Unless you owned a piece of her tremendous music catalog, or went out of your way to stream her songs, Nancy Wilson’s was a voice you seldom heard.
She rarely demanded the spotlight and so it wasn’t cast upon her. She quietly basked in her own elegance, and those who were fortunate enough to appreciate her beautiful voice and her eclectic brand of music did so without much outward expression or the recruitment of others.
Such was the existence of Nancy Wilson, the legendary song stylist who died last Thursday, December 13, at her home in Pioneertown, California. She was 81.
Nancy Wilson was perhaps music’s best example of the unsung singer. She first rose to prominence after her alliance with jazz saxophonist Julius “Cannonball” Adderley during the late 1950s and early ‘60s with songs like “Guess Who I Saw Today,” which became her breakthrough hit. She was a Grammy-winning artist, but that included only three trophies – with two of those coming in the 21st century, some 40 years after she first rose to prominence and long after she should have been so recognized.
She was technically a top-40 hit-maker, but that only included two such singles, “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” a song that peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964, and the ominously titled “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” which reached No. 29 in 1968. After that tune, it was over for Wilson – in a manner of speaking – she would never reach the pop top 40 again.
Fortunately for us, her career wasn’t over then. Nancy Wilson was never defined by the number of “hit singles” she accumulated. She was, however, one of the most prolific album artists of all time – having recorded over 60 long players in her career, including more than two dozen in the 1960s alone.
Yet you rarely heard about that or the fact that eight of her albums reached the Billboard top 20 in the span of just three years between 1963 and ‘66, or that half of those made the top ten – including three in 1964 alone!
The year 1964 would be Wilson’s biggest year – commercially speaking – but that was also the year of the first British Music Invasion here in America, as well as the explosion of Motown with acts like the Supremes dominating pop’s airwaves with music that was decidedly mainstream. So Wilson’s accomplishments – as groundbreaking as they were – would be overshadowed by the more contemporary pop acts of the day.
Despite her eclectic music abilities, Nancy Wilson’s style of singing fit more snugly in the category of jazz than it did in others, which meant that in the long run she didn’t enjoy the mainstream success that her peers did. Yet her songs still had a pop sensibility, particularly during the mid-1960s, with her vocals being surrounded by lush string arrangements at times, and with that incredible voice usually being more the focus than the music backing it.
Perhaps that is why she didn’t like being pigeonholed in genres during her career. When she won the only Grammy afforded her during her peak period – “Best R&B Recording” for 1964’s “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” – she famously retorted that the song had been a bigger pop hit than R&B, and wondered aloud why she hadn’t been recognized in the former category.
As jazz began to fall further out of the mainstream during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Wilson would take on pop standards and cover mainstream hit tunes like Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” or the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” Her version of the oft-covered Frankie Valli tune “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” nearly reached the top half of the chart in 1969, peaking at No. 52.
Her 1970 album, Now I’m A Woman, included covers of four songs that all hit No. 1 on the pop charts that year by other artists – Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road,” The Carpenters’ “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” and Bread’s “Make It With You.”
While pop music was often Nancy’s home away from jazz, she also delved into soul – albeit rarely – during the 1970s. She teamed with legendary Philly soul songwriters/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff on the assertive but wistful 1970 album title track “Now I’m A Woman,” which just missed the soul top 40 (peaking at No. 41), and later with Thom Bell and Linda Creed on the stellar 1975 hit “You’re As Right As Rain,” a song that became her only top-10 soul single (No. 10 that March), fitting right into radio station playlists with the likes of hits by the Isley Brothers, Ohio Players, LaBelle, Jackson 5 and the Average White Band.
Thankfully, she would never completely abandon her jazz roots during the ensuing decades. Although she preferred not being labeled a jazz singer, she continued to embrace the music, even becoming a student of it. After leaving Capital Records in the late 1970s, she recorded jazz albums with Hank Jones and the Griffith Park Band, which included musicians Chick Corea and Joe Henderson. Her 1984 LP with jazz legend Ramsey Lewis, The Two of Us, became her only charted album that wasn’t on Capital Records (she recorded it on Columbia).
It would also be her last album to reach the Billboard charts, peaking at No. 144 late that year.
Nancy Wilson would remain devoted to jazz during her later years. From 1995 – 2002, she found a home with NPR’s Jazz Profiles, a weekly documentary series celebrating the legends of the genre. She hosted the show through all 190 of its episodes, which chronicled the lives of music innovators like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. She would later recall Jazz Profiles as being one of her proudest achievements.
Wilson was thus no stranger to showmanship. She had hosted her own TV variety series in the 1970s and won an Emmy for it. Her live 1965 album, The Nancy Wilson Show!, was recorded live on-stage at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. It remains one of the most entertaining live jazz albums ever, in this writer’s opinion of course, with Wilson’s humor often pouring through the songs’ mix of playful dialogue and her incredible singing.
Her ability to engage the audience in that way was just one more unsung dimension to Nancy Wilson that rarely received its due recognition. Few other entertainers were as talented, with as much humor, elegance and understated beauty as Nancy exuded both in the studio and onstage.
There likely will never be another like Nancy Wilson again in our lifetimes. Sadly, many of us didn’t recognize what a treasure we had while she was still with us.
R.I.P. Nancy Wilson (February 20, 1937 – December 13, 2018).
Recommended for your listening pleasure: 1965’s “The Nancy Wilson Show!”