On October 13, 2018, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra paid musical tribute to Nancy Wilson. Jeff Lindberg, the musical director, requested that I write about Nancy for the concert’s program book. Nancy passed exactly two months later, but she was aware of the tribute performance. This is what I wrote:
Nancy Wilson’s voice is captivating, charming and charismatic. Sensitive. This jazz legend demands your attention as you listen to her sultry delivery.
I was a teenager when I first heard her. Because my uncle, the singer Johnny Hartman, insisted that jazz was the music of choice, I have always been a jazz enthusiast. I heard great music at home, at my aunts’ and uncles’ homes. We were jazz people. Often, when my Uncle John was home, the jazz greats were our dinner guests.
I listened to Sid McCoy on the radio in the wee small hours of the morning when I was supposed to be sleep. He called Nancy “The Baby.” I listened to Chicago’s other radio jazz aficionado deejay Daddy’O Daley. They played great music. They introduced artists. They were teachers. They savored jazz. And Nancy was one of their favorites.
(February 20, 1937 – December 13, 2018)
“Nancy, The Baby,” Sid would say. Her voice is precise and honey coated. She is a songstress who acts her songs. If you don’t believe it, just listen to “When Sunny Gets Blue” or “Days of Wines and Roses” or “You’ve Changed.”
Nancy favors being described as a “song stylist,” which she is. Her music with the late saxophonist “Cannonball” Adderley is classic. Nothing better than “Save Your Love For Me.” It is timeless. A singer with a saxophonist.
Her musical influences were Dinah Washington, Little Ester (Esther Phillips) and “Little” Jimmy Scott. She knew she would become a singer at four. As with many Black singers, her voice came alive in the church. Her influencers had great voices, but they tracked gospel and bluesy. Nancy’s voice is cultivated and sophisticated. No screams, no hollers.
Her songs tell stories, love stories. The beauty of love mostly, the trials and tribulations of love, the challenges and situations of love, and sometimes the sadness and loneliness of love.
In some of her songs, Nancy provides a narrative that you can actually envision, such as with her classics “Guess Who I Saw Today” and “You Can Have Him.’’ Love gone bad, confessed, and confused. She makes a song her very own, as in “Just to Keep You Satisfied,” or “Green Dolphin Street” with George Shearing. She makes you feel the joy, the pain, the wonderment of love.
Nancy’s preferred venue was the supper club or small club, or what Frank Sinatra might call the “saloon.” I saw her every time she came to Chicago. My cousins Paula and Charles Mazique took me to see her as a graduation present. I was on top of the world.
She was beautiful always, perfectly coiffured, elegantly dressed. Exquisite. A fashionista. She is a flatfooted singer – there is no dancing, no tricks, no colored flashing lights, no video, no backup, no gimmicks – just Nancy on stage singing, probably with a trio, maybe a quartet. Jazz at its finest.
She often performed in Chicago at George’s and the Holiday Inn on Lake Shore Drive. She did not sing R&B or blues. She is a jazz songstress, a stylist.
The N’DIGO Gala featured Nancy and Jerry Butler at the Chicago Symphony Center in 2000. It is my favorite show. The audience was in the palm of her hand as she sat in the middle of the stage on a stool in a gorgeous evening gown.
I requested that she and Jerry sing together after their individual performances. Jerry broke away from his traditional R&B and added a jazz segment, a Duke Ellington medley. He said, after all, we are at Symphony Center and I am on stage with Nancy. How rich. He and Nancy appeared together on stage with “Sophisticated Lady.” as their closing song. A classic performance, indeed.
When the show was over, many sat spellbound in the audience, some with tears in their eyes, including me. Nancy joined us at the afterparty and we all had a ball. Jerry disappeared, however. The next morning, I asked him where he went. Jerry said the evening was so romantic, he just wanted to go home to his wife. Oh well. If you were there, you probably remember it as a magnificent musical evening.
Biography Of Her Life
Nancy Wilson was born February 20, 1937 and grew up in Columbus, Ohio. She attended Ohio’s Central State College for a year to become a teacher, but that was not her calling. She was already singing in the clubs and her singing career was just beginning.
Cannonball Adderley heard her and suggested she move to New York City to further her career, which she did in 1959. His manager, the legendary John Levy, managed Nancy for the duration of her career and they never signed a contract.
She signed with Capitol Records the next year in 1960 after the label received her demos of “Guess Who I Saw Today” and “Sometimes I’m Happy.” The rest is history. Nancy recorded 70 albums and won three Grammy Awards. She’s been called a “grand diva of jazz” by Essence and Playboy labeled her “ best jazz vocalist.”
Nancy married drummer Kenny Dennis in 1960 and they had a son, Kenneth. Their marriage ended in 1970, and in 1973 she married The Reverend Wiley Burton, a Presbyterian minister. They birthed a daughter, Samantha, and adopted another, daughter Sheryl. As a result of her marriage, she abstained from performing in super clubs. Her husband passed in 2008 from renal cancer.
Nancy hosted her own TV show from 1967 to 1968. She appeared as an actress on popular TV shows like “I Spy,” and “Hawaii Five-O” and on musical variety programs such as “The Andy Williams Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Tonight Show.”
Her last performance was September 10, 2011, when she performed at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, the state of birth. Nancy said, “I’m not going to be doing it any more and what better place to end it than where I started – in Ohio.”
She was a lady with a song. Lovely.