Portrait of Nancy WIlson

Photo by Tom Pich/tompich.com

Nancy Wilson

Vocalist, Broadcaster

Bio

"For my name to be added to the prestigious array of artists who have received this award is truly an honor. The NEA is one of the few organizations that have been there for jazz and for that I am truly grateful.  This art form does not garner the recognition it so rightfully deserves. May the NEA and its supporters be there to foster and provide the assistance for future generations to come. I thank you."

Nancy Wilson first found her voice singing in church choirs, but found her love of jazz in her father's record collection. It included albums by Jimmy Scott, Nat "King" Cole, Billy Eckstine, Dinah Washington, and Ruth Brown; this generation of vocalists had a profound influence on Wilson's singing style. She began performing on the Columbus, Ohio, club circuit while still in high school, and in 1956 she became a member of Rusty Bryant's Carolyn Club Band.

She also sat in with various performers, such as Cannonball Adderley, who suggested that she come to New York. When Wilson took his advice, her distinctive voice enchanted a representative from Capitol Records and she was signed in 1959. In the years that followed, Wilson recorded 37 original albums for the label. Her first hit, "Guess Who I Saw Today," came in 1961. One year later, a collaborative album with Adderley solidified her standing in the jazz community and provided the foundation for her growing fame and career. During her years with Capitol, she was second in sales only to the Beatles, surpassing Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and even Nat "King" Cole.

Wilson also has worked in television, where in 1968 she won an Emmy Award for her NBC series, The Nancy Wilson Show. She has performed on The Andy Williams Show and The Carol Burnett Show and has appeared in series such as Hawaii Five-O, The Cosby Show, Moesha, and The Parkers.

Although she often has crossed over to pop and rhythm-and- blues recordings, she still is best known for her jazz performances. In the 1980s, she returned to jazz with a series of performances with such jazz greats as Art Farmer, Benny Golson, and Hank Jones. And to start the new century, Wilson teamed with pianist Ramsey Lewis for a pair of highly regarded recordings.

She has been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including two Grammy Awards and honorary degrees from Berklee School of Music and Central State University in Ohio. Wilson also hosted NPR's Jazz Profiles, a weekly documentary series, from 1986 to 2005.

Selected Discography

Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, Capitol, 1962
Yesterday's Love Songs -- Today's Blues, Capitol, 1963
But Beautiful, Blue Note, 1969
Ramsey Lew is & Nancy Wilson, Meant To Be, Narada, 2002
R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal), MCG Jazz, 2004

Interview by Molly Murphy with Dan Stone
January 11, 2007

FIRST AUDITION

Q: Tell me about the contest you participated in when you were in high school.

Nancy Wilson: Actually, I didn't compete. I went and auditioned. I represented my high school. Now, that's where the arrogance comes in. I went down and actually I played a little piano then. I sang a song that I had written and they listened. We had about seven or eight major high schools in the city [Columbus, Ohio]. Each was to send someone to represent their school and those seven or eight were to compete in this contest, sponsored by the television station. So they asked me if I would not compete, you know, that I was so much better than everybody else who was doing it so they wanted to give me a TV show. "We don't want you to do that. Just come on over here. We'll give you the TV show." So I never did. I have no idea who won the contest or whatever transpired with the contest.

Q: They did that based on you playing and singing one song?

Nancy Wilson: Based on me singing one song.

Q: Do you remember what the song was? You wrote it?

Nancy Wilson: I don't remember -- something about marriage. I can't remember but it was one of the few songs I ever wrote. I think I've only written one since then but I found out then that I really can't write. I mean, it was really easy not to do it. They did just ask me not to compete and would I come on and do these 15 minutes, twice a week after the news? Basically, people would phone in or write in requests, or [ask] if I would sing something for their birthday or their anniversary or whatever.

I had a ball. It was good, it was good. From there, I worked with Sir Raleigh Randolph and the Sultans of Swing, a big 18-piece band...I used to have one of these little net gowns and was shaking the maracas. I graduated from high school. Oh, I worked at a place, the Club Regal. I loved it and there was a great pianist there named Bobby Shaw. I stayed there for a long time and I was able to get my drivers license within a few weeks after I started working at the Regal, at 15, because I was working. My dad stayed home and my younger brother was my bodyguard. You know, he was only 14, [but] that was in the days when you could do that. And I enjoyed it. I loved it. It was a great little bar, the Club Regal.

I worked every club on the east side and north side of Columbus, Ohio, from the age of 15 until I graduated from high school. I was 17. On my prom night I went to the Club Caroline and sat in with Rusty Bryant's band. He was at my house the next day asking my father if I could go on the road, which I said no to, because I was going to school. I went on to college for a while and realized it didn't make sense. I was on scholarship--tried it, and was a Dean's list student -- but the work was there. It was very difficult to stay in school when I could already be working and doing things. So I went on the road with Rusty Bryant's band and we traveled and toured the Midwest.

INFLUENCES

Q: What were you listening to around that time -- who were your influences and were they vocalists or instrumentalists?

Nancy Wilson: Vocalists. Little Jimmy Scott. I sound just like Jimmy Scott. I listened to a lot of Billy Eckstine, basically male influences, when I was younger. This is before 15, because my father was the one who would go buy the records. I heard a lot of Nat Cole. I heard Jimmy Scott with Lionel Hampton's Big Band. Then his things when he started recording by himself. The juke joint down on the block had a great jukebox and there I heard Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown, LaVerne Baker, Little Esther. That's where I heard the females, at that juke joint.

Q: With some of those influences that you mentioned, can you talk about what appealed to you in their sound, like Little Jimmy Scott, Dinah Washington?

Nancy Wilson: The way they delivered the lyric. I understood every word.

Q: So was it the same in all of them?

Nancy Wilson: Dinah Washington had a great deal of humor. If I were to describe myself, I'd say there's a lot of Dinah -- Dinah's humor. I don't sound that much like Dinah although people compared me to her. I think that the chit-chat, the general humor, is a lot of Dinah. The overall look would be Lena Horne. The sound is Jimmy Scott. So it's a combination of things and the bottom line: by osmosis. I became me from listening, absorbing things from everybody. In my mid-teens I really heard Sarah for the first time. Biggest number I ever sang in high school was "I Ran All The Way Home." That's when my high school got to know who I was, [during] my first year in high school. "Ran All The Way Home," Sarah Vaughan. I got to hear her, my very first album. I'd been singing "Guess Who I Saw Today" since I was 15 -- Carmen McRae.

Q: Do you remember first hearing that piece?

Nancy Wilson: No. I know the album. I remember listening to it in the basement. By Special Request was the name of the album. I was 15 years old then. I don't remember ever trying to sound like anybody.

Q: You just absorbed.

Nancy Wilson: I think by osmosis. I loved the lyric and I've always wanted to tell the story. And that's what I got. I thought that Little Jimmy Scott, his bending -- it was just fun. I enjoyed listening to him. I still do. I remember he [Little Jimmy Scott] recorded an album on the Ray Charles' label. I had never heard him sing this song -- I know that he'd not heard me sing it -- and when I heard it, the first 16 bars were identical to mine. We just approached the music the same way, although I didn't know Jimmy. I didn't meet Jimmy until many, many years later. I've only met Jimmy in the last 10, 12 years because he wasn't on the scene for a long time.

STARTING IN NEW YORK CITY

Q: You met your manager [and NEA Jazz Master] John Levy in 1959. How did that come about?

Nancy Wilson: I'd finally decided that I'm going to New York. I'm giving it six months. In six months I need to sign -- be with John Levy. I mean that was the prerequisite for going to New York, to get John Levy as my manager.

I'd been singing for a long time, at that point. Professionally. I knew who John Levy was. The man had George Shearing, he had Ramsey Lewis at that time, he had The Three Sounds, he had Dakota Staton, he had Ahmad Jamal. His stable was filled with people that I respected.

But long before John ever met me he had my music in his office. Everybody had been telling him about this kid in Columbus so he kind of was waiting for me to get there. And I was waiting to be formed -- to know who I was inside -- and decided that I would go to New York. I went, got a job immediately in the garment district. I worked for the Triangle Handbag Company. Didn't like that very much.

So I stayed in the garment district for just a minute and [then] went to the New York Institute of Technology. They had an ad out and the secretary walked out the next day so I ended up being secretary. They freed me up to meet John, to work to have gigs at night. My daytime job was from 12 to 8, so I was able to work four nights a week. Once we got established, they allowed me to do my photo shoot, were okay with me going to California to record.

Within a matter of a month or so after I got to New York...I were making the rounds of some of the little places. One of them was the Blue Morocco in the Bronx on Boston Post Road. Irene Reid was the headliner. She was the singer who was there every weekend. I sat in and a couple of days after that Irene Reid broke her leg. The club called me to come fill in for her while she was out -- so I had a job night and day. That first week, I had already run into Nat and Cannon and had been out to the house. I said, "Cannon, I'm working," so they called and told John where I was. I wasn't there a but a week or so and John came up and said, "I'll call you tomorrow." And he did. Within a matter of a few days we were in the studio with Ray Bryant, his trio.

We did four sides and they were only sent to one person. We'd already talked about it. Capitol Records was the label we wanted. If you're going to do it, it was the singer's label, it truly was. David Cavenaugh was the producer we wanted. David produced Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Dakota, Jonah Jones. Within five weeks of arriving in New York, all of the things I set out to do were accomplished. John actually was there and did everything he said he was going to do. David Cavenaugh received the package, called John and said, "Don't let anybody else hear them."

I think the problem is that most people don't go with an agenda. I knew that I wanted John Levy. I knew I wanted Capitol. And I knew I wanted to work supper clubs as opposed to jazz rooms. It was kind of solidified. The idea, to me, if you go, is to have some names and to know where you're going and where you want to go -- as opposed to go to New York and think you can stand on a corner and sing and somebody's going to hear you. It doesn't work that way. You need something specific. You need to know who you're looking for, what your objective is.

HIGHS AND LOWS

Q: What are some of the high and low points in your career?

Nancy Wilson: I remember once working 56 nights straight, two shows a night. That was low -- the worst. That was the worst. The problem is that nobody realized that this is not what I set out to do. I didn't like knowing where I was going to be for two years in advance. It was like "no, no, no, this is going too slow. Not working." And the high point, the best night really, the night that solidified the career, was opening night at Coconut Grove in '64.

We had already broken the show in Las Vegas at The Flamingo. We knew that it was good but if it worked at the Coconut Grove -- especially since we were recording it live -- then this would solidify it. It was covered in Time magazine so that was a national night as opposed to just local. It was a great night.

Q: Did you know that it was going to be such a significant event? Were you aware of that when it was happening?

Nancy Wilson: Very much so. Walked down the hall, with a smile on my face, and here we go. This is it. Didn't know what it was like to have butterflies. I've never been nervous, not about singing. I didn't know you were supposed to be nervous. You know, everybody's always saying well, "Aren't you nervous before?" No, not really. I guess when you start so young, you never learn about those fears. You don't get butterflies in your stomach when you've been standing in front of people since you were three doing it.

ESTABLISHING HERSELF

Q: So how old were you when the first album came out?

Nancy Wilson: I was not a kid. I was 22. I figured at 21, 22 I'm ready and I would be able to make the proper decisions. I had already tried to figure this thing out, had looked and seen that it really was not about show business. It was about singing. It was about doing my performance because if I had wanted to...Show business that's not my cup of tea. But I do perform, so I have to take that along with it.

As a young girl, to look at those women in the business and not see anybody really be happy makes you stop and think. I stopped and thought about how many had died before they ever reached the age of 50, never made it to 60 -- that was not something that I looked forward to. And at least I did see it. I didn't just see the glamour. I saw the fact that I hadn't seen anybody really happy. I saw women who'd been married four and five times and saw a lot of unhappiness in it. So that's what we worked hard at -- John and I -- to remain my father's and mother's daughter. That I remain me, and it is not easy. It's not easy.

Q: You mean so that no one was trying to push you to create some kind of public persona that wasn't really you?

Nancy Wilson: Right, right. I would not allow that. Actually, people didn't try to do it. People would try to get me to sign contracts and whatnot. I remember a lady, Madame Rose Brown, she had a TV show in Columbus, trying to tell me how I should act, things I would have to do. I said, "I don't have to do that." That is not a part of who I am.

And Capitol Records never told me what to sing. Nobody has ever! I get that question a lot these days, "What did they try to make you do?" I beg your pardon? You know, nobody tried to make me do anything. It was about wise selection of material and we were all in accord about it. There was nobody trying to make me somebody else.

Q: We talked a little bit about labels and how everybody likes to put a label on a musician. How would you describe what you do?

Nancy Wilson: I'm a song stylist. That allows me to sing anything I want to sing. It allows me to do Pop which, when I first started recording, those songs were the Pop of the day. Now those albums are in the jazz box, but they were Pop then. So it's just a question of timing. I'm still singing the great ballad, the great story, the American songbook. Nothing is ever going to replace Gershwin, Cole Porter, Billy Strayhorn. The music -- that music -- will always be. It is just marvelous and nothing is being written to compare to it. The lyric is no longer of significance to the degree that it was. It will come back, I'm certain. There are far more singers being mentioned then there were 15 years ago so, you know, it's all cyclical. Hopefully it'll come back sometime so I'll know it.

I never wanted to be this great star. I never wanted celebrity. No, that does not enter the equation at all. If I want to go to the supermarket without makeup, in jeans, I'm going. I don't travel with anybody. I don't want to ever have to be surrounded by people. That is not fun. I like privacy. I can't have that if I'm a big-time celebrity. Before I go to work on stage, I don't want anybody messing with my hair. I don't need anybody to do my makeup. I do that because that's my time and if I have somebody else in there with me, I can't concentrate. And I like silence before I go on. I'm as open and free as can be afterward but I cannot do it before I go on. I need to see people afterward.

LIVE AND IN THE STUDIO

Q: When you're telling a story, how important is it to have an audience there and to be interacting with an audience?

Nancy Wilson: Doesn't matter.

Q: So can you do it the same way, have the same amount of feeling if you're recording in a studio?

Nancy Wilson: Sure. That's where the actress comes in -- it's all about going inside and making it happen. I mean, the audience is great but if I couldn't do it in a studio, then I'm doing something wrong. I've closed my eyes in the studio and I'm there. Takes a minute, you know, but back in the day when professional people ruled the record industry, you came in and you were on it. The energy level was just so high. You'd have anywhere from five pieces to 36 pieces. At one minute after eight, the conductor would start the music. Many times we used the first take to iron out the problems, if there were any, in the score. Record no less than three songs in four hours any given night -- record an album in three nights. And we did that twice a year. Every six months there was an album released. Those of us who came along at that time have a body of work for people to judge as opposed to every two, three years now. If they're big enough, these people don't record more than five albums in their entire life where we have upwards of 70. Some people have a hundred albums out, like Tennessee Ernie Ford. It's amazing: every wonderful song I ever wanted to record I got a chance to do. So that's the beauty of coming along at the time we did, because we were able to record wonderful, wonderful songs. The songs were what mattered.

Q: So being on tour and playing to all of these audiences, was that almost a necessity, just part of the career?

Nancy Wilson: Okay, it was about the supper clubs, it was about the recording -- never about movies -- it was about television. It was about being able to go in the studio and do that job, being able to take that from the studio, put it on the floor, and then [onto] television. I always wanted to do TV -- so I did a lot of television. I loved it. We were able to cover all those bases.

Q: And what's it like to be on stage and to sort of hold an audience and be moving them, controlling them?

Nancy Wilson: I wouldn't have a clue.

Q: Really?

Nancy Wilson: No, I mean, I wouldn't know how to verbalize that.

Q: Do you get a certain energy watching your impact on people?

Nancy Wilson: Well, it's kind of nice to play a place like Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall and walk out and...the audience responds and they give you all the love that you ever needed -- before you ever sing the first note. That's great but it's not about power. I've never thought of it in terms of control or anything like that.

LUTHER HENDERSON

Q: Luther Henderson is also a recipient of an NEA Jazz Masters award and you have worked with him, so we wanted to ask you about that.

Nancy Wilson: I think Luther put that first show together, he and Marty Charnin, the one that we did at the Coconut Grove. The second one, too. Luther was just delightful, lot of fun. And I've seen him do Broadway things. I'd not been to too many Broadway shows, but anything Luther was involved in I tried to get to see. But he was just a charming, handsome, beautiful man, and fun to work with. Sharp as could be with his little beret and his ascots and stuff, yeah. Luther was marvelous; really very bright and fun, loved the music. I loved his charts.

Q: Why?

Nancy Wilson: They just were humorous and fun, light but with a great deal of harmony. And as far as writing, there was Oliver Nelson and nobody wrote any better for me than Jimmy Jones, and, of course, Gerald Wilson. The harmonic structure and the things that they would do were just great, just fun. I mean, to know when you walked in front of the microphone, that what you were going to hear in the next five minutes was going to knock your socks off, it was going to be great.

Q: It's interesting that you and Luther are almost on the opposite ends of the spectrum as far as you as a vocalist are in such a public position whereas Luther was always behind the scenes.

Nancy Wilson: Well, if you're ever saw Lena Horne, you saw Luther. He did so many of her things. And [for] so many of the young women like me, Luther was the guiding light. He was the man behind the throne. He would write the charts and put the shows together for so many of the young women who played the supper club circuit. And they were gorgeous, you know. Oh, there was Dorothy Dandridge, Joyce Bryant -- she was so fabulous, just a gorgeous woman. They appeared to be having fun and they appeared to have a life, other than Dorothy. Dorothy's life was very tragic. Lena Horne, to me, has some of everything that you need to be a great woman. She was a great Civil Rights worker, a marvelous look, and just paved the way. I'm grateful to her -- and for her.

RAMSEY LEWIS

Q: What has it been like to be playing with Ramsey on his current tour?

Nancy Wilson: This is our third album together. We did a lot of work together early on because Ramsey was with John then. But always Ramsey would go out and play. There'd be a short, brief break and then I'd go out and do my thing. We never interacted. We open together, we close together, and we've got a show. John, he'll say, "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know." I said, "Well, I'm not going to do much work but I will support the Ramsey Lewis album." He got to see us last fall at Monterey, at Cerritos here [in California]. He came backstage and said, "Okay, all right, I see what you mean, now and I now understand why you guys want to do this."

Q: Why?

Nancy Wilson: 'Cause we're having fun. As I say, we are interacting. We talk, we walk out together. You don't see that too often. Usually everybody goes up and does their own thing and that's it. So now, I kind of try to do a little bit from the first album -- just so people might remember the two of us. Then we do some of Meant To Be Now, open with one of those, and then we are doing things from the new album which is Simple Pleasures .

Q: And are you going to continue?

Nancy Wilson: For a little bit, yeah, yeah. We've got dates up through next year, but not a lot, you know, not many.

BEING AN NEA JAZZ MASTER

Q: We've been talking about labels, how do you feel about the label, NEA Jazz Master?

Nancy Wilson: Because of the company, I think it's a great label, you know. I remember one of the jazz critics in the city of San Francisco came to my opening night at the Fairmont and wrote this review the next day. He just did not understand, and [wrote] "they just love her." But he didn't get it and he couldn't understand why I made more money than Kitty Kallen. This is a review?

If I do something up-tempo, you can bet everything I do is jazz-oriented. Jazz people, aficionados, might not consider it such, but eventually they came in the fold. I've always surrounded myself with great jazz musicians although what I was singing might not have been considered jazz. It's probably because I did not scat in the Ella or Betty Carter tradition. Because I didn't do those things, maybe some of the jazz critics did not think that I was [a jazz singer]. But it didn't bother me. I figured if I was true to myself, if I sang the things I liked, it would touch people's heart and their ears and they would hear, and they would feel. I think that that's what a master is, if you can do that. So I am overjoyed and so pleased. As I say, the company that I will be joining is marvelous so I'm quite happy about it. It's been well worth it. This is one of the highest honors I could ever have.