In 1966, a shift began in Nancy Wilson's choices for Capitol. Like many pop-jazz artists who were striving to stay current in a market overrun by young radio-listening record-buyers, Nancy began to include rock and soul hits of the day. But unlike most pop artists who awkwardly tried to seem with it, Nancy was naturally comfortable in the genre. Actually she was more than comfortable. A Nancy Wilson interpretation of songs like And I Love Him, Sunny, Hurt So Bad and Gentle on My Mind made them deeper and hipper. Jazz purists call this pop. I call it jazz with a different American Songbook.Nancy's credible approach on the new material came because she wasn't really of the 1960s. There was no running off to India with the Beatles. No visits to Andy Warhol's Factory. No anger, no cynical remarks, no controversial statements. Just climbing inside songs and singing their stories as a mature young adult, with all of the responsibility that label implies. Yet throughout the decade, Nancy played an unassuming and influential role in the Civil Rights movement.
In Part 5 of my five-part interview series with Nancy, the underappreciated song stylist talks about her many arrangers, why she wasn't an A-lister, why she enjoyed appearing on The Carol Burnett Show, and her impact as a role model:
JazzWax: Your TV show in 1967 and 1968 featured a wide range of guests.
Nancy Wilson: The show was great. I was able to let audiences know that there was more to me than singing in nightclubs. Cannonball [Adderley] was my favorite guest.
JW: You were close with the Adderley brothers, weren’t you?
NW: Yes. We were all card players together. Cannon didn’t play pinochle all that well, but Nat and his wife did, and we were tight. We played cards at our homes whenever I was in New York or they were in Los Angeles. Nat's house in Teaneck, N.J., was my home away from home.
JW: You’ve worked with amazing arrangers.
NW: Sid Feller was a doll, a sweetheart of a man. Oliver Nelson, though—oh, my—Don’t Rain on My Parade and The Grass Is Greener. That was a biggie. Oliver wrote beautifully. And Jimmy Jones—oh my [sighs]. Another sweet man. Ronnell Bright was my conductor for quite a few years. Llew Matthews has been my conductor for 18 years. I had the same bass player for 20-something years. And drummer Roy McCurdy, who was with Cannonball, has been with me since Cannon passed [in 1975].
JW: Looking back, would you have done anything different?
NW: No. I’m content with where I am. Any little change could have made things different. I’m glad the way things went. It’s nice to reach my age and be comfortable in my house. I’m only doing six shows for the rest of year. I cut back starting in 2008.
NW: My late husband was so ill before he passed away that year, I cut my schedule back dramatically to be with him. It amazed my husband that I would do that given how much work was a part of me. We were so close. It was so sad.
JW: When you were coming up, did you ever wish you had received more media attention, like your contemporaries in rock and soul?
NW: I’ve never been into all that “who I am” thing or comparing myself to others. I was a husband’s wife and a kid’s mother early on. I was 26 years old when I had Kacy with Kenny Dennis, my first husband. I was 39 years old when I had Samantha with Wiley Burton, whom I married in 1974.
JW: Did you want to be a sensation?
NW: You know, I was never really an A-list person.
NW: I mean the kind of person who would be at parties, getting in trouble and all the rest. When I wasn’t working, I was home with my family, where I wanted to be. And it’s the same way today. I love being home.
JW: Do you think your mature and graceful presence on albums, in clubs and on TV played a role in helping America get beyond race in the 1960s?
NW: How do you mean?
JW: When I watch you sing and perform in clips, you seem to be telegraphing a message to audiences—“We’re all the same. See?”
NW: I like to think so. I didn’t encounter prejudice as I was coming up the way many earlier artists did. Fortunately, I came along at the right time. I have a feeling that if I had come along 10 years earlier it would have been a different story. That’s what I loved about doing The Carol Burnett Show. There was no color involved. I didn’t have to play black characters. I could just do comedy, which I loved to do.
JW: I think the more you appeared on TV with your warm personality, the greater your influence on integration.
NW: I was trying to pull audiences together, to make people see that harmony wasn’t that hard, that being black or white made no difference. My message was about artistry, and my audiences were made up of people. I had no idea who was in the camera lens or in a darkened club. They were just people who wanted me to do my best. I was completely comfortable, and they became comfortable, too. Music can do that. It can change the way people feel and think.
JW: There was always a ministerial quality about your approach, perhaps a result of your gospel roots?
NW: I had an uncle who was a bishop. And he knew how I felt and still feel about God and the supreme being. Gospel is in my blood. In fact, I have four sisters and we all married reverends [laughs]. My second husband was ordained the week we were married.
JW: What did he say to you?
NW: He asked me when I planned to get in the pulpit. I said, “Uncle Nelson, you have your pulpit and I have mine” [laughs]. My mom’s mother once said to her, “Nancy should be singing for the glory of the Lord.” My grandmother’s comment put my mother in tears. The comment hurt her because she was so proud of me. I said to my mom, “What makes her assume I’m not doing that now?”
JW: So the subtext of your performances and the image you conveyed was harmony?
NW: Yes, exactly.
JW: Did your mother ever hear you perform?
NW: Not in the nightclubs. No, no, no. She would never do that. But she heard me in concerts.
JW: Throughout your career, you've always charted a graceful course.
NW: That’s the gift. Truly. I knew the path I wanted to take. That’s part of the thing you talked about. Being given the gift to sing and perform is one thing. Having the sense to handle it is another. I wanted to stay on the path I chose for myself.
JW: But you must have been a charmer, too.
NW: I knew how to get out of situations [laughs]. That’s part of the gift, too.
JW: What would you do back then when asked to do things you didn’t want to do?
NW: I would laugh. No one ever told me what to wear or how to sing. It just did not happen that way.
JW: But situations must have come up.
NW: I have a little finesse about me [laughs]. I can get out of things by keeping the mood easy and light. You just have to stay out of the way of those who want to put you on the wrong track.
JW: So looking back, it’s all good?
NW: The one good thing about reaching this point is that I can look back and know that I’ve used my life wisely, I’m proud of my kids, and I get time off to do nothing, which is wonderful. I couldn’t be happier.
JazzWax tracks: Nancy's Capitol period from 1966 onward takes some interesting and potent turns.
In 1966, Nancy recorded two Capitol gems: Tender Loving Care arranged by Billy May and A Touch of Today arranged by Oliver Nelson. The Billy May session is divided neatly among band and strings tracks. May created a massive sound for Nancy that was brassy and sophisticated. Dig Love-Wise and Try a Little Tenderness. The Oliver Nelson session was a classic '60s big-band rock sound that kicked off Nancy's new approach to contemporary music. You've Got Your Troubles, Uptight, Call Me and Goin' Out of My Head are prime covers.
And now for the answer to the question so many readers have been asking all week—"What's your favorite Capitol recording by Nancy?"): I'd have to choose Easy (1968), arranged by Jimmy Jones. Virtually every track on this album is a stunner, including Make Me Rainbows, Gentle on My Mind, Face It Girl It's Over, Wave, When I Look in Your Eyes and all the rest. There's just something so perfect about this one. But as fans of Nancy know, all of her albums offer surprises.
After Nancy's Capitol period ended in 1979, she had the good fortune to be consistently well produced. Among my favorite albums are What's New (1982) with Hank Jones; A Lady With a Song (1989), which includes Don't Ask My Neighbors with the Emotions; With My Lover Beside Me (1991); Love Nancy (1997); Rare Songs Very Personal (2003); and Turned to Blue (2006), a masterpiece. The album features a lovely version of Knitting Class featuring tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. And dig Nancy's version of Just Once. She's also joined on the album by Hubert Laws, James Moody and many other jazz legends. Sample what's available at iTunes and Amazon.
By the way, Nancy won Grammy Awards for Rare Songs Very Personal and Turned to Blue. Her first of three Grammys was for How Glad I Am (1964).
Compilation notes: Two superb Capitol collections are The Very Best of Nancy Wilson: The Capitol Recordings (1960-1976) released by EMI in Britain, and Outta Sight, also an EMI import. The former, a three-CD set, is available for about $9 from independent sellers here (but you had better hurry). Outta Sight is outta print and costs a fortune, but look for it on eBay.
JazzWax clip: Here's Nancy in 1989 singing Don't Ask My Neighbors backed by the Emotions...