Nancy Wilson obituary

Vocalist who brought a jazz sensibility to all kinds of songs and spent 60 years in the spotlight

The singer Nancy Wilson, who has died aged 81, did not consider herself a jazz vocalist – though many others did, including the Grammy awards judges (she won three), and such jazz-rooted playing partners as the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and the pianists George Shearing and Hank Jones. Wilson preferred to call herself a “song stylist” – disinclined to mimic the byzantine lines of jazz instrumentals or turn famous lyrics into wordless improvisations as her vocal contemporaries Ella Fitzgerald or Betty Carter would do, while still applying a discreetly audacious jazz sensibility to all kinds of songs. Without apparent effort, she could make the most widely covered material seem to have been written just for her.

Wilson was an admirer of the hit-making 1950s singer Dinah Washington, a gospel-raised artist at ease with R&B, blues, country music and jazz, and she was similarly gifted with tellingly precise intonation, a vivid tonal palette, and the broadmindedness to cross the tracks from genre musics to mainstream pop. She also admired the star singer-pianist Nat King Cole, for his hip jazz-honed timing and impeccable handling of lyrics.

Aided by a photogenic charisma that could make her look both warmly tranquil and coolly in charge at the same time, Wilson developed a second career as an actor in the 1970s, frequently taking character parts in popular TV action series as well as appearing as herself in many entertainment TV shows. She also maintained a lifelong commitment to African-American civil rights and co-launched a foundation in aid of inner-city children, which eventually resulted in her inclusion in the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, at the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site in Atlanta in 2005.

Wilson maintained a commanding stage presence even into the semi-retirement of her later years, when health issues were hampering her appetite and aptitude for live performance. On a rare club performance at the Blue Note, New York, in May 2010, the writer Ben Ratliff referred to her as “a kind of double agent” for the ingenious ways in which she would undercut pop-ballad sentiment with canny pragmatism, or enunciate words demurely (“with diction that could sharpen a pencil”) at one moment, and slide into sensuous, pitch-bending abandon the next.

The eldest of six siblings, Wilson was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, and raised there by her parents, Olden Wilson, an iron foundry worker, and Lillian (nee Ryan), a domestic servant. Inspired by her father’s records, Nancy absorbed the vocal sounds of Cole, Jimmy Scott and other stars before the age of four, performed in the church choir, and won a local TV talent show at 15 – for which the prize was regular appearances on the show Skyline Melodies.

Following graduation from high school, Wilson attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio, but left after a year to sing professionally – recording and touring with the saxophonist Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Band from 1956 to 1958, before the high-profile, hard-bop saxophonist Adderley told her that New York was where the action was.

Wilson’s mature skill quickly won her a long engagement at the Blue Morocco club in the Bronx. Adderley’s manager, John Levy, sent demos of her covers of two Broadway hits to Capitol Records; the label signed the 23-year-old in 1960 and released five albums in her name in the next two years. The first, Like in Love, had an R&B feel, but Adderley encouraged her to dig deeper into jazz – joining forces with her in that pursuit on the 1962 album Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, with its hit single Save Your Love for Me.

In the mid-1960s, Wilson’s records were rarely out of the Billboard charts, and the hit singles Tell Me the Truth (1963) and (You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am (1964) brought her media accolades and stardom. She won her first Grammy in 1964 (in the R&B category) for the album How Glad I Am, began appearing regularly on TV, and was given her own TV special, The Nancy Wilson Show, in 1966. She guested in singing and acting roles on shows fronted by Sammy Davis Jr, Danny Kaye and Andy Williams, and appeared as an actor in popular action series including I Spy and Hawaii Five-O, and the 1983 narcotics-cop movie The Big Score.

Though Wilson made a shortlived attempt to enter the dancefloor marketplace with the funky Life, Love and Harmony in 1979, she devoted herself increasingly to jazz in her later years – recording with the swing-to-bop piano master Hank Jones and the Great Jazz Trio, and with Chick Corea in the Griffith Park Band in 1982, and with the soul-jazz star Ramsey Lewis in 1984 – a choice that took her across the world’s jazz venues and major festivals throughout the next two decades.

Wilson hosted several jazz-devoted TV projects in the 1990s and early 2000s, including NPR’s Jazz Profiles series; fundraised for the Pittsburgh MCG Jazz youth-education project she championed; and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 2004, and two Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammys for RSVP – Rare Songs, Very Personal, in 2005, and Turned to Blue, in 2007.

Finally capitulating to the respiratory and other health difficulties that were hampering her work, Wilson returned to Ohio in September 2011 for her last public performance, at the state university. Reflecting on the prospect to the JazzColumbus website, she was typically practical and unfazed by her swansong after 60 years in the spotlight. “It’ll just be fun for me,” Wilson said, “it won’t be sad. I won’t feel sorrowful about it. I think I’ll have a ball.”

Wilson was married twice. She is survived by her son, Kacy, from her first marriage, to Kenny Dennis, which ended in divorce; her daughters, Samantha and Sheryl, from her second marriage, to the Rev Wiley Burton, who died in 2008; her sisters Karen and Brenda; and five grandchildren.

• Nancy Sue Wilson, singer, born 20 February 1937 ; died 13 December 2018


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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