Nancy Wilson: The Baby Grows Up


Nancy Wilson (1937-2018)

(Photo: DownBeat Archives)

Much has been made of the help various musicians have been to her development. But just what did they do?

Wilson hesitated as she pondered the question, and then she haltingly answered, “Well, nobody really did that much for me ... I mean what could they do? They said nice things and introduced me when I came into the club or something, but actually, nobody took me seriously. They thought I was just kidding about being a singer, and by the time they began to believe, I was on my way.”

She tottered briefly on the brink of becoming a blues belter in the mode of Dinah Washington. Not only did she possess the brisk, clear voice Miss Washington once owned, but she also phrased and spat out the lyrics with the same passionate conviction of Dinah at the best.

This proved to be a false start, and either by her own decision or through the direction of Levy, Wilson began rounding off the blues corners, running the phrases on smoothly past the arbitrary stops, lagging just behind or slightly ahead of the beat, taking melodic liberties, and varying her repertoire to include the “pretty” tunes. There remained flashes of blues feeling, but more frequently jazz qualities cropped up, which transformed the Tin Pan Alley material into compelling messages.

Her ability to sing is a natural gift. At no point in her life has she either doubted that ability or sought to improve upon its quality by formal study or training. She does not read or play music and relies primarily on a keen sense of hearing and her memory in learning and perfecting a new tune. This lack of technical training caused early problems. She was singing every night for hours. She plunged into her performances with abandon and drive, responding eagerly to audience reaction and enthusiasm. She pushed her vocal equipment to the limit.

Wilson had worked to be heard, and now that she was, she tried to control her audiences from her larynx. She belted, shouted, screamed, whispered—and got laryngitis every time she played Chicago with its demanding listeners.

“I couldn’t have kept that pace up for 30 weeks,” she remembered. “Chicago was really the hardest place for me to work in those days. I knew I had to do something else or it would be all over for me before I really got started.”

The remedy she chose was to polish her material and delivery into a sleek supper-club attraction, resorting to the more strenuous delivery only infrequently. She never lost a fan, but the critics and reviewers began to lace their commentaries with words like “slick” and “mannered” and “superficial.”

But the die was cast, and the writers who had been goaded the uncommitted vocalist to become either a blues, jazz-rooted singer or a lower-echelon pop singer got their answer: Nancy Wilson was not going to be a burned-out duplicate of Dinah Washington or a road-trotting female Jimmy Scott. She was going to select good special material, pull out of the bag of standards those tunes best suited for her, and sing them in the best jazz-oriented style that would not excessively tax her physical equipment.

That was the deliberate step she took, and it could have ended her brief career had not the subtle metamorphosis begun.

The subtle changes that have marked the vocalist’s style and more intriguing than the strides she has taken toward correcting the technical delivery of her material.

The 22-year-old singer who captivated listeners in the winter of 1959 and spring of 1960 was a haughty, carefree ingenue. She threw her torch lyrics down like a gantlet. Her entreating tone was edged with defiance, and her manner hinted that this whole business of heartbreak and blues was an old joke she could afford to indulge and scoff at. She was good at the business of delivering a ballad, and she gave each torch song a deliberate twist that revealed more about her influences than about her own feelings. Writers said she often sounded like Washington, Scott or Sarah Vaughan and she seldom disproved them.

There was no artistic temperament that would bridle at straightforward criticism. Wilson’s disposition was, and is, even co-operative. Her quick smile and warm, likeable personality have earned her a string of saccharine appellations, including “Sweet Nancy” and “The Baby.”

In spite of the tags and labels, Wilson is not a sweet singer. Sophistication and hauteur still are noticeable Wilson approaches to certain lyrics, but perhaps what those critics and listener are implying is that there is not bitterness in her approach. This is certainly true—even convincing sadness is only beginning to be transmitted.

The most obvious example of Miss Wilson’s complete re-emphasis of message may be seen in her recording of “I Don’t Want Him, You Can Have Him,” previously recorded by Nina Simone. In Simone’s version, the singer’s quiet, pent-up delivery suggested despair, disillusionment and heartache. Wilson’s short, snappy phrases, well-paced dynamics and gibly spoken ad libs transformed the tune into a challenge.

Though it is hazardous to speculate about the inner life of another, there does appear to be creeping into the songs of Wilson a note of sobriety. Her signing rings of life in all its various manifestations. She can now deliver a compassionate lyric, and unhappiness is no longer a foreign mood. She has begun to savor her lyrics, and they fall from her lips tempered with an urgency and entreatment. Her up-tempo tunes still crackle and vibrate and she sweeps the listener along with energetic ballads contradicts the torchy pathos of their message. She is witty, philosophical, defiant, appealing, tender, occasionally sad, but never bitter.

She may well owe a debt to Washington for her blues flavor and one to Vaughan for sophistication and poise. But Nancy Wilson pays her respects to a single vocalist.

“I owe so much to Little Jimmy Scott,” she said. “I think he’s fabulous. I guess if you can say anybody influenced me, it was he.”

Along with Vaughan, Nancy Wilson is the only working vocalist whose natural and cultivated ability permits her to sing from one end of the spectrum to the other. She is at home with the blues, can deliver a Broadway show tune with zest and conviction, and sing any kind of tune in between.

Wilson’s voice is crisp and clear. She bites off phrases so sharply that the “s” sound is like a reptilian hiss. The tension-building break in her voice cracks off at will. In recent years she has shown increasingly better control when attempting to improvise. DB

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