10 Facts About Jazz Singer Nancy Wilson | History Hit

10 Facts About Jazz Singer Nancy Wilson

Shannon Callahan

12 Apr 2022
Nancy Wilson at the Millrun Playhouse Theater in the Round, Niles, Illinois. 1976 by Don Leavitt.
Image Credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Nancy Wilson (1937-2018) was an American singer, actress, and activist whose career spanned 50 years. She began singing at the age of 4 and led her church choir by age 10. Raised on gospel, R&B, blues, jazz and country music, she incorporated many styles throughout her career.

Outside of performing, Wilson put her career on the line to fight for civil rights, marching alongside thousands of others in the Selma March in 1965 and working closely with many groups to help black communities. She is legendary for her activism and music.

Here are 10 facts about Nancy Wilson.

1. She won a TV talent show at 15 that helped launch her career

Born in 1937 in Chillicothe, Ohio, Nancy Wilson began singing at age 4. She grew up listening to her father’s records and singing in the church choir. Wilson was influenced by Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole and Ruth Brown. When she was 15, she entered and won a local TV talent show, and she was awarded with regular appearances on a show called Skyline Melodies.

Wilson finished her high school education and attended college for one year. She left to travel with a jazz band before moving to New York City to pursue a solo singing career.

2. Wilson had 3 goals when she moved to New York City

Upon her arrival in NYC in 1960, Wilson landed a regular gig at the Blue Morocco club in the Bronx. She had three goals as she started her career in New York. First, she wanted to work with John Levy, an influential jazz manager. Second, Wilson wanted to sign with Capitol Records like her idol Nat King Cole. Lastly, she wanted to record her first album with producer David Cavanaugh. Within 5 months, Wilson accomplished all three goals, a testament to her determination and skill. She was 23 at the time.

3. She had a prolific career spanning 5 decades

Wilson released more than 70 albums across a 50-year career. Despite having no formal training, she was able to work across genres, sometimes releasing 3 albums a year. She was second only to The Beatles in sales in the 1960s, and has outsold big names like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and the Beach Boys. Further, Wilson had 8 top 20 albums on the Billboard 200 chart in the 60s alone. Some of her hit singles included Save Your Love for Me, Tell Me the Truth and (You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am.

Nancy Wilson at the Grand Gala du Disque, 1968.

4. She won 3 Grammys

Wilson’s work has been awarded with 3 Grammys throughout her career. She won her first Grammy in 1964 for Best R&B Recording for the album How Glad I Am. Additionally, she received two Best Jazz Vocal Album awards for RSVP – Rare Songs, Very Personal in 2005 and Turned to Blue in 2007. In addition to her Grammy awards, she was honoured as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts in 2004.

5. Wilson considered herself a ‘song stylist’ not just a musician

Though Wilson is remembered most as a jazz singer, she did not limit herself to one genre. In fact, she referred to herself as a ‘song stylist’, and, for her, songs were about storytelling. “I have a gift for telling stories, making them seem larger than life,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1993.

Wilson’s storytelling extended to how she performed as well, preferring intimate nightclub performances where people could see her clearly as well as hear her. As she sang, she wanted people to experience the song through her body language and gestures in addition to the emotions she conveyed in her vocals.

6. She is considered a forerunner of the female empowerment singer

Interestingly, Wilson’s choice to sing about heartbreak and her style of emotive singing has led to the NY Times calling her a forerunner of the modern ‘female empowerment singer’. In songs like Face It Girl, one of her biggest commercial successes, she was playful with her interpretation of heartbreak and sang with attitude and flair about a former heartbreak.

7. Wilson had her own television show

Wilson added actress to her resume, appearing for the next few decades on shows like The Carol Burnett Show and The Cosby Show. She also hosted her own TV show, The Nancy Wilson Show, for which she won an Emmy. Later in her career, she hosted NPR’s Jazz Profile series.

Publicity photo of Danny Kaye and Nancy Wilson, 1965.

Image Credit: via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

8. Wilson participated in the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965

On 7 March 1965, approximately 3,200 people left Selma, Alabama for the state capital, Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King Jr. They were protesting the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson and obstructions to voting rights for African Americans. By the time they reached Montgomery, their numbers had reached 25,000.

Among the crowd was Nancy Wilson, who knew taking a political stand in this way could lead to professional consequences; however, she believed ‘it had to be done.’ Her commitment to improving civil rights for black Americans continued throughout the decades, as she managed both her career and activism.

9. She worked with organisations to help black communities in several cities

Wilson’s philanthropic efforts continued long into her career, and she worked with organisations like the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the Brotherhood Crusade to empower disenfranchised communities to seek justice and improve living conditions. Further, she worked to improve women’s health conditions, especially during childbirth, and bring awareness to the AIDS crisis.

Dan and Keisha Blain discuss how African American women played a central - albeit overlooked - role in leading the struggle for equality during the Civil Rights Movement, and what their legacy looks like today.
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10. She was honoured for her activism with several accolades

Wilson was honoured for her activism in many ways, including an award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in 1993. In 1998, she received the NAACP Image Award for her philanthropic contributions and lifelong activism. She was also inducted into the International Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2005. She was dedicated to black communities at a time when it was incredibly risky for her career, especially as a woman in entertainment, yet she was able to have a prolific and varied career. When she died in 2018, she left behind a brilliant legacy that will continue to inspire singers for years to come.

Shannon Callahan

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