Iconic Nancy Wilson Songs

From her rise to fame thanks to a friendship with Cannonball Adderley to a Grammy-winning album 6 decades later, we take a trip through 10 iconic Nancy Wilson songs which tell the story of a musical icon.

Born on February 20, 1937, Nancy Wilson is one of the true original voices in music. At home in a variety of genres from blues, jazz, R’n’B and pop she is the real deal. Not wishing to be typecast in any particular category, Wilson would always prefer to be referred to as song stylist.

Growing up in Chillicothe, Ohio, Nancy would sing in church choirs and won a talent competition while attending West High School in Columbus, Ohio from which she was offered the opportunity to host a local television show. Nancy also went on to study at the Central State University in Ohio obtaining her B.A. degree in Education.

However, it was her meeting the saxophonist, Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley in 1959 that would have a major impact on her career choice in pursuing her musical ambition and it was at his behest that Nancy made the decision to move to New York.

Best Nancy Wilson songs article, featured image
Ron Kroon / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Her first big break came when she was given a permanent booking at The Blue Morocco club after filling in for Irene Reid, and she found herself working as a secretary by day and singing four nights a week.

She was signed by Capital Records in 1960, recording five albums over an intense 2 year period, with her debut single, ‘Guess Who I Saw Today’ attracting critical acclaim and proving popular with record buyers. 

In 1962 she recorded with Cannonball Adderley on the album that would cement her reputation as a fine singer, producing the hit single ‘Save Your Love For Me’, and is still perhaps one of her best loved recordings.

Her biggest hit, however, would be with ‘(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am’ which reached number 11 on the Billboard chart in 1964. Such was their faith in their signing, Capital Records would continue to record and release albums by Nancy on a regular basis for twenty years from 1960 until 1980.

With her contract with Capital Records at an end, Nancy recorded five live albums for Japanese labels and in 1982 signed with CBS Records. There would follow a host of recording for other labels including a recording with pianist Hank Jones and the Griffith Park Band, a supergroup featuring Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White.

Continuing to record prolifically, Nancy recorded more than sixty albums over her career with the last of these being Turned To Blue released in 2006.

Essential Nancy Wilson Songs

An almost impossible task to narrow Nancy’s remarkably wide and diverse output to just a few songs, but here are ten of our favourites…

Sometimes I’m Happy

One of the songs sent as a demo to Capital Records by her manager John Levy, this version recorded for her debut album features the arrangements of Billy May and featuring a star-studded big band.

The tempo allows Nancy to show of her ability to sing lyrics that have phrases that almost tumble over each other, and needless to say she doesn’t falter.

From the album Like In Love (1960)

Guess Who I Saw Today

Another of the demos tracks that Levy sent to Capital, and Nancy Wilson first single release.

Encouraged by the success of the single, her record label kept the singer busy, and she recorded prolifically over the next couple of years. The song appeared on Nancy’s second album, Something Wonderful, which again featured Billy May as arranger, and for this particular tune by Murray Grand and Elisse Boyd the arrangement is for paired down line up that has some lovely touches from guitarist Jack Marshall and the rhythm section

From the album Something Wonderful (1960)

Save Your Love For Me

This one is taken from a surprising yet delightful album featuring Nancy with Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet.

Although she only sings on six of the eleven original album tracks, she makes her presence felt and this is as much her record as the saxophonist’s.

This song is written by Buddy Johnson was deemed the single to release from the album, reaching number six in the American R’n’B chart. Such is Wilson’s prowess on all of the tracks that she features, any of these could serve as recommended listening.

From the album Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley (1962)

You Don’t Know What Love Is

Just about every jazz singer has sung this heart wrenching jazz ballad penned by Gene de Paul and Don Raye.

Gone is the jazz quintet, and instead Nancy is accompanied by a luscious string arrangement by George Shearing and Milt Raskin. Rising above the strings, Nancy sings with an anguish and passion that plunges the emotional depths of the lyrics. 

From the album Hello Young Lovers (1962) 

You Can Have Him

Once again, our selection was picked by the record label to be released as a single, and features Nancy singing this Irving Berlin song which was originally written for the Broadway musical Miss Liberty in 1949.

This lovely ballad features the vocalist with a simple backing of guitar and rhythm section, and of course she makes it her own. Her ability to convey the sentiment behind the lyrics is to the fore, and her storytelling through song is impeccable.

From the album Broadway – My Way (1963)

Satin Doll

This song written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with lyrics by Johnny Mercer is one of those compositions that borders on the ‘recorded too often’ – but how can anyone resist Nancy having a go at this?

She brings an appropriate degree of sass, coupled with a sophisticated elegance. The arrangement by Gerald Wilson swings nicely with a brief and tasteful tenor saxophone solo.

In fact, the arrangements throughout suit the singer and the songs make up Nancy’s highest charting album, ranking up a respectable number four on the Billboard Album Chart.

From the album Yesterday’s Love Songs/Tomorrow’s Blues (1963)

(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am

A change in direction for the singer, (You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am – written by Jimmy Williams and Larry Harrison – was a big hit for Nancy in the summer of 1964, reaching number 11 in the Billboard single chart.

The album it was taken from was also Nancy’s most popular, remaining in the album charts for 31 weeks, also winning her a Grammy for Best R’n’B Performance.

From the album How Glad I Am (1964) 

Lush Life

With a seeming ability to take some of the most popular jazz songs and make them her own, Nancy repeats the trick this time with the assistance of arranger Billy May.

May’s arrangement seems to touch on every aspect of the song’s lyrics from the intimate to a hint of resignation that Nancy brings to life with her trademark impeccable timing and delivery.

From the album Lush Life (1967)

Blame It On my Youth

Chalking up a Grammy for as Best Jazz Vocal Album for this release, Nancy Wilson is in wonderful form.

It’s a wonderful chance to hear her in the intimate setting of a duo, with pianist George Shearing. The piano player appears to be the perfect accompanist for Nancy and, when listening to this beautiful song, nothing else seems to be important other that her voice and Shearing’s touch at the piano. 

R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) (2004)

Take Love Easy

Taken from her final studio album in released in 2006, Take Love Easy provides a glorious and logical conclusion to our trip through Nancy Wilson’s career.

The vocals show a lack of conformity and Nancy’s desire to look to push her music forward. The album scooped a third Grammy for the singer (‘Best Jazz Vocal Album’) and any one of the album’s tracks stand out a worthy of selection here.

The emotional range of the vocalist is again what makes the song, and combined with some a superbly swinging big band arrangement it simply cannot fail.

From the album Truned To Blue (2006)

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