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Nancy Wilson has been a world-renownedjazz, rhythm and blues, and pop singer for more than 35 years. Fashionable and poised, with a voice that both soothes and seduces an audience, Wilson prefers to call herself a “song stylist” who ranges freely through several musical idioms. Rather than reading music, Wilson learns each song by listening to the melody, enabling her to decide which songs best complement her rich, supple voice. An Essence magazine contributor noted that the entertainer has always defied easy labels or glib categorizations: “She is a jazz singer. A balladeer. She does cabaret, sophisticated pop, rhythm and blues. To say she is any one of these, or even all of these, is to miss who she really is—an artist of such enduring talent, class, and elegance that she doesn’t just defy the labels, she transcends them.”
Wilson is among the best known in a second wave of vocal performers who followed in the footsteps of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn. Like those singers, she has enjoyed a long period of success before live audiences in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Wilson has also been a featured guest star on numerous television variety shows and specials, her popularity remaining constant through the decades. An Ebony correspondent concluded that she is “one of the great distinctive voices, a singer whose words are never less than crystal clear, and whose head, heart, and soul always seem totally enmeshed in her songs… For 35 years the exquisite, melting voice has ranged across the music landscape, from small jazz clubs to the main dining rooms of the casinos of Las Vegas, from America to Japan.”
Many pop singers have come and gone since Wilson found her first national audience in the early 1960s. The secret to her longevity—aside from her still-glamorous good looks—lies in her flawless styling, splendid vocals, and sensitive interpretation of lyrics. Good music, she was quoted as saying in Essence, is “what people identify me with.” Her talents brought her fans from all races before the term “crossover” had even been coined. Wilson told Essence: “I didn’t know I was a ’black artist’ until I was nominated for a Grammy in a black category.”
The oldest of six children of Olden and Lillian Wilson, Nancy Wilson was born and raised in Chillicothe, Ohio. Hers was a close-knit family with two hard-working
Born February 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, OH; daughter of Olden (an iron foundry worker) and Lillian (Ryan) Wilson; married Kenneth C. Dennis (a drummer; divorced, 1970); married Wiley Burton (a minister), 1974; children: (first marriage) Kenneth ˝Kacy˝ (second marriage) Samantha, Sheryl. Education: Attended Central State College, Ohio, 1955.
Sang in church choirs as a child; performed in theater clubs, Columbus, OH, area, c. early 1950s; star of local radio show Skyline Melody, Columbus, OH, 1952-54; member of Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Band, 1956-58; New York Institute of Technology, secretary, 1959; club singer, New York, NY, 1959—; released firstalbum, Like in Love, with Capitol Records, 1959. Hostess, The Nancy Wilson Show, 1967-68; numerous appearances on variety shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Flip Wilson Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Tonight Show, and The Arsenio Halt Show; numerous appearances on television series. Cofounder, Nancy Wilson Foundation (brings inner-city children to the country).
Member: Presidential Council for Minority Businesss Enterprises; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Operation PUSH (chairperson); United Negro College Fund; Committee for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Selected awards: Grammy Award, 1964, for How Glad t Am; Grammy nominations, 1965, for Gentle is My Love, 1988, for Forbidden Lover, and 1994, for With My Lover Beside Me; Emmy Award, 1975, for The Nancy Wilson Show; winner, Tokyo Song Festival, 1983; Global Entertainer of the Year, World Conference of Mayors, 1986; Image Award, NAACP, 1986; star, Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1990; Essence Award, Essence magazine, 1992; Martin Luther King Center for Social Change Award, 1993; Turner Broadcasting Trumpet Award for Outstanding Achievement, 1994.
Addresses: Management— Lynn Coles Productions, P.O. Box 93-1198, Los Angeles, CA 90093.
parents. Her mother labored long hours as a domestic and her father worked in an iron foundry. Often Nancy and her brothers and sisters would spend the summers at their grandmother’s home on Whiskey Run Road just outside Columbus, Ohio. There the youngster would delight her extended family with her singing.
Wilson has admitted that she has absolutely no formal voice training. Her talent was a “gift” that she simply utilized from the age of four. Very early she decided she wanted to become a professional singer. She sang in the local church choir and listened avidly to a variety of postwar black American music, including the albums of Billy Eckstine, LaVern Baker, and Nat King Cole. When her family moved to Columbus during her teens, she became host of her own radio show, Skyline Melody, in which she would perform phoned-in requests. Even then her repertoire ranged widely across the pop, jazz, ballad, and torch song categories.
In 1955, Wilson graduated from her Columbus high school. Unsure of her future as an entertainer, she entered college to pursue teaching credentials. She spent one year at Ohio’s Central State College before dropping out and following her original ambitions. She auditioned and won a spot with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Band in 1956, and spent most of the next three years traveling across the United States and Canada as that ensemble’s female vocalist.
During that period she met jazz saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, who became a major influence on her musical career. Adderly convinced Wilson to move away from a gimmick-laden, pop performance style and emphasize a more sophisticated jazz and ballad material. Doing so, the pair sometimes performed together, including on the 1962 album Nancy Wilson/ Cannonball Adderly Quintet.
In 1959 Wilson decided to go solo. She moved to New York City with two concrete goals: she wanted to record for Capitol Records, and she wanted Adderly’s agent, John Levy, to represent her too. Meanwhile, she worked as a secretary at the New York Institute of Technology during the days and sang at nightclubs in the evenings. Wilson assumed she might have to wait months or even years for her break, but within four weeks of her arrival in the city she landed a major assignment. A New York City nightclub owner asked her to substitute for Irene Reid. Delighted with the opportunity, Wilson gave a stellar performance and was quickly booked at the club on a permanent basis. Soon thereafter, Levy came to the club to hear her and immediately arranged a demonstration recording session for the rising star.
At that session Wilson recorded “Guess Who I Saw Today” and “Sometimes I’m Happy.” Levy sent the tapes to Capitol Records, and within a week Wilson was under contract to the company. “Guess Who I Saw Today” became a modest hit in 1962, but Wilson achieved a wide audience the following year with “Tell Me the Truth.” These milestones came early in a period that can only be described as frenetic for Wilson and her drummer husband, Kenny Dennis, whom she had married in 1960. Other key events of her life at that time were the release of her 1960 debut album Like in Love and the recording of her first big rhythm and blues hit, “Save Your Love for Me,” in 1962.
Often Wilson performed more than 40 weeks per year, two shows a night, at big nightclubs such as Los Angeles’s Coconut Grove and Las Vegas’s Sahara Hotel. She was not afraid to look glamorous or to include jazz-styled pop music in her vocal repertoire. In 1964, a Time magazine reviewer praised her for her “artfully derivative jazz style,” adding: “She is, all at once, both cool and sweet, both singer and storyteller.” That year Wilson received a Grammy Award for How Glad I Am; the following year her Gentle Is My Love drew a Grammy nomination.
By 1966 Wilson was earning in excess of $1,000,000 per year. Her popularity was beginning to spread across the sea to Japan, where she remains a favorite today. In addition to her live performances, she was sought after for television work. During the 1967-68 season, she had her own variety program, The Nancy Wilson Show. Other appearances included The Tonight Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Today Show, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, The Flip Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Andy Williams Show. The only medium Wilson resisted was film, not because she did not want to make movies, but because she had difficulty finding roles that she cared to perform.
Asked how she managed to keep her act seemingly new in light of the constant travel, recording sessions, television appearances, and demands of a family, Wilson told Ebony: “I feel that a performer owes the audience what it bought in the first place. You cannot shirk that responsibility. I don’t care how many times you’ve done an act, each time you go out it is supposed to be like the first time.”
The ceaseless round of live shows, recording sessions, and television appearances began to take a toll on Wilson. In 1970 she divorced her first husband with whom she had a son, and married the Reverend Wiley Burton in 1974. Soon she and Burton had two children together. Wilson curtailed her professional responsibilities somewhat, but her popularity remained undiminished. In 1973, for example, she undertook tours to South America and Japan, but she did not appear in supper clubs.
Wilson told Ebony that she thought the changes improved her show. “Because you’re not playing the same place two weeks in a row, you can bring a freshness to a performance,” she said. “You don’t feel that it’s stagnant because each audience is different… I used to do 28 days in a row where I had to do two shows a night. By the 15th night, it gets to you. Four weeks in Las Vegas can be painful just because of the sameness.”
During the 1970s and 1980s—when electronically enhanced voices became widespread in many genres of music—Wilson resisted any innovations that might alter the sound of her recorded voice. When her U.S. record labels refused to abide by her standards, she began recording with Japanese companies. Wilson told Jet magazine that the Japanese recording technicians “allow me to sing so that I can sing. I can’t sing for a splice in the middle… When they stopped recording live, they started doing things you can’t reproduce live.” That fresh quality has been a hallmark of Wilson’s work for decades and has led to several awards and nominations.
As Wilson’s children have grown, the artist has also accepted more live engagements, returning home to a spacious ranch in the California high desert 140 miles from Los Angeles. In 1987 Wilson told Ebony that she had finally achieved the kind of balance she had always been searching for between her professional and her private lives. “I’m not a show business personality,” she confided. “That whole show biz life is fine, but it’s not what I do. I sing. I enjoy that while I’m doing it, but all by itself it does not sustain me.” Besides recording, Wilson has devoted time and money to a several charitable causes, including the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change, the National Heart Association, the Cancer Society, and the United Negro College Fund.
Considered one of jazz music’s “grand divas” by a 1992 Essence magazine rating of current black American singers, Wilson has brought her cool and stylish music to a new generation of listeners. In 1990 she was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a signal achievement for someone whose career has not included extensive film and television work. She has also continued to release albums, issuing her 54th full-length recording Love, Nancy in 1994.
At a party celebrating the release of her 1994 album, Wilson told Jet magazine: “My career is seriously soaring right now. I’m busier than I’ve ever been and I’m going full force. Sure I’m still trying to juggle the responsibilities I feel as a wife, mother, and a performer, but my life is great. I feel at peace with myself and that’s reflected in how I approach music.” She added: “The songs on Love, Nancy portray what each of us needs daily to sustain ourselves. The power of love really can overcome anything!”
Like in Love, 1959.
Something Wonderful, 1960.
The Swingin’s Mutual, 1960.
Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderly Quintet, Capitol, 1962.
Hello Young Lovers, 1962.
Broadway —My Way, 1963.
Hollywood—My Way, 1963.
Yesterday’s Love Songs, Today’s Blues, 1963.
Today, Tomorrow, Forever, 1964.
How Glad I Am, 1964.
The Nancy Wilson Show at the Coconut Grove, 1965.
Nancy Wilson Today —My Way, 1965.
Gentle Is My Love, 1965.
From Broadway With Love, 1966.
A Touch of Love Today, 1966.
Tender Loving Care, 1966.
Just for Now, 1967.
Lush Life, 1967.
Welcome to My Love, 1968.
The Best of Nancy Wilson, 1968.
Sound of Nancy Wilson, 1968.
Son of a Preacher Man, 1969.
Close Up, 1969.
Hurt So Bad, 1969.
Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, 1970.
Now I’m a Woman, 1970.
Double Play, 1971.
Right to Love, 1971.
But Beautiful, 1971.
I Know Him I Love Him, 1973.
All in Love Is Fair, 1974.
Come Get to This, 1975.
This Mother’s Daughter, 1976.
I’ve Never Been to Me, 1977.
Music on My Mind, 1978.
Life, Love & Harmony, 1979.
Take My Love, 1980.
(With Ramsey Lewis) The Two of Us, 1986.
Keep You Satisfied, 1986.
Forbidden Lover, 1987.
Nancy Now!, 1990.
With My Lover Beside Me, 1991.
Love, Nancy, 1994.
At My Best, A.S.I., 1981.
Echoes of an Era, Elektra, 1982.
What’s New, EMI (Japan), 1982.
Your Eyes, Nippon Columbia, 1983.
I’ll Be a Song, Interface (Japan), 1983.
Godsend, Interface (Japan), 1984.
(With the Crusaders) The Good and Bad Times, MCA, 1986.
Chicago Tribune, May 22, 1994, Section 6, p. 6.
Ebony, May 1966, pp. 140-46; May 1973, pp. 30-40; November 1987, pp. 116-19.
Essence, October 1986, p. 55; May 1992, p. 70.
Jet, April 7, 1986, pp. 30-31; July 28, 1986; March 16, 1987, p. 16; October 22, 1990, p. 11; June 27, 1994, pp. 58-61.
Newsweek, July 27, 1964, p. 76.
Time, July 17, 1964, p. 61.
Vibe, March 1995.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Johnson, Anne. "Wilson, Nancy 1937—." Contemporary Black Biography. 1996. Encyclopedia.com. (April 1, 2010). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2871200077.html
Johnson, Anne. "Wilson, Nancy 1937—." Contemporary Black Biography. 1996. Retrieved April 01, 2010 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2871200077.html
Wilson, Nancy 1937—
Book article from: Contemporary Black Biography Nancy Wilson 1937 x2014; Singer At a Glance … Nancy...these, is to miss who she really is x2014; an artist of such enduring talent...Glance … Born February 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, OH; daughter of Olden...
Book article from: Contemporary Musicians Nancy Wilson Singer, actress...stylist x2014; although I...February 20, 1937, in the small...Cofounder, Nancy Wilson Foundation...1975, for The Nancy Wilson Show...Record company x2014; Columbia Records...
Book article from: Contemporary Musicians ...the direction of Teddy Wilson, backed by small studio...the Wilson discs x2014; mostly silly and second...declined to record x2014; were quickly and cheaply...1935-39, Count Basie, 1937, and Artie Shaw, 1938...hundred-odd songs x2014; delivered in a light...
Holiday, Billie 1915-1959
Book article from: Contemporary Black Biography ...the direction of Teddy Wilson, backed by small studio...the Wilson discs x2014; mostly silly and second...1935-39, Count Basie, 1937, and Artie Shaw, 1938...declined to record x2014; were quickly and cheaply...Forgoing club engagements in 1937 to tour with Count Basie...
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Book article from: Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television ...Wharf Theatre, Provincetown, MA, 1937 – 38. Addresses: Agent x2014; Artists Agency, 230 West 55th...outstanding ensemble performance (with Nancy Marchand, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Elizabeth Wilson), 1979, for Morning's at Seven...
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