Genre-defying singer Nancy Wilson, whose long and illustrious career featured performances of American standards, jazz ballads, Broadway show tunes, slow R&B jams, and upbeat pop tunes, passed away from illness on Thursday at her home in Pioneer, California, at the age of 81.
A talented singer from a young age, Wilson first embarked on the path to fame at age 15 when she, then a high school student in Ohio, competed in a talent show held by the local TV station WTVN. Wilson went on to make bi-weekly performances on the WTVN show, Skyline Melodies.
Following graduation, she began touring full time across the Midwest and Canada with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band, with whom she produced her first recordings for Dot Records. In 1959, she moved to New York and drew attention from some of the biggest names in the jazz industry — culminating in her being signed to Capitol Records, the label of singers such as Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee who inspired Wilson when she was just a young child. Her debut album, Like in Love, came out in 1960 to critical acclaim. She went on to produce hits such as 1968’s Face It Girl and 1964’s (You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am, which made it to spots 30 and 11 respectively on Billboard’s pop chart. She also won three Grammy Awards — one for best R&B recording in 1964, and two for best jazz vocal album in 2005 and 2007.
Wilson’s acclaimed singing voice was matched only by her flair for the dramatic and her love of performing live in front of an audience.
“Audiences want to see a song as well as hear it,” Wilson told Jazz Wax. “Part of what I do is in my body language, my hands, my arms. You miss a lot by just hearing my voice.”
“I have a gift for telling stories, making them seem larger than life,” she added in comments made to The Los Angeles Times in 1993. “I love the vignette, the plays within the song.”
Wilson’s instinct for performance won her opportunities on TV as well. In 1967, she became one of the only African-Americans in the U.S. to host a TV series — the Emmy award-winning Nancy Wilson Show. Later in life, the singer was also honored for her work as a civil rights advocate who participated in famous protests such as the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march in 1965.
Watch video of Wilson below.
Read the full obituary at The New York Times.