Born on February 20, 1937, Nancy Wilson is one of the true original voices in the 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 at 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.
Her first big break came when she was given a permanent booking at The Clue Morocco club after filling in for Irene Reid, and she found herself working as a secretary by day and singing four nights a week.
Signed by Capital Records in 1960 who recorded five albums with Nancy 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’ that 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.
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 featuring the arrangements of Billy May and featuring a star-studded big band. This 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 first single. 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
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 track written by Buddy Johnson was deemed as the single to release from the album and reached 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 song penned by Gene de Paul, Don Raye. Gone is the jazz quintet, and instead Nancy is accompanied by luscious string arrangements by George Shearing and Milt Raskin. Rising above the strings, Nancy sings with anguish and passion that plunges the emotional depths of the lyrics.
From the album Hello Young Lovers (1962)
You Can Have Him
Once again, this song was picked by the record label to be released as a single, and features Nancy singing this song by Irving Berlin (written for the Broadway musical Miss Liberty in 1949). This lovely ballad again features Nancy 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)
This song written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with lyrics by Johnny Mercer is on 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 solo. In fact, the arrangements throughout suit the singer and the featured songs on an album that would be 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, this song 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)
With a seeming ability to take some of the most popular songs and make them her own, Nancy repeats the trick (as she does countless times) 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 the Nancy brings to life with the 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 is in wonderful form. There is a wonderful chance to hear in the intimate setting of a duo with pianist George Shearing. The pianist 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 touch at the piano.
R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) (2004)
Take Love Easy
From her last studio album in released in 2006, the music is a glorious and logical continuation in a neat summing up of Nancy’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 for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and anyone of the albums 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)