One of the most prolific jazz vocalists in the world has died, according to her publicist and manager Devra Hall Levy.
Nancy Wilson, 81, died at her residence in Pioneertown, California, after a long illness. She leaves a legacy that includes over 60 albums and singles in a career that spanned more than 50 years.
She was born Nancy Sue Wilson on Feb. 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, Ohio, and was the oldest of six children. Raised in the church, and performing in the choir as a child, at an early age she was influenced by jazz recordings purchased by her father and listened to the music spilling from a juke joint near her home. During an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, she said, “The juke joint down on the block had a great jukebox and there I heard Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown, LaVerne Baker, Little Esther.”
As a teen, the showbiz bug bit her and she won local contests and even wound up performing and later hosting a jazz television show on local station WTVN. She kept with her dream of music and after one year of study at Central State University, where she pledged Delta Sigma Theta, she left to perform with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band in 1956. After touring with the band for almost two years across the country and Canada she was signed to record with the Dot Records label. It was the start of a career that made her voice and name easily recognizable in jazz circles.
But it was her time with mentor and music legend Cannonball Adderley that skyrocketed her brand. She followed his advice and moved to New York City to join the jazz scene in 1959. Soon, she was performing at the top night spots in the city and was eventually discovered and signed by Capitol records in 1960. During 1960 and 1962 she recorded and released five albums of pop and jazz standards. It was Adderley who told her to switch to doing jazz standards and ballads. The two collaborated on the 1962 release of the album Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, Live, which propelled her to national fame and even more recordings. Between 1964 and 1965 Wilson had four releases that saw her make the Top 10 on Billboard’s Top LPs chart.
By 1967, Wilson was hosting “The Nancy Wilson Show” on NBC, which would later garner her an Emmy win.
She would go on to record dozens of albums and billed herself as a song-stylist because she also enjoyed doing covers of popular songs.
Over the years, her name was a top draw at festivals such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, San Francisco Jazz Festival, and many others. Her awards over the years included three Grammys, NAACP Image Awards, UNCF Trumpet Award, Lifetime Achievement Award from the NAACP and Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Award. She received the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships Award in 2004, the highest honor that the United States government bestows upon jazz musicians. She also gave back to the community and started the Nancy Wilson Foundation, which exposes inner-city children to music across the country.