The Real Diva
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.
In the late '70s Wilson began incorporating more R&B and pop influences into her music, and soon the jazz elements disappeared. Though Wilson maintains she has always made pop records, her sound was clearly downplaying the jazz influences and was focused more on urban/R&B love songs. It was now a stretch to call her music "jazz" at all, but she was still classified as such. "Where else are they going to put me?" Wilson says. "Since they have to have categories and there are 60-some albums?"
The changes in Wilson's style and the evolving nature of the record business eventually affected radio airplay and the way she was categorized. Her amalgam of styles didn't fit neatly into R&B, jazz or adult pop, so finding her records was like looking for lost treasure. Meanwhile, radio formats were becoming more streamlined than ever before. Her airplay decreased. In Wilson's opinion, art got lost in all the commerce.
"I'm not thrilled with the direction that the radio and recording industry have gone," she says. "It's just horrible today. You can't find stations on the air to play music, and that's the sadness of it. The stuff is awful. I've watched it happen, and they just don't listen. I just haven't a clue why people are doing what they're doing. Vice presidents and people in charge are not musicians and don't know, so the music has taken a backseat to this."
Though Wilson has made a lot of music outside the jazz spectrum, she always maintained some ties to her roots. In the '80s she made recordings with contemporary jazz stars Chick Corea, Hank Jones, Art Farmer, Benny Golson and Lewis. Today she often double bills with jazz musicians and appears at jazz festivals. Jazz fans also hear Wilson every week on NPR as she hosts the extraordinary radio program Jazz Profiles, a biography series on influential jazz musicians. Soon Wilson will be hosting an A&E Biography on Ella Fitzgerald. And of course she will be touring and recording. "I'm just doing my job, just doing one step at a time, just doing what I do, and I don't have much concern about the rest of it at all," says Wilson. "I don't have any difficulty doing what I do."
Anyone who has heard her sing knows that's not a boast.
Nancy Wilson and Lou Rawls will perform at the Arena Theatre on Saturday, August 28, at 8 p.m. Call (713)988-1020.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.