Nancy Wilson’s musical style is so diverse that it is hard to classify. Over the years her repertoire has included pop style ballads, jazz and blues, show tunes and well known standards. Critics have described her as “a jazz singer,” “a blues singer,” “a pop singer,” and “a cabaret singer.” Still others have referred to her as “a storyteller,” “a professor emeritus of body language,” “a consummate actress,” and “the complete entertainer.” Then who is this song stylist (that’s the descriptive title she prefers) whose voice embodies the nuances of gospel, blues, and jazz? Her colleague and long time friend Joe Williams used to call her “the thrush from Columbus.”
By the age of four, Nancy Wilson knew she wanted to be a singer. Born in Chillicothe, OH, Nancy grew up in Columbus where her father provided early exposure to many vocalists. These included male singers Billy Eckstine and Louis Jordan, and the rhythm and blues of Ruth Brown and LaVerne Baker. Nat King Cole was influential as well. She also heard big band vocalists Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie’s Orchestra, and Lionel Hampton’s Little Jimmy Scott. As a child she took an active part in church music as well as school choirs and dance bands.
Nancy’s professional singing career began at the age of 15. She had her own television show, Skyline Melody, on a local station. Soon after, she began performing in clubs in the Columbus area. After graduating high school, still undecided about a music career, she enrolled in the teacher training program at Central State College. But in 1956, Nancy’s desire outweighed the uncertainty of a vocal career, so she left college to join The Rusty Bryant Band. That same year she met Julian “Cannonball” Adderley when she accompanied Bryant’s band to New York City for a recording session. Adderley, impressed with her talent and determination, took an immediate interest in her career and the two kept in touch.
In 1959, Nancy moved to New York City, allotting herself six months to attain her goals. She wanted Cannonball’s manager, John Levy, to represent her, and she wanted Capitol Records as her label. Within four weeks of her arrival in New York she got her first big break, a call to fill in for Irene Reid at The Blue Morocco. Nancy did so well that the club booked her on a permanent basis; she was singing four nights a week and working as a receptionist during the day. She called John Levy and he went to catch her show.