“The Stylish Stylist,” “Fancy Nancy,” “Diva Divine” – these are just a few of the names Nancy Wilson was given by her fans. Nancy wasn’t just any singer. Her voice was like no other. As many of her admirers and fans put it, “it was a thing of rare beauty.” The magical sound of her voice, combined with a unique gift for storytelling, made it possible for her to turn just about any song into something far bolder.
Nancy Wilson – The Early Years
The first of six siblings, Nancy Wilson, was born in Chillicothe, Ohio and was raised there by her parents: an iron foundry worker father, Olden Wilson, and a domestic servant mother, Lillian.
Influenced by her father’s music collections, Nancy was drawn in by the vocal sounds of Cole, Jimmy Scott, and other stars before she turned four. Soon, she was performing in the church choir. At 15, she won a local TV talent show for which the winner was afforded regular appearances on the Skyline Melodies show.
After her graduation from high school, Wilson attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio. She left only a year later to go into music professionally. She recorded and toured with saxophonist Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Band from 1956–1958, before the high-profile, hard-bop saxophonist Adderley told her that New York had all the action.
Professional Music Career
Almost as soon as she got to New York, Nancy’s skill earned her a long-term engagement at the Blue Morocco club in the Bronx. Soon, demos of her covers of two Broadway hits were sent to Capitol Records.
The label soon signed the twenty-three-year-old, and within two years, five albums had been released in her name. The first album, Like in Love, had a distinct R&B feel, but Adderley encouraged Wilson to go deeper into jazz. He joined forces with her on the 1962 album Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, which contained the hit single Save Your Love For Me.
By the mid-1960s, Wilson’s records were almost permanently on the Billboard charts and hit singles like “Tell Me The Truth” (1963) and (You don’t know) How Glad I Am (1964) earned her several media accolades and her first Grammy in the R&B category.
From there, she began appearing regularly on TV. She received her first TV special, The Nancy Wilson Show, two years later, for which she won an Emmy. In total, Nancy Wilson won three Grammy Awards, one for her 1964 album, and two for the Best Jazz Vocal Album, in 2005 and 2007.
She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and can also be found on the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, honoring her participation in the integration marches of the 1960s. She has also received the Oprah Winfrey Legends Award, the United Negro College Fund Trumpet Award, and the NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award.
Throughout the early to mid-60s, Nancy enjoyed a multi-genre appeal, flawlessly switching between pop, jazz, and R&B. Even though many fans referred to her as a jazz singer with her remarkable storytelling and her unique intonation and phrasing, she found the title too restrictive. Instead, she considered herself more of an interpreter, which reflected in the diverse styles that marked albums such as How Glad I Am, from the sweeping ballads (Never Less Than Yesterday) to the showtunes (Don’t Rain on My Parade and People from Funny Girl) and jazz blues (West Coast Blues).
While she would spend the next few decades taking on a more pop-soul sound, Nancy never entirely left her jazz roots and even went on to host a successful jazz radio show.
Nancy Wilson died on Thursday, December 13, 2018 after a long illness at her home in Pioneertown, near Joshua Tree in California. She was 81.
She was married twice and survived by three children, her son Kacy Dennis from her first marriage to Kenny Dennis, daughters Samantha Burton and Cheryl Burton from her second marriage to Rev. Wiley Burton, who passed away in 2008. She was also survived by her sisters, Karen Davis and Brenda Vann, and five grandchildren.