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Nancy Wilson, Song Stylist
This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on Wednesday, May 20, 1998. All rights reserved.
Pop vocalist Nancy Wilson recalls setting her sights
on becoming a singer when she was just four years old. Born in
Ohio, in 1937, Wilson took her cues from the singers who frequented
Cleveland and Columbus in the late 1940s, singers like
Jimmy Scott (who left East Orange only recently to move back to his
hometown of Cleveland), Dinah Washington, LaVern Baker, and "Miss
Rhythm" Ruth Brown.
"I was singing from the time I was three, and professionally from
age 15," Wilson explains in a recent interview from her home in
Los Angeles. "The only question by the time I went to college
was whether or not I wanted to be in show business."
The singer appears in concert with her band in "Nancy Wilson:
An Evening of Jazz, Rhythm and Blues and Pop Classics," presented
by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, at the New Jersey Performing
Arts Center in Newark, on Wednesday, May 27, and at the State Theater
in New Brunswick, on Thursday, May 28, respectively. She performs
with Llew Matthews, her pianist and music director for the past nine
years, Roy McCurdy, drums, and John B. Williams, bass.
Wilson entered Central State University in Ohio in 1956, studying
to become a teacher. Yet that plan proved short lived as word got
around the clubs in Cleveland and Columbus about how great a vocalist
"I had a scholarship to go to college, so it never occurred to
me not to go to school. But it was very difficult once I was there,
when I knew full well I was never going to teach," she says,
at least not as my primary occupation."
While she was supposed to be in college, Wilson was educating herself
as a singer, working the clubs in Columbus. She left for New York
in 1959, but adds that wasn’t a big break for her, just something
that jazz musicians did in those days.
"I knew that I wanted John Levy to manage me, and I didn’t go
to New York to record with anybody other than Capitol Records. At
first I wanted to play supper clubs. I figured if I could be managed
by Levy, have MCA agency booking me and be recording for Capitol,
then things would work out," she recalls. Fortunately, she knew
saxophonist Cannonball Adderly from the clubs around Cleveland and
Columbus, and he looked after her as a father might.
"I didn’t just go to New York in a vacuum. I had a showcase my
first weekend and within a few weeks I was recording, first with Ray
Bryant, a little demo tape. My first and second albums were with the
Billy Mays Big Band, and my third album was with [pianist] George
Shearing," she recalls. Since then, Wilson has recorded more than
60 albums. Her most recent, "If I Had My Way," was released
in 1997 for Sony Music.
In recent years, the best of Wilson’s huge recorded output has been
issued in compact disc boxed sets, including the 1996 volume,
Blues and Big Bands: The Best of Nancy Wilson."
While you’re likely to find the name Nancy Wilson in any good jazz
encyclopedia, ask the veteran singer, whose career spans more than
five decades, and she’ll tell you she’s never considered herself a
"I’m a song stylist," she explains. "I’ve never said I
was a jazz singer. I’m jazz oriented, but this way, `song stylist’
gives me the freedom to sing what I want to sing, whether it’s blues,
R&B, ballads, or pop tunes."
Critics say Wilson has an extraordinary sense of
and well-defined articulation, complemented by the lush
i.e., strings, that can be heard on her 1994 release "Love,
and many of her other albums. Her knack for picking and stylishly
interpreting good songs is widely considered to be the key to her
long career as is her ability to perform a big band tune or in a small
group setting with equal dexterity.
But Wilson is also a storyteller. Consider "Guess Who I Saw
the 1959 song that for many people put Nancy Wilson on the musical
map. In it, Wilson, backed by the Billy Mays Big Band, takes a
pace in chronicling for her husband an encounter she witnessed between
a man and his new flame at a romantic haunt as shopped downtown. She
withholds the identity of the man until the end of the song, singing,
"Guess who I saw today, I saw you."
Wilson’s first bona-fide hit, "Save Your Love For Me," was
released on an album with saxophonist Cannonball Adderly in 1962.
She hosted her own television show in the 1960s, and for the last
four years, has hosted "Jazz Profiles," a syndicated show
on National Public Radio. Her 1991 album, "With My Lover Beside
Me," which showcased previously unpublished lyrics by Johnny
and set to music by Barry Manilow, earned her a Grammy nomination.
At the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and State Theater, Wilson’s
repertoire will include mostly selections from "Love, Nancy,"
produced by Grammy-award winning producer Andre Fisher. Of her recent
album, Wilson says "after sitting down and choosing songs for
the album, we realized that most of the tunes had the word `love’
in them. After that, we pretty much knew where we were going with
the record, and the title `Love, Nancy’ became obvious."
"Song stylist means I may sing anything," Wilson says, though
like her prime influence, Jimmy Scott, she likes songs that tell
"If it’s a song that I find myself humming a lot, I record it.
I like a song with some content. For years people were just dealing
with a hook, but that doesn’t appeal to me," she explains. "I
like a story. Basically, I’m a singer of ballads."
— Richard J. Skelly
$10 to $45. Wednesday, May 27, 8 p.m.
May 28, 8 p.m.
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