Nancy Wilson Knows Her Subject : Class Sings Professor’s Praise

Times Staff Writer

How one of the country’s most popular singers came to teach song styling at a campus best known for horticulture and Arabian horses is still a wonder to the chairman of the music department.

Nancy Wilson just said “yes” when Cal Poly Pomona’s W. G. Carter asked her.

Her class will perform in concert tonight, and, if the setting seems unusual, so is the arrangement between the school and the famous singer. And so are the results of the 10-week course.

Wilson requested a jazzy, bluesy, cabaret-style show , which will begin at 7 p.m. in Kellogg West, after she was awed by her students’ progress. More than 20 singers--about half the class--will perform, accompanied by pianist Johnny (Hammond) Smith and a professional rhythm section.


“This is incredible! Very, very, very many of my fantasies are coming true,” said Marianna Capasso, a homemaker who sings in small clubs and commutes from Mission Viejo for the weekly class. She plans to belt out “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” as she did in a rehearsal last week that brought raves from Wilson.

“This is a godsend blessing,” said Kakki Hill of North Hollywood, who calls the class “a major turning point” in her singing and acting career. “I can’t believe I’m here, and every time I go to class I feel like that. I used to fly to other cities just to see Nancy Wilson!”

‘Waste of Time, but . . .’

Then there’s 16-year-old Stephanie Martin, an aspiring journalist at Garey High School in Pomona, who said: “I never heard of Nancy Wilson, and I thought this class would be a waste of time, but my mother made me do it.”


After receiving cheers from the class and a hug from Wilson for a gospel song last week, Stephanie said: “I just decided to major in music.”

Wilson’s involvement with Cal Poly began last year when she accepted an invitation to be an artist in residence for a few days. That stint ended with a concert to benefit the music department.

When the faculty asked for her return, hoping that she would expose students to the workings of the music business, Carter recalled: “I said, ‘Nancy Wilson? Oh, that would be impossible!’ But she was willing to come here to do this class in vocal stylings, because that’s what she really knows.”

The 90-minute class was open to anyone as part of Cal Poly’s continuing education program. It cost $90 for the 10-week quarter that ends this week. Many of the students said they enrolled after hearing an announcement on KKGO, a Los Angeles jazz radio station. The 46 students who were accepted had to audition for Wilson. She gave pointers to all of them, but worked more extensively with those who will perform tonight.

The class, which officially ends with tonight’s concert, met last week in a large rehearsal room in Cal Poly’s music building. People who knew about Wilson’s presence drifted in after their own classes, applauding and cheering like fans.

Wilson “is extremely articulate, organized and responsible,” Carter said. “She once flew from Kansas City on Wednesday just to get to this class on Thursday.”

Returned From Australia

Wilson was suffering from jet lag, having just returned from Australia. She had arranged for Smith and another well-known musician, Gerald Wilson, a composer and arranger not related to the singer, to teach in her absence, and she marveled at the students’ improvement.


“They’re performers, not just standing there insecure,” she said.

That means they’ve learned the most important thing, she said. “My message is: You must enjoy this for me to enjoy it. The more I enjoy a song, the more the audience enjoys it.”

As students sang individually, Wilson offered a litany of praise, advice and commentary. She called out: “That gives me chills. . . . You know that’s wonderful, don’t you! You love it, and it shows. . . . Your attitudes about yourselves are amazing--you’re letting me know you believe in what you’re doing.”

She hugged and patted the performers and occasionally sang with them. Sometimes she suggested a change in phrasing, always with a smile.

“I’m bowled over!” she said after Genevieve Burks sang “Inseparable.”

“Oh, wonderful! The changes! I thank you!” she called out after Hill sang “Lover Man.”

She dabbed at tears as the students roared their approval of Stephanie Martin’s gospel song, “Tomorrow.”

Wilson’s guest for the class, one of several she has brought, was Sheryl Lee Ralph, who was in “Dream Girls” on Broadway and is in the weekly television show, “It’s a Living.”


“There are so many serious and wonderful singers here,” Ralph said. “The closest thing I’ve seen to this is an opera acting class I took at Rutgers University.”

Wilson has enlisted others, including her publicity agent, Devra Hall, to help Cal Poly form a program in music business management. Carter said the school hopes to offer the new major soon, “to give students a good sense of reality about the business and prepare them well for a new field.”

Smith, who has made 57 albums as a leader and another 26 with other performers, teaches jazz studies at Cal Poly. While providing accompaniment for Wilson’s class, he said: “An agricultural college is an unusual setting for this. A lot of these will go on to do great things. Like Nancy--she turned 21 when she sang in my band, and that was 30 years ago.”

Believing in Themselves

Asked what were the most important things they had learned, the students unanimously said Wilson had helped them to believe in themselves and to be themselves.

“I’ve learned to be at ease, to open my mouth and let it all come out,” said Capasso, who called herself “a seasoned person” near Wilson’s age, which is 51.

“She has been my idol since her first record in 1959, and I have all of her records. I adored this woman,” Capasso said. “That’s been going on for 30 years, since I was a teen-ager.”

Hill said: “I was so excited to perform for Nancy, and I blew it. That was the most embarrassing point of my entire career. I wasn’t prepared with a new song, and I screwed up--oh, God! In front of this person! But, because it was her, I learned to never do anything that is not professional. I’ll never forget that moment. And later she said, ‘I love your presence.’ I’m not leaving the class the same person I was. That’s the real truth.”

Veda Hall, 21, drives an hour from Los Angeles to be in Wilson’s class and has learned “to perform, to share, to not be afraid to give to the audience.” After singing “The Way He Makes Me Feel,” and after Wilson hugged her, Hall said: “She’s giving me the courage to go on.”

Burks, whose “Inseparable” brought a classroom ovation, said: “I couldn’t believe I’d be sitting in front of Nancy Wilson--this woman would blow me away. But she shakes all the nervousness out of us and treats us like performers. You take on her attitude, and you can walk on water.”