When Nancy Wilson was growing up in Chillicothe, Ohio, in the 1940s, her father bought every Nat “King” Cole and Billy Eckstine album that came out. Besides the record player at home, Wilson relied on a corner juke joint to expose her to new music. And she loved to sing along with everything, from pop tunes to hymns at church.
She started performing while in her teens, and by age 19 she’d been hired to tour with the Carolyn Club Big Band, led by saxophonist Rusty Bryant. It was Julian “Cannonball” Adderley who took enough of an interest in her career to suggest she move to New York, which she did in 1959. Within a few months she had a regular gig singing at the Blue Morocco in the Bronx. (Harlem is often assumed to be the center of New York jazz at that time, but the stretch of Boston Rd. between 166th St. and Prospect Ave. in the Bronx was lined with top-notch clubs.)
Capitol Records soon offered her a contract, and she stayed with them for 20 years. Her first taste of real fame arrived in 1962, when the single “Save Your Love for Me,” from the album Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, became a hit. Wilson went on to record over 70 albums, which garnered three Grammy Awards. When she died in 2018, she left behind a legacy of masterful jazz and R&B singing.
Enjoy these eight great tracks by Nancy Wilson.
- Track: “Teach Me Tonight”
Album: Something Wonderful
Something Wonderful was Wilson’s second album. Celebrated arranger Billy May did the honors, leading an orchestra of winds, brass, percussion, and piano.
“Teach Me Tonight” is a number by Gene de Paul and Sammy Cahn that attracted many big artists in the 1950s. This recording is a great introduction to the style that made Wilson famous: deceptive simplicity over a foundation of understated emotion. May’s sly writing for the horns is the perfect foil for Wilson’s pure delivery of lines like “One thing isn’t very clear, my love / Should the teacher stand so near, my love?”.
- Track: “Joey Joey Joey”
Album: Broadway – My Way
It’s hardly unusual to find a jazz musician dipping her toe into Broadway repertoire. (It should be noted that this album was quickly followed by Hollywood – My Way, and the two discs were subsequently re-released as a set.) What sets this record apart is Wilson’s distinctive choice of Broadway songs, including rarities that few others were bothering with.
One of those is the winsome “Joey Joey Joey,” from Frank Loesser’s A Most Happy Fella, with Jimmy Jones playing piano and conducting the jazz orchestra. In the show, the character Joey is singing about himself -- how he gets restless when he stays in one place for too long. A woman’s voice gives it a whole different context, making it sound like advice to somebody who’s stuck in his life. Wilson comes across as concerned but wise.
- Track: “At Long Last Love”
Album: Gentle Is My Love
The orchestra on Gentle is My Love is arranged and conducted by Sid Feller, who made his name working with Ray Charles. Unlike the previous two examples, Feller included strings. As a result, the arrangements can get a bit cloying (if you know Charles’ original recording of “Georgia on My Mind,” you’ll notice the same issue), but Wilson’s singing grounds them.
Cole Porter originally wrote “At Long Last Love” for his long-forgotten 1938 musical Now You Know, but the song became a standard on its own. Notice the way Wilson elongates notes within each musical idea but punches the close of each phrase. It’s especially obvious in those opening lines because of the “shock/mock” rhyme:
- Track: “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Album: Now I’m a Woman
There are more pop- and R&B-inspired songs than jazz on this album, a sign of Wilson’s changing tastes (or perhaps it was a financially practical move). The sources for material range from Paul McCartney to the Philly soul songwriting team Gamble and Huff.
Arranger Bobby Martin is responsible for this version of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a song that had only been released by Simon and Garfunkel a few months before. This performance shows a more introspective side of Wilson’s style.
- Track: “Tree of Life”
Album: This Mother’s Daughter
This Mother’s Daughter has a funk and fusion feel, thanks to arrangements by Dave Grusin, who also played piano and Fender Rhodes. Fusion pioneer George Duke joined in on Moog synthesizer, and rock master Steve Gadd played drums.
Several songs, including “Tree of Life,” are by soul composer Eugene McDaniels, whose “Feel Like Makin’ Love” had been a massive hit for Roberta Flack two years earlier. (As Gene McDaniels, he had a number of hits on his own including “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” “Tower of Strength,” and others.) As usual, Wilson’s patient control over her expression and phrasing give this song a rewarding sense of motion.
- Track: “I Loved You All the Time”
Album: Take My Love
1980 brought the end of Wilson’s long association with Capitol Records. This was her last album for them. About a third of the tracks are produced by Humberto Gatica (a 16-time Grammy winner). Mark Linnet and Hugh Davies produced the remaining songs.
Wilson nails the fusion of jazz and soul in this Leon Ware number, “I Loved You All the Time,” contrasting clear upper arcs of melody with a breathy lower register.
- Track: “Other Side of the Storm”
Album: A Lady with a Song
“The Other Side of the Storm”
The R&B of the 1980s had a heavy influence on this 1990 album, and as always, Wilson adapts handily to the needs of the genre. In her early 50s when she recorded this, she takes advantage of the natural middle-age thickening of her voice to give the lyrics a great sense of longing. “Other Side of the Storm” is by another R&B hitmaker, Sami McKinney.
- Track: “Loving You, Loving Me”
Album: If I Had My Way
The album If I Had My Way includes two songs by frequent collaborator Skip Scarborough, who also provided tunes for Earth, Wind and Fire among others. One of Scarborough’s tracks is “Loving You, Loving Me.”
Wilson, age 60 at this point, demonstrates her power as a storyteller. And although she’s still pulling on those vowels mid-phrase, her delivery has become smoother over the decades, her cadences like velvet, and her emotions closer to the surface.