TRIBUTES: Nancy Wilson (1937–2018) by Sara Dowling and Frank Griffith

Nancy Wilson as she appeared on the cover of her 1966 album A Touch of Today

NANCY WILSON, the singer rooted in jazz who straddled styles from torchsong to soul and pop over a five-decade-plus career, died at her home in Pioneertown, California, on 13 December after a long illness. Sara Dowling and Frank Griffith pay tribute:

Sara Dowling writes:

Every time I walk out on stage I keep a part of ‘them’ with me; their strength, graceful posture, womanly pride, unequivocal understanding of themselves and their deep connection with every song they sing. The last of ‘them’ just flew at the age of 81. As a jazz singer living in 2018 I felt nostalgia and profound sorrow about the passing of Nancy Wilson. We can all agree this beautiful songstress had a long and successful life, but I was very much aware that the last of that legacy I unquestionably believe to be from the greatest age of jazz singing has now gone.

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Nancy Wilson’s singing hit me like an asteroid touching the earth. I had never heard phrasing like it when I watched her performance of Happy Talk on Jazz Scene USA 1962. She weaves in and out of phrases with such ease and elasticity, yet throws every word at you with complete clarity and utter certainty. Cannonball Adderley’s ingenious arrangement allows this song to breathe in places as he adds eight-bar sections where he can improvise, however it is here that Nancy shows her soulful side with those small vocal touches.

During this week’s run of gigs I chose to remember Nancy with Guess Who I Saw Today. She said, “I need a song with a beginning, middle and an end and it’s got to touch your heart.”

She never proclaimed to be a jazz singer, she would call herself a song stylist. If people want to define a jazz singer as someone who scats, well that wasn’t Nancy, but if you want a woman who could swing, had the blues and could own a melody with extraordinary command, that was her.

She was someone with a very clear view in life. Yes, she wanted to make a lot of records and reach out to a large audience, yet in the same breath she battled hard with record labels to also get time to be with her husband and children. Subsequently she won. It is those stories from my heroines that give me great inspiration. You’ve got to know what you want from your life and not let anybody dictate how else you should live it. That’s a hard balance to achieve for any woman in music/entertainment,  especially in those days. I quote Nancy from one of her interviews: “As long as I’m able to sing for a little while and then go home and get what I need to give my audience, being out on stage doesn’t replenish you, I have to go home for that. I need that sense of wellbeing and balance.”

Nancy Wilson, world renowned vocalist, mother, wife and grandparent who enjoyed just over 50 years in entertainment, recording 70 albums and winning three Grammy Awards, may you rest in peace. Thank you for all the vocal lessons, the hours on my record player, reminding me to live my life in order to make music. You had the widest and most giving smile when you sang. All vocalists around the world will carry your legacy every time WE walk out on stage. You will always be in my thoughts. Love, Sara.

Frank Griffith writes:

Nancy Wilson was a sassy and sultry jazz-pop singer with extraordinary vocal and visual performing talents who emerged in 1959. She was first and foremost a superb story-singer who let songs run through her. Never one to over-emote or over dramatize, Nancy sang with a soulful integrity, as if the songs were about something she herself experienced.

Wilson was a great female song stylist of the 1950s and the first American female pop-soul singer of the 1960s. Throughout the ‘60s, Nancy was known for brassy updates of jazz standards and hip pop, soul and rock renditions. Many of her 1960s LPs on Capitol featured the arrangements of jazz icons like Billy May, Oliver Nelson, Jimmy Jones and Gerald Wilson. I often ferreted out these recordings from my local library in Portland, Oregon, to dub onto cassette tapes (I know – prehistoric) and still treasure them today. I also distinctly remember an appearance by arranger/trumpeter Guy Barker on BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions about 15 years ago where he included Billy May’s arrangement of Lush Life for Nancy. Guy’s description of May’s treatment of this classic Strayhorn song more than confirmed my amazement of the enormity of this accomplishment. Full of dramatic pauses,  interludes and tempo changes it stands as one of the greatest vocal arrangements ever. All handled with aplomb with Nancy’s unrelenting poise and unfettered sustaining of the thread of the song throughout.

In addition, Wilson recorded two intimate small group dates on Capitol  with the likes of Cannonball Adderley and  George Shearing. Wilson fans will no doubt be aware of the 1959 Adderley date which launched her career. I would assume that the arrangements were done by Cannonball’s talented brother, cornetist Nat, who also contributed the bulk of material for the Quintet. Classics such as Curtis Lewis’ The Old Country, Save Your Love For Me as well as Broadway hits of the time like Happy Talk, Never Will I Marry and A Sleepin’ Bee also feature. Torch ballad The Masquerade Is Over also gets a unique Wilson treatment and became a staple in her programme throughout her long career.

The George Shearing date (The Swingin’s Mutual, 1961) highlighted a much different sound with Wilson being woven into the “Shearing sound” (George’s quintet, with piano, vibes and guitar melodies and backings featured five-part harmonies within an octave with the vibes playing the upper part and the guitar doubling an octave below). This signature sound provided an elegant yet swinging backdrop for Wilson’s emotional and unique interpretations of songs like Born To Be Blue, The Things We Did Last Summer and another Curtis Lewis classic, All Night Long.

I can strongly recommend a four-CD box set, The Essence of Nancy Wilson, released in 2002 on Capitol that provides a good overview of her output from 1959-1989. A true icon of jazz, soul and blues vocals – long may her memory and contributions thrive.

Categories: News

2 replies »

  1. Sara, truly a tribute written with feeling and a deep understanding of what this lady represented.

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