Vocalist, activist, storyteller, actress, host and personality of television and radio. All were apt descriptions for Nancy Wilson, but the one she preferred most was, simply, “song stylist.” For when Nancy Wilson, who died at the age of 81 on Thursday, stepped up to a microphone, she inevitably made whatever composition she was singing – however familiar – all her own. Wilson’s singular style, somehow both smoky and creamy, was rooted in jazz, but incorporated pop, rhythm and blues, and above all, soul. When she embraced the bold rhythms of dance and disco, she was still, unmistakably and authentically, Nancy Wilson.
Throughout a career spanning over 65 albums for labels including Capitol and Columbia, she remained supremely adaptable. Her early albums found her swinging with Billy May, proving every bit the equal of his famous collaborator Frank Sinatra in navigating May’s loose, insouciant orchestrations. She held her own with jazz titans George Shearing and Cannonball Adderley on a pair of acclaimed LPs, and with 1964’s Today-Tomorrow-Forever, began incorporating present-day pop songs into her repertoire from songwriters like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Her Grammy-winning 1964 LP How Glad I Am showcased her exquisite versatility, with its tunes from Broadway’s Golden Boy and Funny Girl, the bossa nova of Antonio Carlos Jobim, the jazz of Wes Montgomery, and the northern soul of the title track by Jimmy Williams and Larry Harrison. While live albums captured Wilson in her natural, spontaneous element, she brought the intimacy of a nightclub to her studio recordings, as well.
In 1970, Now I’m a Woman – crafted with Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell in Philadelphia – placed Wilson headfirst in the world of contemporary R&B, a path on which she would more fully dedicate herself throughout the decade. One of the great hidden gems of the Philly Sound, Now I’m a Woman was sultry, smoldering, and mature: a modern expression of a singer’s artistry. Wilson’s vocals ached with longing, vulnerability, and anguish – exuding, in other words, pure soul from a supremely gifted interpreter. She continued to explore varying avenues of R&B fusion throughout the decade before leaving Capitol and reconnecting with her jazz roots for a series of live-in-the-studio albums in Japan in the early 1980s. She then found herself on the U.S. Columbia label, teaming with such diverse artists as jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis and pop superstar Barry Manilow, who crafted her an entire album of original songs featuring the lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Her genre-bending sensibilities led to such fine late-period efforts as 1994’s Love, Nancy with songs by Duke Ellington, Stephen Sondheim, Paul Williams, BeBe Winans, and Bobby Eli and Vinnie Barrett.
Nancy Wilson’s final two studio long-players, 2004’s R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) and 2006’s Turned to Blue, both earned her Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album. But it was a 2005 recognition from the Martin Luther King. Jr. National Historic Site – an induction into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame – that meant more to her than any other award she had received. She retired in 2011, performing her final concert in her home state of Ohio.
Many of Wilson’s song titles describe the remarkable life she led: “Life, Love, and Harmony.” “Sunshine.” “Quiet Fire.” “You’re as Right as Rain.” Her biggest pop hit was “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” but fans can take solace that Nancy Wilson knew how glad we were – and are – to have had her music in our lives.