By Danny R. Johnson/Jazz and Pop Music Critic
LOS ANGELES – Ms. Nancy Sue Wilson, whose skilled and flexible approach to singing provided a key bridge between the sophisticated jazz-pop vocalists of the 1950s and the powerhouse pop-soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s, died on Thursday, December 13, 2018, at her home in Pioneertown, California. She was 81.
A hardworking and highly efficient singer, Ms. Wilson released more than 70 albums in a five-decade recording career. She won three GRAMMY Awards, one for Best Rhythm and Blues recording for the 1964 album “How Glad I Am,” and two for Best Jazz Vocal album, in 2005 and 2007. In 2004, she was honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Searing, burning, and intense—and not to mention swinging—from her first recording onward, Ms. Wilson immediately established herself as a top singer. At that time, the matter of whether she was a jazz singer or a pop singer was always a subject of some discussions for decades: “I don’t like categories,” she once told me at a John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts gala held in Washington, DC in 2002. “When I started, I was definitely a jazz singer to jazz enthusiasts, but strictly a pop singer to everyone else. Everybody wanted to place me in a categorical box.”
Ms. Wilson went on to say, “I just like to sing good music, tunes that have a good range and good lyrics, and I’ve never cared about what others called it. My job is to take good material and deliver it. It’s like being an actress, and that’s really what I have done my whole career.”
And boy did she deliver it! As with Dinah Washington and Joe Williams, her singing draws equally from the pop, jazz, and blues schools all at once, forged into seamless blend. Ms. Wilson was undoubtedly the first post-modernist of jazz-pop singing, the most important vocalist to have come along after three genres were codified and moved freely among them. At the same time, it was hard for many of my fellow music critics, including myself, to place her in the highest bracket of African American divas to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Carmen McRae. She may have been a step down from the diva pantheon, yet her sound was immediately distinctive—you might say “stylized” or even “mannered — and she was, at the very least, a major and instrumental stylist.
Ms. Wilson was also one of the most prolific of all recording artists, the majority of her work was at an extremely high level. Almost all of her 1960s albums are more than competent. They were expertly sung and orchestrated jazz-pop treatments of standards, contemporary hits, and show tunes old and new. If Ms. Wilson isn’t up there with the Billies and Ellas and Carmens, it’s because one rarely hears anything absolutely startling on a Ms. Nancy Wilson recording: a slice of emotion so powerful it leaves you with your mouth hanging open, as with Holiday, or a melody line rewritten in such a brilliant fashion that it actually improves on the Gershwin, as with Ella, or a little bit of both, as with McRae, or even a startling arrangement idea, like “My Favorite Thing” done in 4/4, as by Betty Carter. Yet there is not a single record Ms. Wilson made in these years that I would not want to own, that I don’t feel is worthy of being reissued on compact discs.
While none of the 1960s LPs is disappointing, there are at least a half-dozen that are jazz vocal classics, in which her own outstanding performance is enhanced by the presence of a superior collaborator, including “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley”, “But Beautiful (with Hank Jones)”, “Yesterday’s Love Songs, Today’s Blues (with Gerald Wilson)”, and “The Swingin’s Mutual (with George Shearing)”.
Ms. Wilson was born in 1937 in Chillcothe, Ohio, and raised in Columbus, Ohio. She grew up singing in the church choirs and winning talent contests: according to one account, she started on a local TV show at 15. Her most overwhelming influence, which she seldom talked about but came out loud and clear in her singing, is the Grandfather of Soul, Little Jimmy Scott. “I owe so much to him,” she said in the early 1960s as her career was budding. “I think he’s a fabulous singer, I guess you can say if anybody influenced me, it was he.” And there are times when I feel that Ms. Wilson employs his emotional yet unsentimental sound to almost as great an effect as Scott himself once did.
After being in college briefly, in 1956 she dropped out to join a group led by saxophonist Rusty Bryant. Ms. Wilson met Cannonball Adderley that same year. In 1959 she moved to New York, worked as a receptionist during the day and quickly caught on in the club scene. Soon she was signed to Capitol Records, where her first single was her trademark song, “Guess Who I Saw Today.”
For her lifelong work as an advocate of civil rights, which included participating in a Selma to Montgomery, Ala., protest march in 1965, she received an award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta in 1993 and an N.A.A.C.P. Hall of Fame Image Award in 1998. In 2005, she was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, also in Atlanta.
At the same time, Ms. Wilson worked tirelessly in the studio, releasing three albums in a single year during her prime. She also made many guest appearances on television, singing on variety shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show,” and acting in hit series (“I Spy” and “Room 222”). She used her prominence to break down racial stereotypes. “That’s what I loved about doing ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ ” she said. “I didn’t have to play ‘black characters.’ I could just do comedy, which I loved.” Ms. Wilson’s music moved with the times. She cut songs written by the Beatles and Stevie Wonder on her 1966 album “A Touch of Today,” and later incorporated disco and R&B styles before moving back to jazz on her later albums, culminating in “Turned to Blue” in 2006.
Ms. Wilson’s marriage in 1960 to the drummer Kenny Dennis ended in divorce a decade later. In 1973, she married Wiley Burton, a Presbyterian minister, and remained with him until his death in 2008. She is survived by her three children, Kacy Dennis, Sheryl Burton and Samantha Burton; two sisters, Karen Davis and Brenda Vann; and five grandchildren.
Between the old and new, there are a lot of self-reflecting songs Ms. Wilson sang over the decades about the aging process, from “This Is All I Ask” to “Golden Years” and “Knitting Lessons”: The two albums also contain the ultimate farewell songs, “Goodbye” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Ms. Wilson very creatively used the autobiographical angle to enhance the three-way relationship among the singer, the songs, and the audience. And that was a very smart thing to do.
What’s amazing but not in the least surprising is that Ms. Wilson commanded and received in the African American community — like that of Aretha Franklin — R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Ms. Wilson was a role model, and not only to singers but to an entire community, and a symbol of a woman who had class and dignity about herself, her family, her community; and she will always be an enduring symbol of class and achievement second only to Lena Horne.