An Interview with Nancy Wilson
Speaking with the Legendary
by Mark Ruffin
Nancy Wilson has been christened with a few monikers in her long career. Fancy Nancy and the Baby are the ones that immediately come to mind. However, the adjectives used to describe the music of this savvy show business vet stretches on ad infinitum.
But ask Wilson what kind of singer she is and the word jazz will not be among the description.
“I am a song stylist,” she said in a phone interview from her Southern California home.
As she proudly and comfortably settle into the seventh decade of her life, she has persevered long enough to serve a loyal audience spiced with several generations But, like most Black pop singers over 40, she suffers from the universally recognized, but seldom discussed problem of the ageism that is systematically practiced at the major record labels. After 24 years at Capitol Records and 15 years at Columbia, Wilson is without a recording contract.
But that doesn’t mean that the year 2000 won’t be a good year for addition to the singer’s discography, for just this month, Capitol has released “Nancy Wilson-Anthology.” It is a 30-song retrospective that focuses on the more pop and R&B aspect of her long career.
The handsomely packaged album features some of those singles that were chart-toppers like “Face It Girl (It’s Over), “You’d Better Go,” and the 1964 Best R&B Grammy winner “You Don’t Know How Glad I Am,”
“Is that what they’re doing,” the sincerely uninformed singer asked. “I didn’t know what was going to be on that compilation, but I must agree with the theme. Most of my stuff is not jazz, it’s pop.
“Save Your Love For Me,” that’s R&B to me,” she said of the timeless chestnut included on the anthology. “That is not a jazz tune. It’s all in other people interpretation. When I started recording, what I was recording was considered pop. I’m a song stylist. I don’t put labels on it.”
The heavily annotated 2-cd set also reveals just how important Wilson was to the economic health of Capitol Records during the 60’s. With a huge roster that included Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee and the Beatles, according to the liner notes, only the four lads from Liverpool bested Wilson for combined sales for the company during the decade.
Another tune from the collection, “Guess Who I Saw Today,” was the very first song Wilson recorded for Capitol and it is one of her biggest hits. It is the one song that the singer is guaranteed to sing at her next concert.
“I have to perform it every night. I have to,” said the singer, who turned 63 earlier this year. “People would be really upset if I didn’t do it. I remember inadvertently, not singing it one night and getting a nasty note about it. It is such a strong song that I do not mind doing it. I’ve never gotten tired of it.”
Later this fall, Wilson will also be in Pittsburgh to work with the amazing non-profit performing arts group, the Manchester Craftsman Guild. In the recent past, the Guild has put out albums by the Count Basie Orchestra, Joe Williams, and Brazilian superstar Ivan Lins. Wilson is next on the MCG docket.
“This year, Nancy will be doing something that surprisingly she’s never done before, ” chirped Lynn Coles, Wilson’s long time publicist and personal assistant. “She’s going in the studio in the fall, and she’s recording her very first Christmas album. Then she going to give all the proceeds to charity.”
Throughout her long career, Wilson has maintained her super-star status with a busy schedule of concert dates and tv appearances during the decades. The singer has also made time to volunteer her services to a wide selection of worthy organizations such as the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change, UNCF, CORE, the NAACP, the National Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.
“I have given so much of my life for the last 45 years, that I am now planning to start devoting most of my time to my kids and me,” said the busy woman, who in addition to touring half a year, also does commercials for breast cancer research and hosts a show for National Public Radio. “I’m a little tired, and I won’t be touring as much and doing as much ripping and running as I’ve done in the past.”
When asked which young singers she admires today, Miss Wilson immediately ran off the names of Vanessa Rubin, Diana Krall and Nnenna Freelon.
“But, I think Regina Belle is one of the great young vocalists out there. I love her and I miss Phyliss Hyman,” she adds. “These are all young voices with great instruments, as opposed to some of these bubble-gum kids making it. I’m kind of fed up with that.”
This past April, at Aaron Davis Hall in New York, some females singers who admire Wilson, paid tribute to her. Belle was one of the performers as was Cassandra Wilson, Dionne Warwick, Cissy Houston and Mavis Staples.