s.
JazzWax tracks: The next phase of Nancy Wilson's recording career at Capitol was an experimental one. Different concepts were taken on different albums. Yesterday's Love Songs, Today's Blues (1963) was arranged by Gerald Wilson and has a decidedly introspective, jazzy feel. Half the album featured just a big band. The other half included strings. Never Let Me Go, The Show Goes On and Satin Doll are prime examples of this change-up session.
Next was Today, Tomorrow, Forever (1964). Here Nancy was back to a more swinging pop approach, a wise a&r decision in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination months earlier and the gloomy mood that had settled over the country. The pick-me-up arrangements were by drummer Kenny Dennis, Nancy's husband at the time. The smart mix includes Wives and Lovers, What Kind of Fool Am I, Our Day Will Come and an endearing The Good Life.
How Glad I Am (1964) was Nancy's first big hit seller. Arranged by Gerald Wilson, the album includes the smash title song and two that Barbra Streisand smacked out of the park—Don't Rain on My Parade and People. Nancy executes both with enormous power and intensity. My favorites from this album are The Grass Is Greener, a waltz-time gem with a 1960s sound, and I Want to Be With You.
The Nancy Wilson Show! (1964) made Nancy a household name, giving listeners a taste of what they were missing at her supper-club performances. Recorded live at the Coconut Grove at Los Angeles' Hotel Ambassador, the album features the piano of Ronnell Bright, who conducted the orchestra. Ronnell, who was Sarah Vaughan's accompanist in the late 1950s and early 1960s, brings a special intimacy to this recording.
By 1965, Nancy was bringing more soul to her song interpretations. This is well exhibited on From Broadway With Love. The superb orchestra was arranged and conducted by Sid Feller, who brings orchestral zest to This Dream, I've Got Your Number, Young and Foolish, I Only Miss Him When I Think of Him, and a particularly rich Somewhere.
But Nancy's finest recordings for Capitol were yet to come. And after Capitol in 1979, her recording career continued another 30 years through to 2007. More reflections tomorrow.
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 singing Oliver Nelson's arrangement of For Once in My Life from the 1967 album Welcome to My Love. Doesn't get much better than this...