Nancy Wilson, an NEA Jazz Master vocalist who was best known as a jazz singer but who cut deep inroads into rhythm & blues and pop over her 50-year career, died on Dec. 13 at her home in Pioneertown, Calif. She was 81.
According to a press statement from her manager Devra Hall Levy, Wilson’s death came at the end of a long illness. No further details were given.
Wilson’s effortless ability to cross genres was a testament to the suppleness and range of her craft—she insisted on categorizing herself as only “a song stylist”—but her talents were even richer than her career trajectory would imply. Her first hit, 1960’s “Guess Who I Saw Today,” established her as a performer with a delicate, punctilious approach to ballads; at the same time, she was recording hard-swinging, brassy performances like the previous year’s “Almost Like Being in Love.”
Later records, including her 1966 cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” and her 1968 hit “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” showed that Wilson could hold her own alongside the powerful R&B singers of the era. She ultimately recorded over 70 albums of jazz, blues, showtunes, and R&B. She remained comfortable enough within the jazz genre, however, to host the NPR radio program Jazz Profiles from 1996 to 2005.
“She is, all at once, both cool and sweet, both singer and storyteller,” Time magazine wrote of Wilson in 1964.
Wilson was also known for her close and sympathetic work with instrumental collaborators. She worked frequently and fruitfully with the likes of George Shearing, Hank Jones, and Ramsey Lewis; her funk- and R&B-oriented records of the 1970s often used members of the Jazz Crusaders. And her 1962 record with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, simply titled Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, is often regarded as among the greatest collaborations between a vocalist and an instrumentalist.
Nancy Sue Wilson was born Feb. 20, 1937 in Chillicothe, Ohio, and grew up in Columbus. A singer since she was a toddler (citing Dinah Washington, Lena Horne, and Nat “King” Cole as primary influences), her career began in earnest at 15 when she won a citywide talent contest sponsored by a local television station; the prize was a twice-weekly appearance on the station. That gig, in turn, landed Wilson nightclub and other singing appearances throughout Columbus. After graduating from Columbus’ West High School in 1954, she toured the Midwest with saxophonist Rusty Bryant’s big band.
In Columbus, Wilson worked with both George Shearing and Cannonball Adderley, the latter encouraging her to move to New York. She did so in 1959, quickly winning a nightly stand at the Bronx nightclub the Blue Morocco. By the end of the year, she had taken on Adderley’s manager, John Levy, and recorded her first album for Capitol Records.
From there, her rise was meteoric. Her recording with Adderley in 1962 spawned a major R&B hit, “Save Your Love for Me”; two years later, her soulful R&B record “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” reached No. 11 on the Billboard charts, and trigged a booking at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles that summer. Her opening night there was covered by Time, making it national news; Wilson later called that opening “the high point, the best night really, the night that solidified the career.” By 1967, she was hosting her own NBC variety show.
Wilson never limited herself to jazz. She covered songs from Motown and other soul and R&B outlets in the 1960s, as well as new songs in that idiom (such as “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” a Top 40 hit), and she worked extensively in funk and R&B in the 1970s. She made a return to jazz standards and American Songbook performances in the 1980s and ’90s, including the bulk of her work with Ramsey Lewis. These were her own choices, rather than A&R dicta. “I’m a song stylist. That allows me to sing anything I want to sing,” she explained in a 2004 interview. “Capitol Records never told me what to sing … There was nobody trying to make me somebody else.”
In addition to her music, Wilson played a significant role in the civil rights movement, participating in the famous Montgomery to Selma march in Alabama in 1965. She was recognized for her contributions in 1993 by the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Wilson embarked on an acting career as well, making appearances on the television series Room 222 and Hawaii Five-O, continuing into the 2000s with The Parkers and Soul Food. She starred in two films, 1983’s The Big Score and 1993’s The Meteor Man.
A three-time Grammy Award winner, Wilson also won an Emmy for her 1967-68 variety show. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990; won a George Foster Peabody Award for her work on NPR’s Jazz Profiles in 2001; and was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2004.
Wilson suffered a collapsed lung in 2008 at the age of 71. In 2011, she retired from performance, expressing pride that she had built an artistic legacy on her own terms. “I figured if I was true to myself, if I sang the things I liked, it would touch people’s heart and their ears,” she said. “And they would hear, and they would feel.”
Wilson was predeceased by her husband of 35 years, the Reverend Wiley Burton, who died in 2008. She is survived by her son, Kacy Dennis (from a previous marriage); two daughters, Samantha Burton and Sheryl Burton; two sisters, Karen Wilson Davis and Brenda Wilson Vann; and five grandchildren.