“I'll never forget you. You took me into your arms of love and that made all the difference in the world, to me.” Those are the words that legendary jazz and soul singer Nancy Wilson wrote to SoulTrackers more than a decade ago when she announced to us her retirement. And those are the words I’m feeling now as I write of the death of perhaps my all time favorite female vocalist, at age 81.
When tracing the evolution of female singers from Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and the great jazz vocalists of the 40s and 50s to the modern jazz and soul stylists of artists such as Anita Baker and Diana Krall, all roads run through Nancy Wilson. Physically beautiful and a uniquely gifted song stylist able to interpret jazz, soul and pop, Wilson stands among the greatest performers of the past sixty years.
Born in small Chillicothe, Ohio in 1937, Wilson displayed incredible talent as a singer from a young age. She was winning talent shows as an early teen and had her own local Columbus television show at age 15. During high school she played local jazz clubs and not long after graduation was discovered and signed by Capitol Records.
Wilson recorded a couple of moderately successful early jazz recordings for Capitol and received some attention for her version of "Guess Who I Saw Today." However, it was a 1962 album recorded with jazz saxophonist and long-time friend Cannonball Adderley that thrust Wilson to the public consciousness. Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley was an instant classic and became an essential disc for lovers of sophisticated jazz vocals. The album's intro cut, "Save Your Love For Me" still stands as one of that era's great jazz vocal recordings.
Over the course of the next few years, Wilson alternated between jazz and pop recordings, and she found a niche as a covers artist, scoring major hit albums consisting of popular songs from Broadway and Hollywood. Her popularity grew throughout the decade, and by the mid 60s she was Capitol's second biggest-selling act (behind the Beatles) and a regular on the pop, soul and jazz charts. However, while her beautiful, versatile voice continued to amaze, during this period she (like labelmate Lou Rawls) often found herself saddled with unimaginative, pop oriented arrangements that downplayed her soulfulness and sounded dated almost immediately after they were released. Despite those limitations, she recorded several seminal versions of pop and jazz standards, including "How Glad I Am" and Irving Berlin's "You Can Have Him."
Wilson continued along the same path throughout the 70s, though her popularity began to wane as the disco era unfolded. In 1980, after 20 years and over three dozen albums on Capitol, Wilson moved to Columbia Records and began a second career as one of the early purveyors of the new Urban Adult Contemporary format. Again focusing on tasteful covers of other artists' songs (this time generally urban ballads), Wilson retained moderate popularity and album sales over the next 15 years. While some of her albums during this period were again marred by bland arrangements, her ever strong interpretive skills made most of these albums worthwhile and enjoyable. Her most unique album during her stay at Columbia was the excellent With My Lover Beside Me, an album of new material written, surprisingly, by Barry Manilow and legendary lyricist Johnny Mercer.
As the 90s came to a close, Wilson decided to spend more time with family, and she intentionally slowed down both her touring and recording. Consistent with her decision to take more control of her life and career, Wilson left Columbia and signed with the small, non-profit label MCG Jazz label, for which she recorded a 2001 Christmas album. She followed with two wonderful jazz vocal albums, RSVP and Turn To Blue, on which she sounded like an artist entirely comfortable with her music and her place in history. They served as appropriately brilliant codas to her recording career.
Though jazz purists often bemoan Wilson's forays into pop and soul, her versatility and ability to master multiple genres was virtually unique among singers and is one of the keys to her legendary status. And that voice, that voice, may never be matched. Nancy Wilson will continue to loom large as one of the greatest and most influential vocalists of the second half of the twentieth century, and a role model for an entire generation of modern female jazz and soul vocalists.
By Chris Rizik