Nancy Wilson, the Grammy-winning “song stylist” and torch singer whose polished pop-jazz vocals made her a platinum artist and top concert performer, has died.
Wilson, who retired from touring in 2011, died after a long illness at her home in Pioneertown, a California desert community near Joshua Tree National Park, her manager and publicist Devra Hall Levy told The Associated Press late Thursday night.
She was 81.
Influenced by Dinah Washington, Nat “King” Cole and other stars, Wilson covered everything from jazz standards to “Little Green Apples” and in the 1960s alone released eight albums that reached the top 20 on Billboard’s pop charts.
Sometimes elegant and understated, or quick and conversational and a little naughty, she was best known for such songs as her breakthrough “Guess Who I Saw Today” and the 1964 hit ”(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” which drew upon Broadway, pop and jazz.
She resisted being identified with a single category, especially jazz, and referred to herself as a “song stylist.”
“The music that I sing today was the pop music of the 1960s,” she told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2010.
"I just never considered myself a jazz singer. I do not do runs and — you know. I take a lyric and make it mine. I consider myself an interpreter of the lyric.”
Wilson’s dozens of albums included a celebrated collaboration with Cannonball Adderley, “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley,” a small group setting which understandably could be called jazz; “Broadway — My Way”; “Lush Life”; and “The Nancy Wilson Show!” a best-selling concert recording.
“How Glad I Am” brought her a Grammy in 1965 for best R&B performance, and she later won Grammys for best jazz vocal album in 2005 for the intimate “R.S.V.P (Rare Songs, Very Personal)” and in 2007 for “Turned to Blue,” a showcase for the relaxed, confident swing she mastered later in life.
The National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a “Jazz Masters Fellowship” in 2004 for lifetime achievement.
Wilson also had a busy career on television, film and radio, her credits including “Hawaii Five-O,” ″Police Story,” the Robert Townsend spoof “Meteor Man” and years hosting NPR’s “Jazz Profiles” series.
Active in the civil rights movement, including the Selma march of 1965, she received an NAACP Image Award in 1998.
Wilson was married twice — to drummer Kenny Dennis, whom she divorced in 1970; and to Wiley Burton, who died in 2008.
She had three children.
Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, the eldest of six children of an iron foundry worker and a maid, Wilson sang in church as a girl and by age 4 had decided on her profession.
She was in high school when she won a talent contest sponsored by a local TV station and was given her own program.
After briefly attending Central State College, she toured Ohio with the Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band and met such jazz artists as Adderley, who encouraged her to move to New York.
She soon had a regular gig at The Blue Morocco, and got in touch with Adderley’s manager, John Levy.
“He set up a session to record a demo,” Wilson later observed during an interview for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“Ray Bryant and I went in and recorded ‘Guess Who I Saw Today,’ ‘Sometimes I’m Happy,’ and two other songs.
We sent them to Capitol and within five days the phone rang.
Within six weeks I had all the things I wanted.”Her first album, “Like in Love!”, came out in 1959, and she had her greatest commercial success over the following decade despite contending at times with the latest sounds.
Photo of Nancy Wilson by Jack de Nijs / Anefo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons