Born February 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, OH; daughter of Olden and Lillian (Ryan) Wilson; married Kenneth C. Dennis (a drummer; divorced, 1970); married Wiley Burton (a minister), 1974; children: (first marriage) Kenneth "Kacy;" (second marriage) Samantha, Sheryl. Education: Attended Central State College in Wilberforce, OH, 1955. Memberships include Presidential Council for Minority Business Enterprises; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Operation PUSH (chairperson); United Negro College Fund; and Committee for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Addresses: Record company --Columbia Records, 2100 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404; Management--c/o Devra Enterprises, 361 W. California Ave. 8, Glendale, CA 91203 Phone: (310) 449-2100.

African American jazz singer Nancy Wilson, known for her old-fashioned glamour and timeless, sultry voice, has become a legendary entertainer and enjoyed a career that has endured over 40 years. However, Wilson defied and resisted labels that many used to describe her style. Not only has she been a renowned jazz singer and balladeer, but she has also performed cabaret, sophisticated pop, and rhythm and blues. Placing her music in any one or all of such categories denies what Wilson felt her songs represented. "I'm a song-stylist--although I have been pigeonholed as a jazz singer," Wilson asserted in a 1994 cover story by Robert E. Johnson published in Jet magazine. And Essence magazine writer Audrey Edwards, in May of 1992, described the singer as "an artist of such enduring talent, class and elegance that she doesn't just defy the labels, she transcends them." Moreover, Wilson believed that her music cut across class and race. "I didn't know I was a `Black artist' until I was nominated for a Grammy in a Black category," she told continued. The music, rather than racial categories is "what people identify me with." With 60 albums to her name, beginning with her 1960 debut Like in Love through her 1997 release If I Had My Way, Wilson and her music have surpassed the longevity of most, garnering fans of all races and ages.

The oldest in a family of six children, Nancy Wilson was born on February 20, 1937, in the small southern Ohio town of Chillicothe, where she spent many of her formative years and where she attended Burnside Heights Elementary School. Wilson's parents, Olden and Lillian (Ryan) Wilson, were hard-working and raised their children in a close-knit environment. Her mother labored as a domestic, while her father worked in an iron foundry. Throughout her childhood, Wilson, along with her brothers Anthony and Michael and sisters Rita, Brenda, and Karen, often spent summers in the company of their grandmother at her home on Whiskey Run Road just outside of Columbus, Ohio. It was during these extended family get-togethers that Wilson first delighted audiences with her singing. A vocalist who never took part in formal voice training and often referred to her ability as a gift, Wilson realized at the tender age of four that her goal was to sing professionally.

In her hometown of Chillicothe and later in Columbus, where her family moved when Wilson reached her teens, she developed her skills singing in church choirs and emulating the styles of a variety of post-war American music. Some of her favorite musical legends included Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, LaVern Baker, Louis Jordan, Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown, and her self-proclaimed greatest influence, "Little" Jimmy Scott. Wilson's own career began to take shape at the age of 15 after she won a local talent contest in Columbus and was awarded her own television series, Skyline Melodies, for a local station. The show, which was also broadcast on local radio, featured Wilson singing phoned-in requests. Even then, her repertoire included a wide range of musical styles, from jazz and big band to the pop, ballad, and torch song categories. In addition to performing on her television/radio show, Wilson started singing live shows everywhere she could at local clubs in and around Columbus.

Although continuing as an entertainer remained Wilson's primary goal, she decided to play it safe when she graduated in 1955 from West High School in Columbus, entering college in order to obtain her teaching credentials. However, after only one year as an education major at Ohio's Central State College, the singer dropped out in order to follow her original dreams, auditioning for and subsequently joining Rusty Bryant's Carolyn Club Big Band in 1956. As the ensemble's female vocalist, Wilson spent much of the next three years touring the United States and Canada with the Carolyn Club Big Band. Her association with Bryant also produced her first, and now rare, recording for Dot Records.

In the meantime, while performing in Columbus, Wilson made another important connection that helped to build her career when she had the opportunity to sit in with jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who immediately sensed her enormous potential. Adderley, who would prove a major influence on Wilson's future in the recording business, convinced the talented singer to move away from the pop performance style and emphasize the more sophisticated jazz and ballad material. Taking Adderley's advice, the pair started performing together from time to time and later recorded an album together, 1962's Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, which was recorded with Adderley's quintet and became a jazz classic.

Following her stint with Bryant's band, Wilson decided in 1959 to relocate to New York City, hoping to establish herself as a solo entertainer. Upon her arrival, she accepted a job as a secretary at the New York Institute of Technology, where she worked days in order to support herself until she got a break, and also started singing at clubs at night. More than anything, Wilson desperately wanted to record for one of the most respected labels of the day, Capitol Records, though she realized the possibility of waiting months or even years to earn such an offer. However, with only four weeks under her belt in New York, Wilson received her first important assignment: to fill in for singer Irene Reid at an established nightclub. That evening, Wilson gave such a stellar performance that the club owner wanted to book the singer on a permanent basis. Still holding on to her secretarial job to supplement her income, Wilson sang four nights a week at the nightclub, and the public, as well as record producers and agents, quickly took notice. One night, John Levy, a well-known figure in the music business and manager to Adderley, came to the club to hear her sing. Because of her friendship with Adderley, not to mention her undeniable talent, Levy offered his help and set about arranging a session to record a demonstration tape. He would continue to manage Wilson's affairs throughout her entertainment career.

At the scheduled session, Wilson recorded the songs "Guess Who I Saw Today" and "Sometimes I'm Happy." Within a week after Levy sent the tapes to Capitol Records, Wilson had signed a contract with the label. Capitol, known for its outstanding roster of singers who performed the standard ballad repertoire, proved a fortunate first home for Wilson. Suddenly, she found herself in the company of world-renowned stars like Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee, in addition to some of the industry's most cherished lyricists and composers. Her first album for Capitol, Like in Love, arrived in April of 1960, and she scored her first hit with a rhythm and blues song recorded with Adderley entitled "Save Your Love for Me" in 1962.

Also that year, Capitol released her second album, Something Wonderful, which included one of the songs used on her demo tape "Guess Who I Saw Today." Although only a moderate hit at the time of its release, "Guess Who I Saw Today," a song about infidelity, remained her most requested number well into the late 1990s and became her signature song. "It is one of those experiences everybody can relate to," she explained to Stewart Weiner in a 1999 interview for Palm Springs Life magazine. Wilson's audience further broadened the following year with the song "Tell Me the Truth," and between April of 1960 and July of 1962, Capitol issued five of the singer's albums. These early accomplishments set a frenetic pace for Wilson and her first husband, drummer Kenny Dennis, who married in 1960. Before long, Wilson found herself performing more than 40 weeks out of the year, at times giving two shows a night at top clubs such as the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles and the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.

By the mid-1960s, Wilson was one of her label's best-selling artist, second only to the Beatles. An uninhibited performer who included jazz-styled pop in her repertoire and proudly displayed her glamorous good looks, she even surpassed established entertainers such as Cole, Lee, and the popular West Coast rock and roll group the Beach Boys in sales. In 1964, she won a Grammy Award for best rhythm and blues recording for the album How Glad I Am. Four other Grammy nominations since followed this honor, including a nomination for Gentle Is My Love in 1965. As 1966 approached, Wilson was earning a generous income in excess of $1 million per year, and her rise in popularity showed no sign of slowing down. In addition to enjoying stardom in the United States, she had also established a significant fanbase overseas, especially in Japan, where she would remain a favorite for years to come.

As a result of her recognized depth and diverse talent, Wilson saw other opportunities within the entertainment industry arise. From the mid-1960s and 1970s, the singer headlined shows in Las Vegas that had been booked two years in advance, performed at the most sophisticated supper clubs, and received offers for television work. During the 1967-68 season, she hosted her own top-rated television program on NBC called The Nancy Wilson Show, for which she won an Emmy Award. All the while, Wilson maintained a seamless string of hit records, repeatedly garnering top honors for both Billboard and Playboy magazine's music polls.

Despite her efforts to juggle a family, constant touring and recording, and a television career, Wilson's busy schedule took a toll on her personal life. In 1970, Wilson divorced her first husband, with whom she had one son, Kenneth (Kacy) Dennis, Jr., in 1963, and that same year married Reverend Wiley Burton. Wilson had two more children with her second husband, daughters Samantha Burton, born in 1975, and Sheryl Burton, born in 1976. Learning from past experiences, Wilson curtailed her professional engagements somewhat after marrying Burton. In 1973, for example, she opted not to perform in supper clubs, although she did perform concert dates in South America and Japan. Nonetheless, her decision to focus on her family made little if any impact on her stardom. In fact, Wilson herself believed that performing less actually improved her shows, noting that not playing in the same venue for two to four weeks straight gave a freshness and excitement to her singing. In the mid-1970s, Wilson and Burton bought a home--which grew to occupy over 17,000 square feet by late 1999--140 miles away from Los Angeles in the California high desert. Wilson moved to the rural location Pioneertown, made famous as the background landscape for the Roy Rogers television series, to raise her children.

As the next decade approached, many record companies, especially those involved with pop and rhythm and blues artists, started using technical enhancements for album production. Wilson, who preferred to record her songs live, resisted such innovations that might alter the sound of her voice and never wanted to release a record that she was unable to perform before an audience. Therefore, since most labels in the United States declined to meet her standards, Wilson spent the 1980s primarily recording for Japanese labels. "They've allowed me to sing so that I can sing," she told Jet magazine in 1986. "I can't sing for a splice in the middle. I say `We'll do it from the top until you get what you want.' The day the music died, is the day when they stopped recording live, they started doing things you can't reproduce live." She expressed a similar, though somewhat more resigned, sentiment later in 1999. "When we were recording those Capitol albums, all of the musicians were in the same room playing," she recalled to Weiner. "Now, you record all by yourself with headphones on." Without losing her fans in the United States, Wilson further endeared herself to legions of Japanese jazz enthusiasts during these years. In 1983, she was declared the winner of the annual Tokyo Song Festival and released a total of five acclaimed albums for Japanese labels. Back in the United States, Wilson started recording for Columbia Records as well, beginning in 1984 with a collaborative effort, The Two of Us, that also featured pianist/keyboardist Ramsey Lewis.

With her children grown, Wilson found more time to devote to her career during the 1990s. In addition to maintaining a busy touring and recording schedule and expanding her acting interests, she was honored in 1990 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Around the same time, she worked on a landmark album of previously unpublished lyrics by legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer set to the music of co-producer Barry Manilow. The Mercer tribute album, With My Lover Beside Me, was released in 1991. Several other albums followed, including her fifty-fourth full-length recording, a collection of love songs entitled Love, Nancy, released in 1994, as well as her sixtieth album, If I Had My Way, released in 1997. In 1998, Wilson received a Playboy readers poll award for best female jazz vocalist and resumed her radio career by hosting the National Public Radio (NPR) Jazz Profiles series. That same year, Wilson suffered the loss of both her parents, who both died in November of 1998. Wilson continued to work steadily through this time, which she referred to as the most difficult year of her life. The following year, Wilson honored one of jazz music's most legendary singers, Ella Fitzgerald, when she hosted a biography television special entitled Forever Ella, which aired on the A & E cable television network.

Wilson took advantage of other opportunities in both television and film. Her film roles included Robert Townsend's Meteor Man and The Big Score, with Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree. She appeared on The Sinbad Show and in a recurring role in the number one-rated series The Cosby Show. Her other work in television series included guest roles for I Spy, Room 222, Police Story, O'Hara: U.S. Treasury, The F.B.I., and Hawaii Five-O. Some of her other television appearances included performances for The Tonight Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Today Show, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, The Flip Wilson Show, The Andy Wilson Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. Her own television special, Nancy Wilson in Concert, aired in 1989, and the singer made frequent appearances on both The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars and the March of Dimes Telethon.

Throughout her years as an entertainer, Wilson devoted considerable time and money to numerous charitable causes, such as the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change, the Cancer Society, the Minority Aids Project, the National Urban Coalition, and the Warwick Foundation. Organizations that honored Wilson for her dedication included the United Negro College Fund, the Urban League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her family also established the Nancy Wilson Foundation to enable inner-city children to visit the country and experience alternate lifestyles. She earned an honorary degree from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, for her contributions to music, and although she never finished college, Central State College presented her with an honorary degree, an accolade that reflects the teacher that she really was in her song and compassionate nature. In 1992, the Urban League presented Wilson with the Whitney Young Jr. Award, while Essence magazine rated the singer as one of jazz music's current "grand divas."

During her prolific and enduring career as an entertainer, Wilson witnessed the dramatic changes within the music industry. "It's now a record industry--whereas the business before emphasized nightclub performing, concerts, television appearances as well as recording records," she said to Edwards, recalling the entertainment industry of times past. Although she misses the era that gave birth to what many call the "real singers," like Joyce Bryant, Lena Horne, and Wilson herself, she insisted that the modern times have produced talent as well. "I love Oleta Adams," Wilson continued. "And Regina Belle, Anita Baker, Phyllis Hyman. These women have a lot of power and are doing some meaty material. The music is good." In addition, Wilson's daughters have introduced their mother to hip-hop artists such as Mary J. Blige, who she also came to admire. Nonetheless, Wilson looked back on her days with Capitol with a sense of nostalgia. "It was the wonder years there," she told Weiner. "Look at the artists who were recording for Capitol: Nat King Cole, Dakota Stanton, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin And, of course, Frank Sinatra!" When asked what made the label so different, Wilson replied, "It was owned by Johnny Mercer," she explained. "And there was such a feeling of family." However, Wilson adapted with her usual grace and eased into the 1990s and beyond, bringing her stylish music to a whole new generation. Now entering into her fifth decade as a professional singer, Wilson planned to record and perform for many years to come, singing songs that have stood the test of time.

by Laura Hightower

Nancy Wilson's Career

Sang in church choirs and clubs, Columbus, OH, early 1950s; star of local television show, Skyline Melodies, Columbus, OH, 1952-54; member of Rusty Bryant's Carolyn Club Big Band, 1956-58; released first album, Like in Love, for Capitol Records, 1959; hosted The Nancy Wilson Show, 1967-68; released sixtieth album, If I Had My Way, 1997. Made numerous appearances on variety shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Flip Wilson Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Tonight Show, and The Arsenio Hall Show; guest starred on numerous television series; had roles in the films The Big Score and Meteor Man. Cofounder, Nancy Wilson Foundation, which introduces inner-city youth to rural settings.

Nancy Wilson's Awards

Grammy Award, 1964, for How Glad I Am; Emmy Award, 1975, for The Nancy Wilson Show; winner, Tokyo Song Festival, 1983; Global Entertainer of the Year, World Conference of Mayors, 1986; Image Award, NAACP, 1986; star, Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1990; Essence Award, Essence magazine, 1992; Whitney Young Jr. Award, Urban League, 1992; Martin Luther King Center for Social Change Award, 1993; Turner Broadcasting Trumpet Award for Outstanding Achievement, 1994.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

July 22, 2003: Wilson's album with Ramsey Lewis, Simple Pleasures, is released. Source: Yahoo! Shopping, shopping.yahoo.com/shop?d=product&id=1927022787&a=m&clink=, July 22, 2003.

February 13, 2005: Wilson won the Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album for R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal). Source: Grammys.com, www.grammys.com/awards/grammy/47winners, February 14, 2005.

Further Reading

Sources

BooksPeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 2 years ago

There aren't many, if any, beatiful and melodic singers around. On my best and worst days, there was/is music by NANCY WILSON to bring peace to my soul. Her voice and her music tell my feelings and my story. I have seen her perform. How I would love to meet and talk to this talented LADY.

over 5 years ago

Ms. Wilson, it has taken me some time to write this because I did not know what to say. I was a friend of Wiley's before he passed. Although we had only known each other for a few short years, through the casino.(I work at the Spa Resort Casino and previously at the Agua Caliente Casino) Wiley was always one of the kindest people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. When my wife and I were married 4 years ago, Wiley gave me some words of advice that have save me more than once. Well I am not so good with words so I won't keep you long. I just wanted to tell you I am sorry for your loss, the world lost one of its angels on that day. Brian.

over 5 years ago

Thanks you Ms. Nancy Wilson for a wonderful evening of song and grace at the kennedy center in washington d.c. oct.7th 2008!Their were "three generations" of the ward family who attended in honor of my belated birthday and we left that evening knowing that we had indeed been in the company of greateness and we truly thank that the Lord for allowing you to share your gifts for so many years! we pray for your health and your peace of mind...thank you so much for the memories. three generations of fans!

over 5 years ago

it was a true pleasure to be in the energy of the great mrs. nancy wilson in washington, d.c. oct.7th 2008!the concernt was short due to her most recent illness, but the night was magical and as always she was most elegant in her beautiful silver gown. it was my belated "birthday"treat to myself which was in april, however the concert had to be rescheduled until oct. due to her health. i would love for mrs. nancy wilson to know that i attended her concert that night with "three generations" of her fans, the youngest being 33 years old and the oldest who was 82 years young! my 33 year old daughter is also a wonderful upcoming volcalist and it was a treat to have her be so inspired by mrs. nancy wilson's spirit and how well she has continued to take care of her voice and of course her stage prescence. the band was fab-u-lous and we all left knowing that we had indeed spent an evenng with greatness, and we thank god for using her instrument for so many years to inspire others. we pray over her healing and her peace of mind. blessings three generations!

almost 6 years ago

Nancy Wilson is doing well and performed most recently in Detroit Mi to a sold out crowd!!

almost 6 years ago

I was really sadden to learn of Ms Wilsons lung condition and pray she will soon return to good health. I have loved her unique talent for many many years I was so looking forward to her concert in Sydney Australia in May of this year 2008 when due to her illness her visit was cancelled, I pray in the future she will return to our shores as I long to be part of her magical night of song. Thank you for this opportunity to express my belief that Ms Wilson is the greatest female singer of my generation and a very gracious lady, I have been present at a number of her concerts in various locations over the years and always come away feeling so uplifted. Kind regards Suzanne Lea

about 6 years ago

I want to say that I love Ms. Nancy Wilson with all my heart. My prays are with her, from our save Jesus Christ. Tell her to hold on, he is a healer.