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Nancy Wilson: How Glad We Are for the Grace of…

Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson

Of the innumerable female jazz vocalists who have stepped up to the mike throughout the past half-century, I’d credit Anita O’Day with the finest-tuned jazz sensibility and place Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald in a photo finish for most musically accomplished. Yet Nancy Wilson remains my hands-down favorite. “Do you mind me asking why?” inquires the legendary 67-year-old, less with incredulity than genuine interest, when I mention my longstanding infatuation.

It’s not an easy question to answer.

There is, of course, Wilson’s unique blend of diamondlike clarity, flawless enunciation and whispered smokiness, which, spanning some five-dozen albums, consistently suggests Dinah Washington enveloped in sable. Then there’s her innate elegance-a stunning combination of sophistication and natural beauty that, to borrow a sentiment from one of her best tracks, always leaves us breathless. Equally important are her tremendously high standards, as uncompromising as Tony Bennett’s, when it comes to selecting material (“If I don’t like it, I’m not singing it,” she firmly states), and a remarkable dexterity that finds her equally at ease (and equally in command) with silky standards, peppy pop tunes and grittier R&B fare. Not to be overlooked are her exquisite taste in arrangers and musical partners (extending from Ben Webster to Ramsey Lewis) or her unswerving loyalty (just ask manager John Levy, who’s been with Wilson since 1959, or publicist Lynn Coles, who’s been her friend and champion nearly as long).

Actually, though, the allure of Nancy Wilson can be summed up in just one word: effortlessness. It is both her charm and her curse. She manages, much like the perennially underappreciated Doris Day, to make it all seem too easy; as a result generating huge popularity among record buyers and concertgoers and enormous indifference from critics. In his hefty tome Jazz Singing, noted historian Will Friedwald sings the praises of everyone from Bing Crosby to Della Reese. Within the book’s 477 pages, Wilson is mentioned a grand total of once, and then only to dismiss her as “less interesting” than Dakota Staton. Other, equally respected observers have likewise politely (and, a la Day, inaccurately) credited her as a pleasant lightweight. Not surprisingly, her peers are better attuned to her exceptionality. In a recent Down Beat poll, 73 singers-such masters as Mark Murphy, Andy Bey, Kurt Elling, Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson among them-were asked to name the greatest vocal jazz albums of all time. The most votes rightly, if unexpectedly, went to 1961’s Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, placing Wilson seven notches above Ella Fitzgerald’s highest entry and nine above Sarah Vaughan’s.

But Wilson herself has never been comfortable with the jazz moniker. “I’m a song stylist and a storyteller,” she insists. “My songs are little vignettes. If a lyric doesn’t have a story to tell, who cares how great the melody is? I know if I’d originally been put out there as a jazz singer I would never have accomplished the things I have.”

Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, but raised 50 miles due north in Columbus, Wilson made her professional debut in 1952, at age 15, headlining a local, twice-per-week TV show called Skyline Melodies. Finishing high school and entering college, she signed on for two years of club dates and touring with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club combo, cutting her first record in 1956 as featured vocalist on a long-forgotten ditty called “Don’t Tell Me.” Convinced she’d find more work as a solo artist, she quit both Bryant’s band and college, reasoning, “I was making more money on weekends singing off campus than I could ever make with a degree, and I was going to the wrong school for what I really wanted to do, which was something in medicine. So, the music kind of took over.”

One fateful evening in 1958, Wilson was enjoying a rare night off, sitting in with the band at Columbus’ 502 Club when in strolled sax giant Cannonball Adderley. As the alto saxophonist is quoted in Wilson’s 1996 box set Ballads, Blues, & Big Bands, the singer was performing some “unrehearsed, off-the-top-of-the-head stuff.” Adderley became smitten, recognizing that “this young kid had so much to offer-tone, style, confidence-I felt she had a long way to go.” And go she did, directly to New York.

Demonstrating maturity rare among 22-year-olds, Wilson landed in Manhattan determined to have “John Levy manage me and Dave Cavanaugh produce me at Capitol Records. That was my plan, and I got it all in five weeks!” she says. “I knew that John was a decent human being. I’d heard nothing but good things about him and knew that he would understand what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a cross between Lena Horne and Dinah Washington and play the good rooms. I didn’t want to be playing in sawdust. I thought it might be a great crossover opportunity for John, allowing him to get out of the strictly jazz field, and it was a great chance for me to have a manager who gave a damn.”

In Shirley MacLaine’s biographical nightclub number “Remember Me?” she sings “on Carol Haney’s broken leg I rode to fame,” referring to her role as Broadway understudy to Haney in The Pajama Game and a chance accident that found her subbing for the leading lady on opening night and subsequently dazzling the critics.

Nancy Wilson can make a remarkably similar claim.

Two weeks after arriving in New York, Wilson was invited to sub for headliner Irene Reid at the Blue Morocco in the Bronx after the star suffered a broken limb. In wandered John Levy. Levy led her to Cavanaugh who promptly offered a contract and, on December 7, 1959, Wilson found herself inside the fabled Capitol studios at Hollywood and Vine recording her debut album, Like in Love, with renowned arranger-conductor Billy May. “Billy was a fabulous man, just fabulous,” Wilson enthuses. “He could get down in the cracks and raise some serious dust.”

At the time, Wilson couldn’t have found a more suitable home. Cofounded by singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer in the mid-’40s, Capitol wasn’t yet one of the majors (that would come with the addition to their roster of four lads from Liverpool) when she climbed aboard, but the company was renowned for its care and expertise with vocalists, having nurtured Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, the Four Freshmen and Keely Smith. “For me,” says Wilson, “there wasn’t a better record company in the world; and Dave Cavanaugh was such a jewel, an absolute doll baby. If I’d ended up at Riverside or one of the other jazz labels, I don’t think that within three years I’d have been playing the Coconut Grove and the Fairmont in San Francisco and the Imperial Room in Toronto.”

Though not a massive, out-of-the-box hit, Like in Love sold respectably and, recalls Wilson, “the second one [Something Wonderful, featuring Ben Webster on tenor sax and just recently reissued on CD] did better, the third [with Adderley] did better than that, as did the fourth [her landmark union with the George Shearing Quintet, The Swingin’s Mutual!].” Yet, inspired as the pairings with Adderley and Shearing may have been, they were also musical marriages of convenience. “It was so easy,” says Wilson, “because George was signed to Capitol and was represented by John Levy. Cannonball, too, was with John. The stable was mean-absolutely fantastic. It was really hard not to make it because you were surrounded by such talent.”

By 1963, Wilson, now a staple of the best supper clubs and top TV variety shows, was well along the path to stardom. That year, it was the matched set of gems Broadway-My Way and Hollywood-My Way, both arranged by pianist Jimmy Jones, that, along with 1964’s massive “How Glad I Am” (the only significant single of Wilson’s purposefully album-oriented career and a song that, she says, “everybody was opposed to, but I insisted”), elevated her into the pop-jazz stratosphere.

Interestingly, Wilson’s ascension paralleled the rosy, all-American optimism of the Camelot era. Indeed, she was the Jackie Kennedy of jazz-cool, elegant, sophisticated and smart, with a backbone of pure steel hidden beneath designer gowns. Her signature tune at the time was the mini-saga “Guess Who I Saw Today” (included on Something Wonderful), a melodramatic evocation of marital discord in the cocktail-fueled, Kennedy-loving suburbs. Which raises the question: Was Wilson, alongside Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis and Herb Alpert, then perhaps the quintessential suburban artiste? Absolutely, which should in no way be perceived as condemnation. She was the vocal equivalent of a well-crafted bestseller; and, just as the three Johns-O’Hara, Updike and Cheever-helped the subdivision set learn to appreciate great literature, Wilson (together with Nat Cole and Peggy Lee) took vocal jazz out of the penthouses and into the middle classes.

Even at her earthiest Wilson was never as gritty as soul sisters like Aretha Franklin and Cissy Houston, and she didn’t speak to or for the masses, reserving her messages for the Oldsmobile and Canadian Club crowd. Around the same time that Franklin was earning the nation’s respect, Wilson was serving up satin-lined covers of pop-lite hits like “You’ve Got Your Troubles” and “Sunny” and reteaming with Billy May for the gorgeously plush Lush Life, which she still considers her all-time favorite. The album’s highlight is Wilson’s definitive version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” a song she considers, “the hardest I’ve ever sung. There’s this one little passage in there that is very, very difficult. We tried to record it one night-it was the last tune we were going to do-and I just couldn’t get it, so we stopped at 11, and I went home and had nightmares!”

Wilson also tried her hand at television, attempting to emulate the small screen success of Andy Williams and Dean Martin with NBC’s The Nancy Wilson Show, which, though it lasted only a single season, earned her an Emmy. (Subsequent guest roles on small screen hits as diverse as Hawaii Five-0, Police Story and The Cosby Show proved Wilson an extremely capable dramatic and comedic actress, comparable to an amalgam of Diahann Carroll and Phylicia Rashad.)

As America’s dream of a suburban utopia started turning nightmarish in the early ’70s, Wilson became more musically daring, swapping urbane for genuinely urban and augmenting standards and pop ditties with bluesier, more distinctly soulful material. Albums like Now I’m a Woman, This Mother’s Daughter and Life, Love and Harmony mixed some gristle into her creamy gravy, demonstrating that, as Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall later observed, she was “a great improviser who goes beyond any category.”

Ultimately, she would remain at Capitol for fully two decades, outlasting even the stalwart Lee, delivering some three dozen albums, and regularly ranking directly behind the Beatles in the company’s annual sales tallies. (The label’s Hollywood tower may have been known as “the house that Nat built,” but surely Wilson financed most of the fittings and furnishings.)

While at Capitol, she was paired with top arrangers like May and Oliver Nelson (“I miss Oliver so,” she laments. “I wish he’d lived a little longer because I had about four or five more albums to do with him”), but also encouraged lesser-known talents, including Gerald Wilson and Jimmy Jones. “It wasn’t,” she says, “like we had to fight for these people. I wanted Gerald. I wanted Jimmy. So did Dave [Cavanaugh]. We wanted stuff that was good but was still fresh.” Remarkably, Wilson was never teamed with Nelson Riddle. Would, perhaps, the grandiosity of the trademark Riddle sound have been a bit overwhelming for her? “Nah,” she laughs, “I could have shot it like it was a cracker. Nelson would have been so easy. It would have been like working out with a symphony-a piece of cake. But I don’t know that it was what I wanted. Nelson was marvelous, but it wasn’t for me-a little too hard-edged, I think.”

After parting ways with Capitol, Wilson found herself, like so many of her peers, “unable to get a major label here. So, I signed with Sony in Japan.” Four year later, following Sony’s takeover of Columbia, her recording career returned stateside. “Columbia was great,” says Wilson, though she admits, “They kept saying they didn’t know how to market me, and I’d say, ‘Come on, people, let’s just go in and do a damn R&B tune. I’m not taking my clothes off and I’m not shakin’ my butt, but I will give you great songs that can go either way.’ I tell you, I’ve been blessed. God gave me a gift and I’ve chosen to use it wisely, but he didn’t give me a love of the business.”

Creative differences aside, Wilson’s decade-long association with Columbia ignited a third career wave, marked by a reversion to the smoother style that defined her earliest recordings coupled with a keen appreciation for material beyond the Great American Songbook. Exquisite achievements from this period include her 1984 teaming with Ramsey Lewis for The Two of Us and, most notably, 1991’s With My Lover Beside Me featuring obscure Johnny Mercer lyrics newly set to music by Barry Manilow. “That came about when I met a producer in an elevator in Japan,” remembers Wilson. “He mentioned Mercer, said, ‘Might you be interested?’ and the first person I thought of was Barry Manilow. I still think he has the best commercial ear of anyone I know. He is a dynamite performer and writes beautifully-and simplistically. It’s never overkill with Barry. It’s just nice.”

Wilson’s post-Columbia recording schedule has, by choice, slowed considerably but includes two superb reunions with Lewis-2002’s Meant to Be and last year’s Simple Pleasures, the latter featuring a soaring version of “God Bless the Child” that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a half-century of recording and touring has done nothing to diminish her vocal beauty or authority. More of her time has been devoted to a different kind of voice work, as the impressively knowledgeable and articulate host of NPR’s Jazz Profiles. To date, the weekly series has showcased more than 100 seminal jazz figures, many Wilson’s personal friends, and explored such intriguing themes as women in jazz, the rigors of touring and the post-millennial struggle to sustain the vitality of jazz. Indeed, practically the only key player who’s never been feted on the program is Wilson herself.

Wilson’s latest disc, R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal), on Pittsburgh’s nonprofit MCG (Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild) label, is intended to celebrate her 50th anniversary in show business, though as she wryly observes, “It’s really been 52.” Echoing the sentiment of Sinatra’s late-career Some Nice Things I’ve Missed, the album is, she says, themed around “songs I adore but never got the chance to sing. It’s a real mixed bag.”

As the title suggests, each of the dozen tracks has a deeper, more intimate resonance for Wilson. “Little Green Apples,” the late O.C. Smith’s sweet paean to marital satisfaction, was included because, “O.C. was my pastor, so it is my tribute to him.” Leonard and Martin’s “Why Did I Choose You,” a dreamy duet with Kenny Lattimore, honors Marvin Gaye, from whom Wilson first heard the song “back in the days when Marvin wanted to be a balladeer.” Irving Berlin’s haunting “How About Me” is, she adds, “because of Russell Malone. I heard him play it, and the tears just rolled down my face. I didn’t have a clue what the song was or if it had lyrics, but I just fell in love with it and knew someday I had to sing it.” Johnny Mandel’s “I Wish I’d Met You,” cowritten with Richard Rodney Bennett and Franklin Underwood, is, she sighs, “just such a beautiful story”; Lee Wing’s sassy “An Older Man (Is Like an Elegant Wine),” featuring solos by Toots Thielemans and Phil Woods, was added because, Wilson coyly suggests, “I’m getting up in age now and trying to explain to people the delights of an older man. I love it! It’s a throwback to the 1950s-a Blossom Dearie kinda thing.” Elsewhere, Wilson teams once each with Ivan Lins and Gary Burton (the latter on the oft-covered “That’s All,” which she was at first hesitant to do until she “heard Jay Ashby’s arrangement, which has a different little treatment”), and goes to town with the All-Star Big Band on both “Day In, Day Out” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” The album’s cornerstone, though, is Wilson’s first studio reunion with George Shearing since The Swingin’s Mutual!, for which she chose “Blame It on My Youth” because, she giggles, “you know I’m 67 now, so it seemed like an opportune time to sing it.”

Ever since news of R.S.V.P. surfaced, rumors have been flying that Wilson, recently added to the National Endowment of the Arts’ elite list of Jazz Masters, is ready to hang up her skates. “I doubt,” she speculates, “that this is my last album, but I’m getting very close to my last appearance. I’m not going to record anymore with Ramsey. We have three out, and he and I have had a lot of fun, but neither of us wants to work that much any more!”

After a half-century in the spotlight, will retirement sit well with her? Absolutely, she insists, emphasizing, “Singing is not my life. My life is my husband and my kids and their kids. I have four grandsons. My husband says, ‘You give everything to those boys,’ and I say, ‘Well, that’s what life is all about.’ In terms of my career, I’ve never been out there totally. I remember once realizing that I knew precisely where I’d be for the next two years and told [my management], ‘This is not what I came out here to do. Back off, because I cannot live like this and I don’t want it to that degree.’ It’s only wonderful when you can do it and love it. And you can’t love it if you’re doing it every day or sacrificing you’re children to it. Fortunately, I’ve been able to cross that bar. I’m most thankful that I’ve always been able to keep the love of my family; most thankful that my mother and father and aunts and uncles and husband and kids never lost sight of who I was and loved me. I could always go home.” Originally Published