From the Archives: For Nancy Wilson, every tune tells a story

Singer Nancy Wilson sings at "The First 50 Years," an event honoring Quincy Jones.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Grammy-winning jazz, pop and R&B singer Nancy Wilson recently died at the age of 81. In this 1997 article, she talks about how her music is perceived and the origins of her career.

Too often when singers over 30 talk about returning to their “roots,” it means they’re making a jazz album, whether jazz is in their past or not.

Not Nancy Wilson. Though Wilson has long been associated with jazz, her first album in more than two years, “If I Had My Way” (due for release in late spring), is not, as suggested by recent publicity, a jazz album.


That word comes straight from Wilson.

“No, not a jazz album,” she said in a phone interview from Detroit last week, where she was appearing with vocalist Joe Williams as part of their “Simply Elegant” tour. The tour stops at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday and Friday.

“I’ve never really left my roots,” Wilson went on to explain. “I’ve always been an R&B singer, and all the tunes [on the new album] have an R&B slant. Basically, it’s a more contemporary album than the last,” which was “Love, Nancy” on Columbia. “I’m singing mostly to prerecorded tracks. There’s electric keyboards--it’s not acoustic.”

The album, Wilson said, does have tunes that tell a story, a signature of the Wilson repertoire since she had a hit with “Guess Who I Saw Today” in the early ‘60s.

I love the vignette, the plays within the song. That’s always been there.

— Nancy Wilson

“I love the vignette, the plays within the song,” she said. “That’s always been there.”

Few bring that sense of storytelling to a song as well as Wilson, who turned 60 in February. Since she began touring with Rusty Bryant’s band in 1956, Wilson’s way with a lyric, paired with her sophisticated, Dinah Washington-influenced tones, has kept her in the public eye.

“I began hearing rhythm and blues down on the corner when I was 13 or 14,” said the native of Chillicothe, Ohio. “I heard all kinds of music while I was growing up--Louis Jordan, Billy Eckstine. Later I heard Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, and Dinah [Washington], always Dinah.”


Among those Wilson cited as her strongest influences is singer Jimmy Scott.

“I first heard Jimmy when I was a child, and it was hard to realize, hard to assimilate what I had heard. But much of my phrasing is so similar to Jimmy’s. I’ve seen him three times in the last three years. He came to see me at the Blue Note [club in New York] last year, and we did a song together at a college concert in New York recently. He knows how to tell a story.”

Wilson tells a story of the genesis of her career, when she was in high school and a member of a group called Randolph & the Sultans of Swing.


Following her prom and still in her gown, she was at the Carolyn Club in Columbus, where she was asked to do a song with Bryant’s group.

“Rusty later came to see my father to ask if I could go out on the road with him, but I had to finish school first,” she said. “It was difficult with the music always beckoning.”

Wilson eventually joined Bryant’s band and toured with him between 1956 and ‘58, recording an album for the Dot label. She moved to New York and was signed by Capitol, where she made “The Swingin’s Mutual” album with pianist George Shearing.

Famed jazz vocalists Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson sing a duet in 1999.
(Susan Ragan / AP)

Her most visible association with a jazz artist was with Cannonball Adderley.

“I met Cannon for the first time in New York when I was still with Rusty Bryant,” Wilson recalled. “There was a time when Cannonball was with Miles [Davis], and that band came to Columbus, and they asked me to sit in. So there I was singing with Bill Evans and Cannonball and the others. Miles didn’t play that tune.”


The singer joined the saxophonist for the landmark recording “Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley” in 1962, and her strong R&B stylings meshed perfectly with Adderley’s soulful bent. She went on to record “Today’s Blues,” with arrangements by Gerald Wilson, and “Lush Life,” with arrangements by Billy May and others. Later albums included such artists as Ramsey Lewis, Toots Thielemans and Branford Marsalis.

Her teaming with Joe Williams, with whom she promises to do at least one song in the Cerritos concerts, seems a natural.

“Joe Williams sings everything,” she said. “He has one of the finest voices ever. Even today his voice is so strong, so powerful. I don’t know anyone whose voice has maintained like Joe’s.”

Unless, of course, it’s Nancy Wilson.