Remembering Singer Nancy Wilson

The influential singer’s voice cut across genres and decades, and it will continue to.

Listening to Nancy Wilson’s “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” over a half century after she recorded it is like taking a master class in voice control and phrasing. She incorporates Eartha Kitt’s tart enunciation and Dinah Washington’s melodic upticks in the verse. By the 22-second mark Wilson is stretching out the word “you” into its own little story of restrained passion in a way few singers can. This is Ella Fitzgerald-level breath control. When Wilson effortlessly leaps up the arpeggiated steps of “and you don’t know you don’t know you don’t know…how glad I am” in her first chorus, it’s a marvel of clarity and precision.

Nancy Wilson died on December 13, after an extended illness. She was 81.

Released in the summer of 1964, “How Glad I Am” broke the Top 20 and earned her a Grammy. Wilson, then five years into her recording career, already considered herself a pop artist. “People labelled me as jazz,” she said at the time. “I don’t like that designation. I want to be able to reach everybody, not just the jazz crowd.”

Although never quite able to dodge the label of jazz thrush, Wilson considered herself “a song stylist,” as she told The Washington Post. “That’s my essence,” she explained, “to weave words, to be dramatic.” Regardless, Time magazine once called her Ella Fitzgerald’s heir apparent. “At her opening at Los Angeles’ Coconut Grove last week,” they wrote in 1964, “the crowd of 1,000 voted her everything but the deed and title to the place.”

When she was 15, Wilson had her own television show called Skyline Melodies in Columbus, Ohio, singing pop tunes by request. She later played night clubs in the Bronx and Chicago, but it was venues like the Coconut Grove that encouraged Wilson to up her game. “Now I have to really entertain,” she told Music Business in 1964. “You can’t just get up there and be soulful in clubs like these. They expect a show and you’ve got to give them one. But this is something new and fresh and exciting for me. Even if I’m tired it doesn’t get me bugged.”

It’s a perfectly American thing to delineate forms of musical expression, assigning them to differing demographics for both performer and audience. The word ‘blues’ was tacked onto the end of many of what were called “race record” titles in the 1920s to serve more as a racial signifier than song description. Jazz, initially a product of black subculture, became the pop music of the 1930s and ’40s once accepted into the white American mainstream. Rock ‘n’ roll helped transform American teenagers into a lucrative consumer group in the 1950s, just as it signified that whites had started making and consuming black music.

These race and genre-based boundaries eventually dissolved. Producer Norman Granz asked jazz icons Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to record an album of mostly white show tunes in 1956, to astounding success. Black entertainers like Nat Cole and Johnny Mathis soon gained access to mainstream stardom without the old restrictive labels.

Wilson came to prominence at a time when jazz, blues, and pop had become intertwined in the public consciousness, allowing her to move farther down the path blazed by her hero Jimmy Scott. Thus she was able to make jazz records with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, slow burners like “Our Day Will Come,” and standards. “The Very Thought of You” was recorded by Billie Holiday years before, but Wilson’s early ’60s reading is more intimate and engaged. She stands perfectly poised between the earlier era of vocalists like Lena Horne and Anita Baker, and those — like Natalie Cole and Nnenna Freelon — whom she would inspire.

“In the ‘great tradition’ of blues, torch and jazz singers that began with Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson leans toward the left wing, where pop meets jazz, a translator of popular standards into the jazz idiom,” Time wrote. “Her repertory is a treatise on variety and taste, spun by a voice of agile grace and knowing jazz inflection and phrasing.”

By the mid 1960s, Wilson was behind only the Beatles as Capitol Records’ best-selling artist, outselling Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys. Her short-lived NBC program The Nancy Wilson Show earned an Emmy.

Wilson scored another hit in the late ’60s with “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” then embarked on a second career of ubiquitous television guest appearances. She again expanded her audience in the late ’70s with funky tracks like “Sunshine.”

By the end of the 1990s Wilson had issued more than ’60 albums and gathered up awards from the NEA, Urban League, Playboy, and the NAACP. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was recognized for her work in the Civil Rights Movement by the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.

Successful before she was famous, and beloved until her death, Wilson stands almost alone in career consistency. Now we’re left with what Time called her “treatise on variety and taste.” The best tribute we can pay is some close listening.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel