Sat | May 25, 2019

The Music Diaries | Nancy Wilson, a woman of many musical styles

Published:Sunday | February 25, 2018 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Nancy Wilson and Arsenio Hall share a moment at her '70th Birthday Celebration' held at the Hollywood Bowl back in August, 2007.
Nancy Wilson

As we continue to recognise and celebrate the birthdays of entertainers who were born in Black History Month (February), we pay tribute to Nancy Wilson, perhaps the earliest and only performer in popular music, who has also had an impact on the jazz, ballads and Rhythm and Blues genres, in addition to being a cabaret singer.

Her many styles made it difficult for one to put a label on her, and even she herself defied and resisted attempts to place her in any one category when she asserted in a 1994 cover story by Robert Johnson, published in Jet magazine that "I'm a song stylist, although I've been pigeonholed as a jazz singer".

Wilson, who was born on February 20, 1937, in the small southern Ohio town of Chillicothe, became well known worldwide for her 1964 smash hit How Glad I Am. The song was a popular draw in Jamaica at music sessions and did well on the music charts as it competed with other smashers like Daddy and It's You by the Maytals, and Under The Boardwalk and I Don't Want To Go On Without You by The Drifters.

How Glad I Am was an intensely romantic ode with compelling lyrics, the likes of which is seldom heard on the airwaves. Wilson sang:

"My love has no beginning, my love has no end

No front, no back, my love won't bend

I'm in the middle, lost in a spin, loving you-o-o-o

And you don't know, you don't know, you don't know how glad I am

My love has no bottom,

My love has no top

My love won't rise and my love won't drop

I'm in the middle and I can't stop, loving you-o-o-o

And you don't know, you don't, you don't know how glad I am."


Top 10 hit


It was a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1964 and also won for Wilson her first Grammy award for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording. She returned to the Billboard Hot 100 later in the decade with Face It Girl, It's Over. Her other well-known hits from a Jamaican perspective were I Wanna Be With You, No One Else But You, Don't Come Running Back To Me, My Love Forgive Me, and Never Less Than Yesterday in which she sang:

"Love me more but never less than yesterday

I never know what love could do till yesterday

All at once this tired old world seems young to me

Suddenly I want those love songs sung to me."

Strangely enough, though, some of Wilson's earliest performances saw her doing jazz and pop standards like Guess Who I Saw Today and Sometimes I'm Happy.

Wilson's earliest exposure to music came via a talent contest, which she won and on which she earned the right to appear on a twice-weekly television show, which she ended up hosting. Her exposure attracted the attention of nightclub owners in the Columbus area of Ohio, and it became the springboard that launched her professional career. A chance meeting with Cannonball Adderley in New York while touring ended up with Wilson relocating there in 1959. Working alongside Adderley, further doors were opened, resulting in the signing of a contract with the larger-than-life Capitol Records, where Wilson recorded five albums consisting of sophisticated jazz and ballad material between 1960 and 1962. Finding herself in the company of world-renowned stars like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and some of the most rated lyricists and composers augured well for Wilson's future development. By the mid-1960s, she was second only to the Beatles as the label's best-selling artiste, while performing 40 weeks out of the year at top nightclubs, making her the hardest-working woman in show business at the time. Between 1967 and 1968, the singer hosted her own top-rated television programme on NBC TV, for which she won an Emmy award, while taking on acting roles in a number of other TV productions.


Hits after hits


All this while, she continued to put out a string of hit records during the 1970s that broadened her fan base significantly overseas. But as the 1980s dawned, Wilson resisted technical enhancements that stifled the natural use of her voice. She, therefore, reverted to recording primarily for Japanese labels, expressing the view that "they allow me to sing so that I can sing". In 1983, she won the annual Tokyo Song Festival and the following year switched to Columbia Records with a collaborative effort called The Two Of Us.

With her children grown, Wilson resumed a busy touring, acting, and recording schedule in the 1990s and also found time to work with The National Association For The Advancement of Coloured people, while devoting considerable time and money to charitable causes. Without exaggerating, it would literally take an entire article just to tabulate Wilson's accolades and achievements, which, by my count, runs into the hundreds. Beginning with her debut album, Like In Love, in 1960 through to her 60th, If I Had My Way in 1997, Wilson has surpassed many others. Some of her other awards include The Playboy Reader Poll award for Best Jazz Vocalist in 1998, an induction into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1999, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991, several honorary degrees from universities, and an induction into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2005.