Nancy Wilson (born February 20, 1937) is an American singer with more than 70 albums, and three Grammy Awards. She has been labeled a singer of blues, jazz, cabaret and pop; a “consummate actress”; and “the complete entertainer.” The title she prefers, however, is song stylist. She has received many nicknames including “Sweet Nancy”, “The Baby”, “Fancy Miss Nancy” and “The Girl With the Honey-Coated Voice”.
On February 20, 1937, Nancy Wilson was the first of six children born to Olden Wilson (iron foundry worker) and Lillian Ryan (domestic worker) in Chillicothe, Ohio. Nancy’s father would buy records to listen to at home. At an early age Nancy heard recordings from Billy Eckstine, Nat Cole, and Jimmy Scott with Lionel Hampton‘s Big Band. Nancy says: “The juke joint down on the block had a great jukebox and there I heard Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown, LaVerne Baker, Little Esther“. Wilson became aware of her talent while singing in church choirs, imitating singers as a young child,and performing in her grandmother’s house during summer visits. By the age of four, she knew she would eventually become a singer.
At the age of 15, while a student at West High School (Columbus, Ohio), she won a talent contest sponsored by local television station WTVN. The prize was an appearance on a twice-a-week television show, Skyline Melodies, which she ended up hosting. She also worked clubs on the east side and north side of Columbus, Ohio, from the age of 15 until she graduated from West High School, at age 17.
Unsure of her future as an entertainer, she entered college to pursue teaching. She spent one year at Ohio’s Central State College (now Central State University) before dropping out and following her original ambitions. She auditioned and won a spot with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band in 1956. She toured with them throughout Canada and the Midwest in 1956 to 1958. While in this group, Nancy made her first recording under Dots Records.
When Nancy met Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, he suggested that she should move to New York City, believing that the big city would be the venue in which her career could bloom. In 1959, she relocated to New York with a goal of obtaining Cannonball’s manager John Levy as her manager and Capitol Records as her label. Within four weeks of her arrival in New York she got her first big break, a call to fill in for Irene Reid at “The Blue Morocco”. The club booked Wilson on a permanent basis; she was singing four nights a week and working as a secretary for the New York Institute of Technology during the day. John Levy sent demos “Guess Who I Saw Today“, “Sometimes I’m Happy”, and two other songs to Capitol. Capitol Records signed her in 1960.
Nancy’s debut single, “Guess Who I Saw Today”, was so successful that between April 1960 and July 1962 Capitol Records released five Nancy Wilson albums. Her first album, Like in Love, displayed her talent in Rhythm and Blues, with the hit R&B song “Save your Love for Me.” Adderley suggested that she should steer away from her original pop style and gear her music toward jazz and ballads. In 1962, they collaborated and produced an album Nancy Wilson/Cannonball which propelled her to national prominence. Between March, 1964 and June, 1965 four of Wilson’s albums hit the Top 10 on Billboard’s Top LPs chart. In 1963 “Tell Me The Truth” became her first truly major hit, leading up to her performance at the Coconut Grove in 1964 – the turning point of her career garnering critical acclaim from coast to coast. It was covered in Time magazine, She is, all at once, both cool and sweet, both singer and storyteller. In 1964 Nancy released what became her most successful hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” which peaked at #11. From 1963 to 1971 Wilson logged eleven songs on the Hot 100, including two Christmas singles. However, “Face It Girl, It’s Over” was the only remaining non-Christmas song to crack the Top 40 for Wilson (#29, in 1968).
“Guess Who I Saw Today” 1994
After doing numerous television guest appearances, Wilson eventually got her own series on NBC, The Nancy Wilson Show (1967–1968), that won an Emmy in 1975. Over the years she has appeared on many popular television shows from I Spy (more or less playing herself as a Las Vegas singer in the 1966 episode “Lori”); Room 222, Hawaii Five-O, Police Story, The Jack Paar Program, The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show (1966), The Danny Kaye Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Kraft Music Hall, The Sinbad Show, The Cosby Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Soul Food, New York Undercover, and recently Moesha, and The Parkers. She also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffith Show, The Tonight Show, The Arsenio Hall Show and The Flip Wilson Show. She was in the 1993 Robert Townsend‘s The Meteor Man and in the film, The Big Score. She also appeared on The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars and the March of Dime Telethon. She was signed by Capitol records in the late 70s and in an attempt to broaden her appeal she cut the album Life, Love and Harmony an album of soulful, funky dance cuts that included the track “Sunshine” which was to become one of her most sought after recordings be it amongst supporters of the rare soul scene for whom she would not usually register.
“The Very Thought of You”
In the 1980s, she recorded five albums for Japanese labels because she preferred recording live, and American labels frequently didn’t give her that option. She gained such wide popularity that she was selected as the winner of the annual Tokyo Song Festivals.
In 1982 she recorded with Hank Jones and the Great Jazz Trio. In that same year she recorded with Griffith Park Band whose members included Chick Corea and Joe Henderson. In 1987 she participated in a PBS show entitled Newport Jazz ‘87 as the singer of a jazz trio with John Williams and Roy McCurdy.
“The Days of Wine and Rose” Johnny Mercer/Henri Mancini song.
In 1982 she also signed with CBS, her albums here including The Two Of Us (1984), duets with Ramsey Lewis produced by Stanley Clarke; Forbidden Lover (1987), including the title track duet with Carl Anderson; and A Lady With A Song, which became her 52nd album release in 1989. In 1989 Nancy Wilson in Concert played as a television special.
In the early 1990s, Nancy recorded an album paying tribute to Johnny Mercer with co-producer Barry Manilow entitled With My Lover Beside Me. In this decade she also recorded two other albums, Love, Nancy and her sixtieth album If I had it My Way. . In the late 1990s, Nancy teamed up with MCG Jazz, a youth education programs of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, nonprofit, minority-directed, arts and learning organization located in Pittsburgh, PA.
In 1995, Nancy Wilson performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the San Francisco Jazz Festival in 1997. In 1999, Wilson hosted a show in honor of Ella Fitzgerald entitled Forever Ella on the A & E network.
1982 performance by Nancy Wilson, “I Wanna Be Loved” -Was also a big hit for Benny Goodman!
All the proceeds from 2001’s A Nancy Wilson Christmas, went to support the work of MCG Jazz. Wilson was the host on NPR‘s Jazz Profiles, from 1996 to 2005. This series profiled the legends and legacy of jazz through music, interviews and commentary. Wilson and the program were the recipients of the George Foster Peabody Award in 2001.
In 1964, Nancy won her first Grammy Award for the best rhythm and blues recording for the album How Glad I Am. She was featured as a “grand diva” of jazz in a 1992 edition of Essence. In the same year, she also received the Whitney Young,Jr. Award from the Urban League. In 1998, she was a recipient of the Playboy Reader Poll Award for best jazz vocalist.
On the Andy Williams Show, “Don’t Go To Strangers”
In 1986, she was dubbed the Global Entertainer of the Year by the World Conference of Mayors. In 1993, she received an award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in 1993; the NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award in 1998, and was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1999. She received the Trumpet Award for Outstanding Achievement in 1994. Nancy has received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991, at 6541 Hollywood Blvd. She received honorary degrees from the Berklee School of Music and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. She is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. Wilson has a street named after her in her hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio. She co-founded the Nancy Wilson Foundation, which exposes inner city children to the country.
Duke Ellington’s, “Satin Doll”
Wilson was the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships award in 2004, the highest honors that the United States government bestows upon jazz musicians. The 2004 NAACP Image Awards for Best Recording Jazz Artist. In 2005, the UNCF Trumpet Award celebrating African-American achievement, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the NAACP in Chicago, and Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Award.
In September 2005, Nancy was inducted on the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Wilson was a major figure in civil rights marches of the 1960s. Nancy Wilson said, “This award means more to me than anything else I have ever received.”
Times.com, August 20, 2006: “It’s been a long career for the polished Wilson, whose first albums appeared in the 1960s, and she faces that truth head-on in such numbers as These Golden Years and I Don’t Remember Ever Growing Up. Shorter breathed these days, she can still summon a warm, rich sound and vividly tell a song’s story. With a big band behind her in Taking a Chance on Love, she also shows there’s plenty of fire in her autumnal mood”.
Wilson married her first husband, drummer Kenny Dennis, in 1960. In 1963, their son, Kenneth (Kacy) Dennis, Jr., was born, and by 1970, they divorced. She remarried that same year to Reverend Wiley Burton. She gave birth to Samantha Burton in 1975 and Sheryl Burton in 1976. As a result of her marriage, she abstained from performing in various venues, such as supper clubs. In this decade, she focused on her family, relocating to Pioneertown, California to raise her children in a rural setting.
For the following two decades, she successfully juggled her personal life and her career. In November 1998, both of her parents died; she calls this year the most difficult year of her life. August 2006, Nancy Wilson was hospitalized with anemia and potassium deficiency, was on I.V. sustenance while undergoing a complete battery of tests. She was unable to attend the UNCF Evening of Stars Tribute to Aretha Franklin and has had to cancel an engagement. All of her other engagements were on hold, pending doctors’ reports for that month. In March 2008, she was hospitalized for lung complications, recovered and claimed to be doing well. In the same year, her husband, Presbyterian minister Rev.Wiley Burton, died after suffering from renal cancer.
Quick Bio Facts:
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Jazz and pop diva
Hits include 1962’s Save Your Love for Me (collaboration with Cannonball Adderley) and 1991 album With My Lover Beside Me. In 1967-8 hosted and performed in an NBC television show The Nancy Wilson Show.
Father: Olden Wilson (iron foundry worker)
Mother: Lillian Ryan
Husband: Kenneth C. Dennis (drummer, div. 1970)
Son: Kenneth (“Kacy”)
Husband: Wiley Burton (minister, m. 1974)
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