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Nancy Wilson: Song Stylist Supreme
A consideration of one of the finest voices from the golden age of pop music
Welcome music lovers to the end of August and a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
Today’s essay looks at one of the finest singers of the second half of the 20th century: the incomparable Nancy Wilson. I had the pleasure of hearing Wilson sing once and that experience bookends a look at some of her most notable recordings from the sixties. I hope you enjoy it and will drop a comment below to let me know what you thought of it.
Coming in early September will be something a little different. Next Saturday (September 3), I’m planning to head to Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) to hear Gordon Lightfoot play the Bandshell. It’s a free concert and part of the celebrations marking the CNE’s return after two years of COVID cancellations. The essay will incorporate a review of the concert along with some thoughts on two of my favourite Lightfoot songs: ‘Summer Side of Life’ and ‘Summertime Dream.’
Until next time, may good listening be with you all.
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I once made eye contact with Nancy Wilson.
The occasion was a tribute to pianist Oscar Peterson at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall on the afternoon of Saturday, January 12, 2008. Peterson had passed away just before Christmas the year previous and Wilson was among the jazz royalty—Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones as well—who were in town to salute OP that January day.
That Wilson, in particular, was there was a bit of a miracle. Recently recovered from a stomach bug, her husband, Rev. Wiley Burton, had just had his kidney removed as part of his treatment for renal cancer. But the chance to pay her respects to Peterson—in an interview with The Globe and Mail at the time, Wilson said, “I've just always thought of him as one of the grand masters of the piano, one who absolutely knew everything there was to know about the piano”—as well as to be the hostess for the Jazz Masters Gala as part of the International Association for Jazz Educators conference, held in 2008 in Toronto, compelled her to travel despite the obvious urge to stay close to home.
The tribute, called Oscar Peterson: Simply the Best, was open to the public and 2,000 of the Hall’s 2,650 seats were up for grabs—first come, first served. The first fans were lined up outside the Simcoe Street entrance just west of Toronto’s Financial District before dawn. I got there just after 7 a.m. and a good friend of mine beat me there by about a half hour. Good enough to be about tenth and eleventh in line. By the time the doors opened around 3 p.m., the line stretched through all of the nooks and crannies of the green space (christened David Pecaut Square in 2011) adjacent to the Hall on the southwest side. After strolling in, we marched right to the edge of the stage and nabbed the best seats in the house: front row, dead centre. And so it was that when Wilson sang that day, she was right in front of me.
Backed by just Monty Alexander on piano, she sang ‘Goodbye.’ A song of deep desolation written by Gordon Jenkins, its’ main refrain starts “So you take the high road, and I’ll take the low.” Wilson struggled to sing it, her voice valiantly trying to beat back the emotions swirling within—some elicited by the occasion but clearly dwarfed by concerns for her ailing husband (he would pass later that year). I sat both mesmerized and feeling awkward. It seemed like I was eavesdropping on a deeply private conversation that I had no business witnessing. It was at that moment that Wilson looked right at me (or perhaps more accurately, right through me). I immediately looked away. Who was I to have the right to share such a moment with such an artist like Nancy Wilson?
For many of a certain generation, any talk of Nancy Wilson probably needs to be punctuated with the clarification “no, not that Nancy Wilson [of Heart fame].” Perhaps her greatest claim to pop culture fame was a guest appearance on an episode of The Cosby Show as the mother of military man Martin (Joseph C. Phillips) who married Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet). At the end, she sings about 12 bars of ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ and steals the show, offering a pocket-sized clinic in phrasing, timing, rhythm and breath control. Ahh, here once again is the complicated legacy of one of the television shows of the eighties.
In the sixties, the last gasp of the golden era of pop singing as a popular medium, Nancy Wilson may well have been its defining voice. While firmly a jazz singer, she also had an authoritative ear for blues, pop, soul, gospel and the Great American Songbook—a reminder that Wilson’s preferred sobriquet for herself was “the song stylist.”
Born in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1937, Wilson started her singing career at the age of 15, starred in her own local TV show and made frequent appearances in clubs around Columbus. Hedging her bets on being able to make a living as a full-time singer, she entered college to become a teacher. Soon, uncertainty gave way to the impossibility of not giving her dream a shot so Wilson left college for a spot in tenor saxophonist Rusty Bryant’s band. It was when Wilson was in New York with the group that she met the great Cannonball Adderley. Sensing her talent, Adderley implored her to say so long to Columbia and hello to the Big Apple, which she eventually did in 1959. What happened afterwards is a great tale of how determination can help create one’s own deserved luck.
Once she arrived in New York, Wilson had two goals: sign with Adderley’s manager, John Levy, and sign with Capitol Records. She gave herself six months to achieve both or it was back to Ohio. Being an emergency replacement for the singer Irene Reid at the Blue Morocco gave Wilson the chance to connect with Levy who caught her show at the club. As impressed with her as Adderley was, he immediately set up a demo session for her with pianist Ray Bryant, sent the recording to Capitol who quickly came calling and so it was that it took Wilson all of six weeks to get her manager and her record deal.
‘Guess Who I Saw Today,’ written by Murray Grant and Elisse Boyd, was one of the songs that Wilson recorded at her demo session which she then recorded formally for her second album, Something Wonderful.
The song is a tricky one: the verse and chorus build methodically to the final word, a mic drop to end all mic drops, which changes the context of everything that proceeds it. Thus, it only works if the performer is solely focused on that concluding moment so that everything leading up to it can achieve two contradictory aims: sufficiently telegraph to the listener that there is a hidden subtext to what is being sung—a housewife (this being 1960 and all) recounting her eventful day to her husband who has just returned home from work—while casting doubt that this song might not be anything more than what it seems. Wilson pulls it all off with alacrity and then some.
Hear how she stretches out “quite a day” in “I’ve had quite a day too” and how she almost tips her hand, anger simmering ever so slightly, when asking her spouse, “did you miss your train?” and “were you caught in the rain?”
At the risk of reducing any artist to one piece of their art, ‘Guess Who I Saw Today’ is perhaps the definitive shorthand for Wilson’s distinctive approach. There’s a voice rooted in Dinah Washington’s earthy timbre leavened by an impeccable dynamic range, a seductive yet never tawdry sound and a conception rooted in performing the song. Nancy Wilson at her best is about the best singing can get.
It’s what distinguishes a collection like Hello Young Lovers, released in 1962. Featuring Wilson with a small group plus a string section with fairly generic arrangements by pianist George Shearing, the album is a glorious outpouring of Wilson’s particular genius.
It is a joy to hear her caress the melody of Duke Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Lady.’ The sheer beauty of her sound—so deeply pleasing to hear—combined with an understated theatricality demands total immersion. To truly get what she is doing, one needs to pay deep attention to discover how she reveals the narrative arc of the lyrics. Get lured to scroll your phone while listening and the plot will pass you by.
Take two other examples from Hello Young Lovers: Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Little Girl Blue’ and Mervin Fisher and Jack Segal’s ‘When Sunny Gets Blue.’ Both are evocative portraits of heartbreak and its effects on the psyche. In Wilson’s hands, they become vivid one-act plays. Pay particular close attention to how delicately she sings the verse of the former—impossibly soft and permitting Lorenz Hart’s words to unfold like the poetry they are—and the bridge in the latter—hear Wilson’s lilt on “her name” and “the same”, two intuitive shadings that recognize these lines are the song’s beating heart.
Heart is something of which Hello Young Lovers has plenty. Wilson’s advice to “spread sunshine all over the place” on a breezy and delightful version of ‘Put On a Happy Face’ is, at the risk of perhaps sounding just a little too glib, getting at the essence of the album. It’s even more potently summed up on the concluding ‘Back in Your Own Back Yard,’ a dollop of home-spun wisdom that in the hands of Wilson and Shearing, who permits the strings to simply accentuate her magic, has all the power of a mantra that will silence the wanderlust within. A staycation never seemed so tempting or rapturous.
This sense of everyday living made glamourous and aspirational also peeks through on Gentle Is My Love, another strings-laden album which Wilson recorded in 1965. Even as the arrangements, this time by Sid Feller, best known for his long-running association with Ray Charles (of Feller, Charles once said “if they call me a genius, Sid Feller is Einstein”), mine the same easy-listening vibe as on Hello Young Lovers, their very unobtrusiveness permits recognition of Wilson’s growth as a vocalist, particularly in her emotive power and her control of it. In this, it strikes me there is a parallel between Wilson and Barbra Streisand, especially on tracks like ‘If Love is Good to Me’ and ‘My One and Only Love’ where she glides over the melodies and summons moments of great power yet remains more solidly tethered to the ground than Babs perhaps. Until I had re-listened to both albums featured in this essay, it’s not a connection that I had appreciated or even, more frankly, had expected. But give a good listen to her phrasing on ‘Funnier Than Funny’ on top of a marvelous Feller arrangement—pure sixties cocktail hour—and wonder who was influencing whom.
Gentle Is My Love is an intriguing program of standards and more contemporary material full of the Wilson touch, moments of sui generis phrasing (the bluesy interjection of “I only know what I know’ on Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s ‘Time After Time’ and the pauses throughout “beg, steal and borrow” on ‘Who Can I Turn To?’), heart-fluttering endings (the title track most of all) and interpretations of deep and thoughtful consideration.
‘More’ (which was initially included on Wilson’s 1963 album Hollywood - My Way) is a song in which swagger often trumps the sentiment of the lyrics. Not so with Wilson who slows the tempo down and provides a counterargument to those who may feel the song is just a bunch of saccharine goo. An equally engrossing performance is offered on the album closer ‘What He Makes Music.’ Both that and ‘More’ happily feature obbligatos by tenor great Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.
It’s also Davis wailing behind Wilson, two years later, on her version of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billy Joe.’ Swapping out the Southern gothic minimalism of Gentry’s recording for something more northern and urban—credit arranger Oliver Nelson here as well as drummer Shelly Manne, who establishes a groove that is firmly in the space between jazz and funk—it is an incredible demonstration of Wilson’s primacy as a singer of songs. As she remarked to writer Marc Myers in 2010, “If the lyrics and melody please me, that should be the only criteria for what I choose to sing.” And indeed, the power of interpretation, to add one’s imprimatur to a song, is what a singer’s art is all about.
Wilson had that in droves, both in the sixties and on that January Saturday in 2008 in Toronto when she bore her sadness unfiltered on the stage. Nancy Wilson was a song stylist supreme.