Nancy Sue Wilson, February 20, 1937, December 13, 2018, was an American singer whose career spanned over five decades, from the mid–1950s until her retirement in the early–2010s. She was notable for her single “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” and her version of the standard “Guess Who I Saw Today”.
Wilson recorded more than 70 albums and won three Grammy Awards for her work. During her performing career, Wilson was labeled a singer of blues, jazz, R&B, pop, and soul, a “consummate actress”, and “the complete entertainer”. The title she preferred, however, was “song stylist”. She received many nicknames including “Sweet Nancy”, “The Baby”, “Fancy Miss Nancy” and “The Girl With the Honey-Coated Voice”.
She was born on February 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, Ohio, the first of six children of Olden Wilson, an iron foundry worker, and Lillian Ryan, a maid. Wilson’s father would buy records to listen to at home. At an early age, Wilson heard recordings from Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, and Jimmy Scott with Lionel Hampton’s Big Band. Wilson 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, 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 from 1956 to 1958. While in this group, Wilson made her first recording under Dot Records.
When Wilson 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 of “Guess Who I Saw Today”, “Sometimes I’m Happy”, and two other songs to Capitol. Capitol Records signed her in 1960.
Wilson’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. Adderley suggested that she should steer away from her original pop style and gear her music toward jazz and ballads. In 1962, they collaborated, producing the album Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, which propelled her to national prominence with the hit R&B song, “Save Your Love For Me”, and Wilson would later appear on Adderley’s live album In Person (1968). 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. TIME said of her, “She is, all at once, both cool and sweet, both singer and storyteller.” In 1964 Wilson released what became her most successful hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am”, which peaked at No. 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).
After making numerous television guest appearances, Wilson eventually got her own series on NBC, The Nancy Wilson Show (1967–1968), which won an Emmy. 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”, and a similar character in the 1973 episode “The Confession” of The F.B.I.), 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 Griffin 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 1970s 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 (albeit among supporters of the rare soul scene with whom she would not usually register). In 1977 she recorded the theme song for The Last Dinosaur, a made-for-TV movie which opened in theaters in Japan.
In the 1980s, she recorded five albums for Japanese labels because she preferred recording live, and American labels frequently did not give her that option. She gained such wide popularity that she was selected as the winner of the annual Tokyo Song Festivals.
In 1982 Wilson 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. 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, Wilson 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, she teamed up with MCG Jazz, a youth-education program of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, nonprofit, minority-directed, arts and learning organization located in Pittsburgh, PA.
In 1995, Wilson performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the San Francisco Jazz Festival in 1997. In 1999, she hosted a show in honor of Ella Fitzgerald entitled Forever Ella on the A & E Network. 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. Wilson’s second and third album with MCG Jazz, R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) (2005), and Turned to Blue (2007), both won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. On September 10, 2011, she performed on a public stage for the last time at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. According to Wilson, “I’m not going to be doing it anymore, and what better place to end it than where I started – in Ohio.”
In 1964, Wilson 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.
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In 1986, she was dubbed the Global Entertainer of the Year by the World Conference of Mayors. 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. Wilson received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990, at 6541 Hollywood Blvd. She received honorary degrees from Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. She is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. 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. In 2000, she received the Harlem Renaissance Award and performed during Harlem Week, 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. In 2005 she received the NAACP Image Awards for Best Recording Jazz Artist. She received the 2005 UNCF Trumpet Award celebrating African-American achievement, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the NAACP in Chicago, and Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Award and performed at the Apollo Theater in 2005.
In September 2005, Wilson was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. Wilson was a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement. 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”. At the Hollywood Bowl, August 29, 2007, Wilson celebrated her 70th birthday with an all-star event hosted by Arsenio Hall. Ramsey Lewis and his trio performed “To Know Her Is To Love Her”.
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. On May 22, 1973, she married a Presbyterian minister, Reverend Wiley Burton. She gave birth to Samantha Burton in 1975, and the couple adopted Sheryl Burton in 1976. As a result of her marriage, she abstained from performing in various venues, such as supper clubs. 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 of her life.
In August 2006, Wilson was hospitalized with anemia and potassium deficiency and 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 had to cancel the engagement. All of her other engagements were on hold pending doctors’ reports.
In March 2008, she was hospitalized for lung complications, recovered, and claimed to be doing well. In the same year, her husband, Wiley Burton, died after suffering from renal cancer.
On December 13, 2018, Wilson died at her home in Pioneertown, California after a long illness. She was 81 years old.
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