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The #Soul Brunch with Nancy Wilson

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016.

It was a badge of honor for me, at age 20, to claim that I had a collection of Nancy Wilson albums, and yet the term collection doesn’t do justice to a career that has spanned more than 50 years and has included close to 70 album releases; Nancy Wilson is her own archive of what might be called refined High-Negro Style.

Well into her 70s, Ms. Wilson is still everybody’s crush, and it is that sensibility that she took into the studio and shared on stage; I’ve been fortunate to witness her at the legendary Blue Note, as well as in front of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and at Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Jon Lucien opened for her.  

Yet, Ms. Wilson never had hits; her “How Glad I Am” was her only top-20 pop recording and her cover of of the Stylistics “You’re as Right as Rain” was her only R&B hit. Ms. Wilson, in the finest tradition, just knows how to sing a song, and her career is a tribute to the genius of doing just that.  In this edition of The Sunday Brunch at NewBlackMan (in Exile) we spend some time with Nancy Wilson.


“Just to Keep You Satisfied” -- Keep You Satisfied (1985)

Ms. Wilson spent the first thirty years of her career recording for Capitol Records -- home to Nat King Cole (and later his daughter Natalie), Classic Sinatra, and  Lou Rawls among others.  Keep You Satisfied was Ms. Wilson’s first album for Columbia and it was anchored by a tribute to Marvin Gaye in an interpretation of one of his most sublime recordings.  Mr. Gaye, who was a fan, would have approved.

“We Can Make It Baby” -- I Know I Live Him (1973)

“Just to Keep You Satisfied” wasn’t the first time Ms. Wilson covered Mr. Gaye, though it was a more obscure source when she sang The Originals’ “We Can Make It Baby,” which was penned by Gaye. Song appears on her stellar I Know I Love Him, which also includes the steamy “Don’t Misunderstand

“The Greatest Performance of My Life” -- Kaleidoscope (1971)

Kaleidoscope, may well be the finest recording of Ms. Wilson’s career -- and one of the last to finally be available on a digital platform.  Ms. Wilson’s cover of Jerry Butler and Betty Everett’s “Let It Be Me” (no shade to the Everly Brothers) is worth the price of admission in its own right. But the grandiose defiance of “The Greatest Performance of My Life” literally makes it one of her greatest performances.

“When the World was Young (ah, the Apple Tree)” -- Lush Life (1967)

From one of Ms. Wilson most sophisticated albums -- the title track a cover of Billy Strayhorn, who died weeks after she recorded the session -- “When the World was Young (ah, the Apple Tree)” is a lovely representation of her interpretive powers.

“You Can Have Him” -- The Nancy Wilson Show (1965)

When Ms. Wilson recorded the live session The Nancy Wilson Show, it allowed some audiences the ability to hear how brilliantly she interacted with audiences -- the banter before, after, and during songs -- is part of the woman’s genius.  Though most knew the punchline of a song like “Guess Who I Saw Today?” -- dude getting caught out there decades before handheld technology -- she really does transform “You Can Have Him” -- a retort of sorts to the other woman -- into something barely suggested on the studio recording. That line -- “and if you knew him half as well as I do, you know that he loves ‘apple butter on toast’ -- the simplest reminder that dude always comes home again...to her.

“If I Could” -- Nancy Now (1988)

Ms. Wilson had a resurgence in the late 1980s, in no small part to a generation of songstress like Miki Howard, Regina Belle and Anita Baker claiming her as musical god-mother and her regular appearances on The Cosby Show as Denise Huxtable's mother-in-law..  Fittingly one of Ms. Wilson’s most timeless recording from that era was the lullaby “If I Could” from Nancy Now. In this clip, Ms. Wilson performs the song on The Arsernio Hall Show.

“When October Goes” -- With My Lover Beside Me (1991)

As the story goes Ginger Mehan Mercer, widow of the legendary lyricist Johnny Mercer, gave Barry Manilow (at her husband’s request) an archive of unfinished lyrics.  When Manilow decided to present the lyrics on a full length album, it was Nancy Wilson that was chosen as the song stylist.  In many ways “When October Goes” was the capstone of a well earned career, and Ms. Wilson sings  this song as if she was at peace with that.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (NYU Press, 2016).  He is the host of the weekly video podcast Left of Black and curator of NewBlackMan (In Exile).  Neal is Professor of African + African-American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University.

The #Soul Brunch with Nancy Wilson

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