by Darnell Meyers-Johnson
This is a re-print of an interview The Nubian News published in 1990.
It was 10:00 AM in San Diego, California. Nancy Wilson had agreed to an interview with this reporter regarding her 30th anniversary as a recording artist. and her new album A LADY WITH A SONG.
It was 1 :00 PM here in Trenton and time to call her. I was very nervous. What should I say to this musical legend who’s been singing professionally for nearly 40 years? What should I say to this woman the critics have called a timeless, passionate class act? As I dialed the numbers that would connect me with her voice, I could only think of my sweaty palms and quivering fingers on the phone. My prepared outline of questions became useless as my professional demeanor took a back seat to my school boy anxiousness.
Before I realized what was happening, it was too late. ‘Hello,” the voice said. It was Nancy Wilson. As she went to get her other phone, I picked up my outline from the floor and proceeded to give the interview.
The Nancy Wilson legacy began in Columbus, Ohio where she started singing professionally at age 15. At that time, Wilson had her own local TV show, ‘SKYLINE MELODY.’ Her interest in music actually began at age 4 when her father provided early exposure to many vocalists like Ruth Brown, LaVerne Baker, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine and Louis Jordan. However, Wilson’s main influence may have been a male singer with Lionel Hampton’s band named Little Jimmy Scott. Wilson explained, ‘I sound most like him. That’s where I get my (vocal} nuances from.
In 1956 Wilson left college where she was studying to become a teacher, to join the Rusty Bryant Band. That same year she met the late Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley who would later assist in launching her career. In 1959 Wilson moved to New York City to start a career. ‘I knew exactly what I wanted to work for. I didn’t go to New York looking for fame.
What Wilson was looking for was Adderley’s manager, John Levy and a deal that would bring her to Capitol Records. Wilson said the main reason was simple. ‘They cared about people. Capitol cared about their artists. At that time they had Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee. These people were all established.
Wilson received her first big break when she was asked to fill in permanently for Irene Reid in a New York nightclub. One night John Levy visited the club and heard Wilson sing ‘Guess Who I Saw Today? which had become part of her repertoire since high school. ‘That was the song that got me my manager and my label’, she said.
The label, of course, was Capitol. When the first album ‘LIKE IN LOVE’ was released in 1960, critics quickly labeled her the next Ella Fitzgerald. Wilson admitted that the label ‘bothered me because that woman was out there doing it and still is. It discredited both of us, but now I’ve established my own style.’
Indeed she has. Her 20 year association with Capitol produced many hits including ‘I Was Telling Him About You,” ‘Face It Girl, It’s Over,” ‘Days of Wine and Roses,” and ‘How Glad I Am’ which won her a Grammy in 1964.
Nevertheless, even today, labeling still bothers Nancy Wilson. Especially when she is referred to as a jazz artist. According to Wilson, ‘You could call me anything, I guess. But I was never really a jazz performer or a jazz singer. People just gave me that title.’ When asked how she would describe herself professionally, Wilson quickly obliged by saying ‘I’m a singer who sings good songs.’ She went on to explain how she selects a good song.
‘Lyrics are the most important thing, The song has to have a message or a story and not just rely on a beat. Even if the song isn’t perfect there must be a structure there to work on.
This brings us to Wilson’s latest collection of good songs entitled ‘A LADY WITH A SONG.’ This is Wilson’s 6th album tor Columbia Records and her 52nd overall. Wilson is very proud of the album and called it an accumulation of the 38 years I have been singing. ‘A LADY WITH A SONG is me, all the years and laughter, tears and love.’
Highlighting the album are several superb tracks including ‘Do You Still Dream About Me” which Wilson said is the most similar to her earlier hits. Also included is a remake of the Emotions’ classic hit ‘Don’t Ask My Neighbors featuring the group on background vocals
Although the new album has more of an R&B feel to it than her early work, Wilson said that it’s not much different from her more recent recordings. ‘The object of the game with this album was to get the 10 or 12 best songs we could,’ she added.
There are two tracks on the album that put her in a different realm of recording. One was the title cut •A Lady With A Song.• ‘It was the first time I was so personally involved in a song. It was written tor and about me by Ken Hirsch and Lorrin Smokey Bates.’
The recording session for the gospel inspired ‘Heavens Hands” which features an all star choir including Natalie Cole, Deniece Williams, Howard Hewett, Siedah Garrett and Teena Marie among others, was a different experience for Wilson. She said she had never really performed gospel before. She credits Phillip Bailey of Earth Wind and Fire for organizing the star studded choir.
‘Phillip was a great help on the whole album. He’s the one who called people up and told them we needed a choir. It was wonderful. Just having so many people show up for the session.’
Although ‘A LADY WITH A SONG’ was just released, Wilson said she’s planning on going back into the studio in the fall. She said that she’s planning on coming out with a new album every year so that she can ‘leave people with a complete body of work when I’m gone.’
Throughout the interview Ms. Wilson remained polite and pleasant. But her manner slightly changed when asked to compare the new album to those she did in the 60s. ‘I will not do that,’ she said. ‘I will not compare this album to those of the past because those songs are important to people. People got married to those songs. They were a part of people’s lives. It wouldn’t be fair to say this album is better because the times were different then.’
And Wilson is just as interested in discussing the future as she is in preserving the past. Immediate plans include a late night syndicated television show called ‘RED HOT AND COOL’ which will feature live performances by jazz artists. Her last television series, NBC’s ‘THE NANCY WILSON SHOW,’ earned her an Emmy Award in 1968. Wilson also said to expect her return as Olivia’s grandmother on ‘THE COSBY SHOW.’ In reference to concert dates, Wilson said that she performs every year at New York’s Carnegie Hall, but as of right now, no east coast dates have been confirmed.
Well, half an hour had passed since our conversation began. As I was about to say goodbye, Ms. Wilson said that she was looking forward to meeting at one of her east coast engagements. I was surprised, though she seemed sincere, and I started to get nervous again. She gave me her road manager’s name and told me to ask for him when she comes to this area. I managed to get out a very polite “I will, thanks.” And before I knew it the conversation ended as quickly as it began.