10:25am

Tue December 14, 2004
Columns

Nancy Wilson On Piano Jazz

Nancy Wilson to guest star on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz at 7:00 pm, Sunday, December 26th.

Wilson has had a brilliant career as a singer/song stylist, recording over sixty albums and moving effortlessly between jazz, pop, and R&B. During the years with Capitol, she was second in sales only to the Beatles, surpassing even Sinatra, Peggy Lee, the Beach Boys and early idol Nat King Cole. Wilson has also appeared on numerous television programs, including her self-titled Emmy Award-winning variety show. Most recently, Wilson hosted NPR's artist documentary program, Jazz Profiles. She joins McPartland to swap stories and sing songs, including "Easy Living" and "The Nearness of You."

Nancy Wilson blurs the line between jazz singer and pop singer, preferring to be called a "song stylist." Born on February 20, 1937, she is younger than Elvis, Little Richard and Esther Phillips and only a year older than Etta James and Tina Turner. Yet, she is worlds away from these rhythm rocking contemporaries, stylistically speaking. Nancy is more like an earlier generation of vocalists, i.e. Nat Cole, Sarah Vaughan or Billy Eckstine. Yet, she is more modern.

At 15 she won a talent show in Columbus, Ohio. The prize was her own twice-a-week television show, Skyline Melodies. A member of Rusty Bryant's band at the Carolyn Club, she also sat in with any band that would let her at other local clubs. One night it was Cannonball Adderley, who was so impressed that he told her to look him up if she ever came to New York. In 1959, the ambitious young singer did just that, which then led to her meeting her long-time manager John Levy who got her signed to Capitol Records. "What I heard that night," recalled Capitol A&R man Dave Cavanaugh, "was the nasal quality of Dinah [Washington] and the tear of Billie [Holiday]. I signed her immediately."

An early single, 1961's "Guess Who I Saw Today," a marvel of sophistication given the teen tenor of the times, became a staple on jazz radio and in black juke box locations throughout urban America. An album with her discoverer, NANCY WILSON/CANNONBALL ADDERLEY, further raised her jazz profile in 1962 and provided her with a second juke box hit, an edited-for-45 version of Buddy Johnson's "Save Your Love For Me." She has also paid tribute to her idol, Little Jimmy Scott, with a much-loved version of "When Did You Leave Heaven." Nancy's highest charting Capitol singles, the Grammy?-winning "(You Don't Know) How Glad I Am" (#11 Pop, 1964) and "You're As Right As Rain" (#10 R&B, 1974), are highlights in the total of 20 Pop and/or R&B-charting singles for Capitol.

The two albums which made Nancy Wilson a household name were BROADWAY MY WAY and HOLLYWOOD-MY WAY, which are just what the titles imply, current and old tunes from the Great White Way and Tinseltown. BROADWAY'S standout track was Irving Berlin's "You Can Have Him," from Miss Liberty. Nancy the actress wrings every drop of irony out of Berlin's heartbreakingly ironic lyric. The "hit" from HOLLYWOOD was, of course, the aforementioned "When Did You Leave Heaven," the Richard Whiting-Walter Bullock gem from the movie Sing Baby Sing. Both albums came out in 1963 and are part of an extraordinary output of 37 original albums total in her 20 years with the label.

After countless television guest appearances, NBC gave Nancy her own network series, The Nancy Wilson Show, for which she won an Emmy? award for the 1967-68 season. She also performed on shows like The Andy Williams Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and, over the years, either as herself or in the occasional acting role, on TV series like I Spy, Room 222, Hawaii Five-O, Police Story, The Cosby Show, New York Undercover and, lately, Moesha and The Parkers.

After years with Capitol, during many of which she was second in sales only to the Beatles, surpassing even Sinatra, Peggy Lee, the Beach Boys and early idol Nat King Cole, the business had changed and Nancy felt a new label might bring about a fresh start. So she moved over to Columbia, where, despite her usual high aesthetic standards, she found it impossible to compete, sales-wise, with increasingly teen-oriented acts.

One of her more interesting albums from her later period came about in 1991, when pop singer Barry Manilow was given a sheath full of lyrics written by the late Johnny Mercer which the great songwriter had never put to music. Manilow added melodies and chose Nancy to sing the resultant songs.

When the NPR radio network was looking for an articulate voice with both name value and jazz credibility to host their series, Jazz Profiles, Nancy was the obvious choice. Not only does she know the music, but she knows the artists personally.

Recently, Nancy has begun to talk about giving up the road and retiring to spend more time with her family and her grandchildren. Her fans will miss her, but with over sixty albums' worth of material, we've got plenty of listening and plenty of memories. With all that Nancy Wilson has given to the world of music, she's entitled.