During the holidays I decided to determine once and for all how long I’ve been writing this column. I searched the Popdose archives for that first column which I knew featured the King Curtis song that gave the column its name. And there it was, published on April 15, 2010. Soul Serenade is approaching its ninth birthday. In that whole time I’ve only taken a few weeks off (alright, one of them was last week) so simple math tells me that there have been well over 400 entries in this series. Phew! I must admit that occasionally it’s challenging to come up with something I haven’t covered previously but I’m going to press on into the New Year.
Aretha Franklin’s death was one of biggest, and saddest stories of 2019. And rightly so. She was the one and only Queen of Soul after all and her life and career were the stuff of legend. But in December we lost another great singer who was iconic in her own right, Nancy Wilson.
Wilson was born in Ohio in 1937. Her father was a foundry worker who loved music and Wilson grew up listening to his records by artists like Billy Eckstein, Dinah Washington, and Ruth Brown. From the time she began singing in church choirs as a child, it was clear that Wilson would become a professional singer. Her first break came when she was 15. Wilson won a talent show sponsored by a local television station and the prize was two appearances on Skyline Melodies, a local television show. Around this time Wilson was also working in the clubs around town.
Given the vagaries on show business, Wilson decided to go to college to pursue a teaching degree. But after a year she knew that she had to return to her true calling. Soon after that, she landed a gig singing with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band. Wilson stayed with the band for two years, touring throughout the Midwest and Canada during that time. It was also with Bryant’s band that she did her first recording.
Somewhere along the way, Wilson encountered Cannonball Adderley who was taken with her talent and suggested to Wilson that she move to New York to jumpstart her career. Wilson made the move in 1969. She sang four nights a week at a club called Blue Morocco and by day she worked as a secretary at the New York Institute of Technology. With the help of Adderly’s manager, John Levy, she got a deal with Capitol Records in 1960.
“Guess Who I Saw Today” was Wilson’s first single for the label and it was so successful that Capitol released five Nancy Wilson albums over the next two years. Adderley advised Wilson to move from her pop music stylings to more of a jazz and R&B thing and the two collaborated on Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley in 1962. The album included the R&B smash “Save Your Love For Me.” Between 1964 and 1965, Wilson put four albums into the Top 10 on the Billboard albums chart. She also had her biggest single with “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” which reached #11 in 1964. Wilson charted ten other singles from 1963-1971, but “Face It Girl, It’s Over” was her only other non-Christmas single to crack the Top 40. “Face It Girl” reached the #29 spot in 1968.
Wilson was a fixture on a variety of television shows in the ’60s and ’70s. In 1967, she finally got her own shown on NBC. The Nancy Wilson Show only lasted for two years but it won an Emmy during that time. Aside from her own show, Wilson appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Tonight Show, and numerous other variety shows along with dramas series like Room 222, Hawaii Five-0, and The F.B.I.
The 1980s brought more recording and touring for Wilson. She recorded with jazz greats like Hank Jones, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Ramsey Lewis, and Stanley Clarke. Appearances included prestigious venues like the Newport Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Tokyo Songs Festival. By the ’90s, Wilson had 60 albums under her belt. From 1995-2006, Wilson hosted NPR’s Jazz Profiles and won a Peabody Award for her efforts in 2001. She continued to perform until 2011 when she made her final public appearance on a stage in, appropriately, Ohio.
“I’m not going to be doing it anymore, and what better place to end it than where I started – in Ohio,” Wilson told jazzcolumbus.com at the time.
Nancy Wilson won many awards and over the year. She was the recipient of three Grammy Awards, the Whitney Young Jr. Award from the Urban League, and the NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award among many other honors. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and honorary degrees from Berklee College of Music and Central State University. Wilson was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2005. The list of honors goes on and on, but you get the idea. Wilson was not only a great singer but a great citizen as well.
Nancy Wilson died in California on December 13, 2018, after a long battle with kidney cancer.