From whichever perspective you care to view Miss Nancy Wilson, she is a true legend of the music business. As the American magazine Essence once put it, ‘She is a jazz singer. A balladeer. She does cabaret, sophisticated pop, rhythm and blues. To say she is any one of these, or even all of these, is to miss who she really is — an artist of such enduring talent, class and elegance that she doesn’t just defy labels — she transcends them.’
She was probably better known to the American public than the first wave of post-war vocal performers that included Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter and Carmen McRae simply because her extensive television work brought her into the households of millions of Americans, not least with her own NBC series The Nancy Wilson Show and regular appearances on popular late-night talk shows such as The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show and The Arsenio Hall Show. She debuted on the Capitol label with Like in Love in 1959, subsequently recording more than 100 albums (including 47 on the Capitol label), while 11 of her singles appeared on Billboard’s Top 100 chart and 22 appeared on Billboard’s Top R&B Singles chart. By 1966, when she was 29 years of age, she was reputed to have been earning over $1 million a year.
In November 2002 she was due to headline the first Bahamas Jazz Festival. Thanks to an invitation from the Bahamas Tourist Board, I was flown out to join a small number of British and American jazz journalists accommodated at the British Colonial Hilton in Nassau, a hotel with some celebrity, not least because it featured in the James Bond movie Thunderball. The following morning, a small bus arrived to take us to the festival field on the outskirts of Nassau where our ‘minder’ came rushing up, distraught. ‘The promoter has run off with all the money,’ she said. The festival had been cancelled without a note being played.
Later that day after following up on my interview request for Miss Wilson, I was taken to her hotel where she was sitting on a bar stool in front of a deserted bar being quizzed by a local radio journalist whose youth and questions betrayed the fact that he had no idea who Nancy Wilson. After a painful three or four minutes Miss Wilson cut the interview short. I advanced with some trepidation. Miss Wilson spun around. ‘What do you want?’ she demanded. ‘A cup of coffee, didn’t they give you one?’ ‘No they did not,’ came the response. ‘OK, give me two minutes and I’ll get it sorted, how do you like it?’ ‘Black.’
The one thing about these posh hotels is they are not short staffed, and I ordered two black coffees with the instruction, get them here now! And they did. It seemed to break the ice. I sat down on the bar stool next to her, took out my notes and started setting up my tape. She started talking about the popularity of young jazz singers that the major recording companies were rushing to sign following the runaway success of Norah Jones’ ‘Come Away With Me’ that had been released earlier in the year. She was curious to know what I thought of this new breed of jazz singer. I said what I thought, and then switched on the microphone. My first question picked-up on this previous off-mike conversation.
Throughout our interview she was sharp as a tack, loved to laugh, had a sassy sense of humour and slowly opened up about why she worked so hard — sometimes 40 weeks a year — and what it took to survive in the highly competitive music business. What came across was an ambitious woman determined to succeed, but on her terms. And this she had done. Although she did not mention them by name, she was not impressed by how great singers like Ella and Billie had allowed themselves to be claimed by the music business, destroying any family life, which she valued highly. When I attempted to end the interview at one point, she seemed happy to continue and said if I had any more questions she’d be happy to stay a bit longer. And at the end, she even remembered to thank me for the coffee. It was quite an experience.