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A Lady with A Song: Remembering Nancy Wilson

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

Friday, December 21, 2018.

When Nancy Wilson’s Lady with a Song was released in 1989, she had recorded close to 60 albums. Wilson, who died on December 13, 2018, at age 81, will be remembered as the consummate song stylist and storyteller, weaving the intricate and the nuanced out of every lyric that she set lip to.   If the title “Lady with a Song” was apropos for Wilson and her career, almost 30 years ago, it certainly is as much now.

Wilson was a three time Grammy-winner, whose recording career spanned from her debut Like in Love in 1960 to her final studio album, Turned to Blue (2006) which earned her a last Grammy.  Ms. Wilson never had hits in the way that we’ve come to measure such things; “How Glad I Am” (1964) was her only top-20 pop recording and her cover of of the Stylistics “You’re as Right as Rain” (1974) was her only R&B top-10 hit. None of Ms. Wilson’s nearly 70 studio recordings earned Gold status. And Ms. Wilson was perfectly fine with that, as she never considered herself simply a recording artist.

Born on February 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, Ohio, USA, Wilson began singing professionally at age 15, after winning a local talent contest, in which the winner appeared on a local television station weekly.  As Wilson told the Orange County Register in 1997: "When I was 3 or 4, it was obvious I could sing...It wasn't an 'I'm going to do this' kind of thing. The voice was just there." Wilson’s early influences were some of the obvious ones from the era; vocalist like Dinah Washington, Lavern Baker, Esther Phillips, but perhaps most profoundly Jimmy Scott, who until the early 1990s was largely an obscurity.

Wilson was thoughtful about the trajectory of her career.  In an interview with The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Trescott in 1977, Wilson shared "I very much knew who I was when I left home at age 22. I had been a success at 18. And I lived home until I was 22, thinking my career through. I knew the record company and the manager I wanted.”  The record company that Wilson chose was Capitol Records, then the label home of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and later Lou Rawls.

Though Wilson’s early sides find producers trying to fit her into a Jazz idiom -- she is paired with pianist George Shearing and her mentor Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on two of those early albums. "People wanted to call me a jazz singer” Wilson told Prescott, “but I was a song stylist." Her collaboration with Adderley produced one of Wilson’s early notables, “Save Your Love for Me.”  But it was an album cut from her second album, Something Wonderful that would provide Wilson with her signature song.

“Guess Who I Saw Today” was composed by Murray Grand and Elisse Boyd (who wrote the lyrics) for a Broadway musical revue in 1952, which featured a young Eartha Kitt and Mel Brooks. Prior to Wilson’s version the song had been recorded by Carmen McRae and Eydie Gormé.  While Wilson offers a thoughtful rendition of the song on Something Wonderful, it was a live recording of the song on The Nancy Wilson Show! (recorded at the Coconut Grove Nightclub in Los Angeles in 1965) that transformed the song and Wilson’s career with it.

The Nancy Wilson Show! captured Wilson’s natural intimacy with an audience.  She introduces the song with brief banter with the crowd, alternating throughout the song with breathy talk and sung lyrics, turning the song into a slow-cooked thriller about infidelity -- a song that audiencies demanded her to sing in concert until she retired from performing in 2011.  The same style is apparent on the album’s closing track, a cover of Irving Berlin’s “You Can Have Him” from the musical Miss Liberty (1949), turning the lyric “apple butter on toast” into a come-hither moment. Embedded in Ms. Wilson’s  storytelling was a wisdom, that in the early parts of her career betrayed her age. Yet what listeners also heard in Wilson’s finessing of a note and caress of phrases was a sultriness that was mature, yet not kittenish.

As Wilson told Jim Ruth in 1997,  "I'm a saloon singer...Nightclubs. That's what I like most, the intimacy with the audience. No more than 500 people."  Her desire to perform live led to a fraught relationship with the recording studio.  Responding to the technological challenges of recording where artists more often were recording over tracks, "It lacks dimension...I really miss going in and singing it live with the band."  It was one of the reasons, as she told Ruth, that the Coconut Grove album was her favorite.

While Wilson continued to record at a consistent pace, she began to appear more frequently on television making guest appearances on series like I Spy, Room 222, Hawaii Five-0, and Police Story in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A younger generation of viewers was introduced to Wilson in the 1990s via series like the short-lived The Sinbad Show (she played Sinbad’s mother), The Parent ‘Hood, Robert Townsend's  film The Meteor Man, and The Cosby Show, where she sang the classic “Moody’s Mood for Love.”  Wilson’s visibility was also given a boost in the era courtesy of her numerous appearances on fellow Ohioan Arsenio Hall’s  late night talk show.

Wilson also rebooted her singing career in this period, after slowing down to raise her children; her first marriage ended in divorce, and her second husband died in 2008 after 35 years of marriage. After spending more than two decades with Capitol Records, Wilson moved to Columbia, and experienced a renaissance recording polished R&B with a smooth Jazz flair, covering acts like Marvin Gaye (“Just to Keep You Satisfied”), The Emotions (“Don’t Ask My Neighbor”), and Bonnie Raitt (“I Can’t Make You Love Me”)

Throughout her career, Wilson was a paragon of Black style, a singular archive of refined “High-Negro Style,” whether it was the gowns she wore on stage or the figures that she cut on those seventy-plus album covers. Wilson was of that generation of Black performer who truly believed that “when and were she entered” to reference 19th Century thinker Anna Julia Cooper, that the Black community also entered into the frame. As Trescott remarked in 1977, “Part of [Wilson’s] stability has been her dual image as a wholesome homebody and as a sultry singer both images have been successfully commercialized.”

At her peak, Nancy Wilson was a for real Black celebrity. The kind of Black celebrity built before social media, the internet and even cable television; famous enough to have to release an official statement in 1987 saying that she was not having an affair with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, when the latter was running for President.  Wilson used her celebrity in the service of Black civic causes, performing benefits for the NAACP, the UNCF and many other organizations.  She was awarded the NAACP Image Award--Hall of Fame Award in 1998 and a UNCF Trumpet Award in 2005. Ms. Wilson was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Willson has, perhaps, the best last word on her career, telling Jim Ruth twenty-years ago, "I love a song that tells a story...I love simplicity, lyrics that go straight to the heart of the matter.”.  Nancy Wilson’s song will stay in our hearts for generations to come.

songs mentioned in essay


Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies. Neal is the author of several books including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and hosts the weekly video podcast Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center for International and Interdisciplinary Studies. Follow Neal on Twitter at @NewBlackMan and Instagram at @BookerBBBrown.


A Lady with A Song: Remembering Nancy Wilson

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