Today we say goodbye to the one and only Nancy Wilson. Formidable jazz singer, R&B artist, blues musician, actress and entertainer, Nancy hailed from Chillicothe, Ohio. Her career spanned more than five decades with Nancy retiring in 2010. Wilson recorded more than seventy albums and won three Grammy Awards for her work. She was 81 years old.
“The Girl With the Honey-Coated Voice”, was the first of six children, and was influenced by the music of Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, and Dinah Washington, at an early age. By the age of 15, while a student at West High School, Nancy won a talent contest sponsored by a local television station. The prize was an appearance on a twice-a-week television show, Skyline Melodies, of which, she became the host. She also worked at clubs on the east and north sides of Columbus, Ohio, until she graduated from high school. Unsure of her future as an entertainer, Nancy began college to pursue a degree in teaching. She spent one year at Ohio’s Central State College (now Central State University), before dropping out and following her original ambitions. Miss Wilson auditioned and won a spot with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band in 1956, and toured with them throughout Canada and the Midwest from 1956 to 1958. While in this group, Wilson made her first recording under Dot Records.
In 1959 Nancy moved to New York City where her career bloomed. Within four weeks of her arrival in The Big Apple she got her first major break, a call to fill in at “The Blue Morocco”. The club booked Wilson on a permanent basis–she was singing four nights a week while simultaneously working as a secretary. When her manager, John Levy, sent two demos to Capitol Records, they signed her in 1960.
Wilson’s debut single, “Guess Who I Saw Today”, was so successful that between April 1960 and July 1962 Capitol Records released five Nancy Wilson albums. Her first album, Like in Love, displayed her talent in Rhythm and Blues. When her friend and fellow musician Julian “Cannonball” Adderley suggested she focus on jazz music and ballads, they collaborated and produced the album Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley in 1962, which propelled her to national prominence.
In 1963 “Tell Me The Truth” became her first truly major hit, leading up to her performance at the Coconut Grove in 1964 – the turning point of her career, garnering critical acclaim from coast to coast. 1964 was a golden year as Wilson won her first Grammy Award for the best rhythm and blues recording for her album How Glad I Am. Nancy was also dubbed a “consummate actress” and “complete entertainer” as her talents weren’t reserved just for the recording booth. In 1967, after making numerous television guest appearances, Nancy got her own series on NBC, The Nancy Wilson Show, which ran until 1968 and won an Emmy. From the late 1960s through 2005, Wilson appeared in hundreds of films and television shows including The Red Skelton Hour, Hawaii Five-O, The Cosby Show and The Parkers.
In addition to her musical accolades and achievements Nancy was recognized for her humanitarian and human rights work garnering awards from the NAACP, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Award, and the UNCF. A member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Wilson also has a street named after her in her hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio. She co-founded the Nancy Wilson Foundation, which exposed inner-city children to the country, and until she fell ill in 2008, continued her work in civil rights.
As with many others, I can say with all certainty and ease that Nancy Wilson has always been one of my favorite songstresses. And I’m not just biased because I too am an Ohio girl. That silky voice and amazing style made her the Queen of entertainment. And yes but oh yes, she was indeed royalty. Personally, my favorite Wilson tune which I never tire of hearing is The Very Thought of You, but you can’t go wrong with any Wilson melody. If you’re not familiar with her cannon, listen to How Glad I Am, My One and Only Love, Never Let Me Go, or Here’s That Rainy Day.
Fancy Miss Nancy–singer and storyteller, legend and legacy, thank you for blessing our souls with your voice. We will always smile at the very thought of you.