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The Real Diva

Nancy Wilson returns from jazz-pop limbo

Take a look at Nancy Wilson and all you can say is, "Damn!" At 62 she looks better than most women half her age and is still one of the best singers ever to pick up a microphone. She carries herself with a sophisticated style and is a total professional. Today's divas could learn a lot from this classy, ageless wonder.

For four decades Wilson has been one of the most successful figures in popular music. She has charted more than 30 albums and recorded more than 60. She has taken home a Grammy, an Emmy and dozens of other awards. Hollywood's Walk of Fame? Wilson has a star there, but she was more impressed when her hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio, named a street after her. That, she says, was touching.

Then there's Wilson's voice. It can simultaneously sound innocent and seductive. One minute, she has you wrapped around her finger. The next, you're up against the wall.

Though there are elements of LaVern Baker, Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown in Wilson's style, Little Jimmy Scott is surprisingly her biggest influence. Scott's high-pitched voice, which was often mistaken for a woman's, got Wilson's attention when she was only eight. She heard him singing those big ballads on Lionel Hampton records and started to take notes. Hearing Wilson sing today, the one Scott trait that stands out most is the way Wilson sings -- what else? -- ballads: She delivers them with tons of passion, but never oversings. Whitney Houston, are you listening?

A career as a singer was always something of a foregone conclusion for Wilson. "I don't think I wanted to sing, I just did," Wilson says. "It wasn't something where I consciously said I wanted to sing. I did sing and it was there and quite obvious from two or three years old."

As a kid Wilson sang in church choirs and dance bands. When she was 15, she won a talent competition, which earned her an appearance on a local television show. Exhibiting uncommon discipline for a teenager, Wilson performed on weekends and maintained her studies. At 19 she left college to join Rusty Bryant's Carolyn Club band and started making albums for Dot Records. Wilson's next moves were well calculated. She wanted to move to New York City, get John Levy to manage her and record for Capitol Records. She also knew she had to wait until she was ready. In the late '50s, after Cannonball Adderly introduced her to Levy (who was managing Adderly at the time), Wilson was on her way. "It was just a question of putting those things in place," Wilson says. "I knew exactly who could do it best."

Wilson did know what was best for her career. Capitol Records was a singer's label in the '50s and '60s. The label had tremendous success with Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Mel Tormé, Julie London and Lena Horne. The label understood how to market singers, often at the expense of other genres. Remember, this is the label that initially passed on the Beatles, and couldn't figure out how to sell the Beach Boys masterpiece Pet Sounds because it didn't fit the label's preconceived notion of the group. Capitol may not necessarily have been hip, but it could sell singers, and Nancy Wilson was and still is one of those.

Choosing Levy as her manager was brilliant. Levy's stable included a number of jazz heavyweights such as Adderly, Ramsey Lewis and George Shearing. Levy would often sell Wilson and one or more of her stablemates as a package deal. These double and triple bills enhanced Wilson's visibility, and when she hit the pop charts, she left her stablemates in the dust. "We were like one big family as far as the music was concerned," Wilson says. "It made for great concerts. I work still, to this day, with Ramsey Lewis. It's been a wonderful way to do it. It's given all of us longevity."

Wilson's career started to sail quickly. She scored a hit with "Save Your Love for Me" in 1959, and by the mid-'60s was one of Capitol Records' best-selling artists (though her promotional literature's claim that she outsold the Beach Boys during that period doesn't hold up to scrutiny). She took home a Grammy for "How Glad I Am" in 1964 and in 1967 hosted The Nancy Wilson Show on NBC. Wilson would be the first African-American to host a network variety show since Nat King Cole's highly rated program failed to garner advertiser support and was canceled in the '50s. (Cole once said of the TV show that Hollywood was afraid of the dark). Wilson's Emmy-winning variety show was highly regarded but lasted only one season. No matter, her singing career was keeping her busy.

In the late '60s and early '70s Wilson's sound became more pop-oriented. She had always been a popular standard singer more than anything else but was filed under the jazz umbrella because of her early recordings with Shearing and Adderly. Even if she was on the jazz periphery with her pop recordings, her arrangements, often done by Billy May, Gerald Wilson and Oliver Nelson, had strong jazz sensibilities, and many of her musicians were jazz pros.

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