Wilson, Nancy (1937—)

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Wilson, Nancy (1937—)

African-American singer and actress . Born on February 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, Ohio; daughter of Olden Wilson and Lillian (Ryan) Wilson; educated at Burnside Heights Elementary School and West High School in Columbus, Ohio; spent one year at Central State College; married Kenny Dennis (a drummer), in 1960 (divorced); married Wiley Burton (a minister), in 1970; children: (first marriage) Kenneth, Jr. (b. 1963); (second marriage) Samantha (b. 1975) and Sheryl (b. 1976).

Nancy Wilson was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1937, the first of Olden and Lillian Ryan Wilson 's six children. Both parents worked full time, Olden in an iron foundry and Lillian as a domestic, and during their workdays the children were cared for by a grandmother who lived near Columbus. Wilson, who first sang in a choir at church, knew by the time she was four years old that she wanted a career as a singer. She discovered a wide range of influences by listening to music with her father, including that of Ruth Brown , Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Louie Jordan, Jimmy Rushing and Little Jimmy Scott.

While attending West High School in Columbus, Ohio, Wilson won a talent contest and began singing professionally at local clubs at age 15. As a teenager, she also began listening to other female singers, including Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald . After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Central State College, intending to major in education and provide herself with some measure of financial security by obtaining teaching credentials. Nonetheless, she left school after one year, intent on pursuing a singing career. In 1956, Wilson joined the Rusty Bryant Band and met Julian "Cannonball" Adderly, a renowned alto saxophonist and skilled professional musician who became a mentor for her. From 1956 through 1959, Wilson toured the United States and Canada with the band.

She then moved to New York City with three definite objectives: to sign with manager John Levy (who also managed Adderly), to become known as an independent soloist, and to record for Capitol Records. She took a day job as a receptionist and decided to allow herself six months to meet her goals. In only one month, she was hired by a New York club to substitute for singer Irene Reid . Wilson's performances were so impressive that the club booked her to sing four nights a week indefinitely. John Levy heard her perform and set up a demo recording session during which she recorded "Guess Who I Saw Today" and "Sometimes I'm Happy," which were then sent to Capitol Records. Within six weeks of setting her goals, Wilson had signed a contract as a Capitol recording artist. Her debut single sold well, and between April 1960 and July 1962 she recorded five albums that were released by Capitol. One of these, Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderly Quintet, is now considered a classic. In 1963, Wilson had her first major hit with "Tell Me the Truth." In 1964, she won a Grammy Award for her song "How Glad I Am."

In the midst of all this activity, Wilson had married Kenny Dennis, a drummer, in 1960, and given birth to a son in January 1963. (The couple would later divorce.) She continued to release albums, and in the late 1960s began appearing regularly on television. During 1967–68, she had her own tv program, "The Nancy Wilson Show," which won an Emmy Award. Over the following years she also sang on "The Carol Burnett Show," "The Flip Wilson Show," "The Andy Williams Show" and "The Sammy Davis Jr. Show," among others, and acted in such popular shows as "Hawaii Five-O," "I Spy," "Police Story" and "Room 222." Wilson married again in 1970, to Wiley Burton, a minister with whom she would have two daughters. Following her second marriage, her career blossomed. She sang two shows per night every week of the year and was booked two years in advance.

Wilson remained with Capitol until 1980, when she switched to Japanese-based A.D.I. Records, a company that allowed her to record by singing each song completely, rather than in tracks that would then be spliced together. Of the American style of recording, Wilson noted, "The day the music died is the day … they stopped recording live, they started doing things you can't reproduce live." She preferred to start again from the top until she satisfied her producer, as opposed to singing select portions right in separate recordings. The switch to the Japanese label also gave her a new audience by making her one of the most popular recording artists in Japan. Of her preferences, Wilson noted, "I like a story in love songs. I don't want to sing something simplistic. Ballads ought to touch you," and she tended to avoid music that had been recorded frequently before. Her 1991 album With My Lover Beside Me featured Johnny Mercer's lyrics set to music by Barry Manilow; 1994's Love, Nancy showcased lush, romantic tunes; while 1997's If I Had My Way was a rhythm-and-blues set.

In addition to performing, acting and recording, Wilson has been active in community affairs and civic groups. A member of the NAACP and chair of Operation PUSH, she also has been a member of the Committee for the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the President's Council for Minority Business Enterprises, and the United Negro College Fund. She has worked for the Johnson & Johnson Prenatal Care Foundation, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, the National Urban Coalition, and her own Nancy Wilson Foundation, established with her family to help inner-city children experience life in the country. Her most visible charity work may be her frequent appearances on "The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars" and the "March of Dimes Telethon." Among the awards she has received are the Global Entertainer of the Year Award from the World Conference of Mayors (1986), the NAACP Image Award (1986), the Los Angeles Urban League's Whitney Young Award (1992), and the Paul Robeson Humanitarian Award.

Called "both cool and sweet, both singer and storyteller" by Time magazine, and now with some 60 albums to her credit, Wilson rejects critics' attempts to classify her as a jazz singer, pop singer, or rhythm-and-blues artist, preferring to consider herself "a song stylist." More specific labels, she believes, wrongly put people in boxes, and the only box she admits to is "I sing songs."


"Nancy Wilson: a class act that defies classification," in The Orange County Register. April 17, 1997.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California

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