Ramsey Lewis Remembers Nancy Wilson

The pianist honors the late singer (2/20/37 - 12/13/18)

Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson, January 2007 (Photo: ©Alan Nahigian)

I met Nancy Wilson many years ago through John Levy, who was the first African-American manager of talent that toured not only the country but the world. He’d already signed Cannonball Adderley and others, and he was interested in signing me. I went into his office and who should be there but a young lady. I didn’t know who she was, and John said, “I want you to meet this young lady. I’m seriously thinking about signing her. She’s going to be big. Her name is Nancy Wilson.”

He gave me a little background and obviously he had big plans for her, because he was going to send her to London to shop for dresses to wear onstage. He did sign her, and he signed me, and he felt that we would be good onstage together. After a couple of years, he booked us on dates—anywhere from 10 to 15 a year, maybe more. That put us together in dressing rooms and hotels, and we had a lot of time to spend talking. We got to know each other well, so much so that she became my daughter Dawn’s godmother. Nancy was a wonderful person. She wasn’t impressed by popularity; she wasn’t impressed by her looks. She was impressed by her ability to reach out and touch people.

I think if I had to describe Nancy, she was just a person who loved to sing. She was an individualist in terms of her style of singing, but she mentioned Jimmy Scott many, many, many times. She no doubt loved Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. Dinah Washington was also one of her favorites, but not so much that she imitated Dinah. I think she loved the way Dinah got inside of a lyric and, as Nancy did, came from a bluesy place without singing the blues. She didn’t read music, but if you played the song down for her one time and let her hear it, she remembered the notes. Her ear was so sensitive that if I changed a chord here and there she could follow it like a saxophone player would. She could follow harmonically where I went, and she would look over and smile.

We never saw ourselves as “jazz,” “pop,” “R&B”; we saw ourselves as musicians who loved great music. She would say, “Oh, Ramsey, have you heard this song?” And that song might’ve been from Broadway. Then I’d name a song for her, and it happened to be on the pop charts. We would talk about music as music. And I think because we weren’t pop, or we weren’t European classical, or we weren’t jazz such as Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan, people had a hard time pigeonholing us. We fell into a lot of different categories.

In the ’60s, we both felt like the country was in a very sensitive position. She found the time to go down [to Selma] and be with Martin Luther King. I couldn’t be there, but I know Nancy did make it. We were both sensitive to the turmoil that the country was in, in trying to work out the racial problems. All musicians were sensitive to the racial problems in the country. Nancy surely was, without a doubt.

We made a few albums together: The Two of Us, Meant to Be, Simple Pleasures. She always knew what she wanted, and we would go into the studio and it wouldn’t require more than one or two takes—three at the most—before we had it down. She was the same in the studio as she was in a concert setting: a natural talent who sang her heart out at the drop of a hat. Everybody would look at each other in the studio and say, “Wow, that was great.” She would look into the control room and say, “What do you think?” We would all say, “Are you kidding? Come on in here and listen to this.”

I loved her work with Cannonball Adderley. All of Nancy’s recordings are on my iPod; all of Cannon’s recordings are on my iPod. I only put the best of the best on my iPod [laughs]. They loved each other, and they knew each other before I met Nancy. He was one of the reasons she went to John Levy, because Cannon was already with John. And he told John, “You’ve got to hear this young lady from Ohio.”

She was one of the best broadcasters, because of her personality and her love of talking with people and communicating and staying on top of what’s up in the business. Nancy not only had a good sense of humor, she knew a few jokes. A couple of them were of a color that you probably couldn’t tell on the radio [laughs]. All I can say about Nancy is that she was a wonderful talent, and so easy to get along with. We just loved each other as friends and as family.

[as told to Evan Haga]