Nancy Wilson, peerless interpreter of lyrics, dead at 81

Herb Boyd | 12/20/2018, 1:36 p.m.
Minutes after I heard that Nancy Wilson was dead I went online to YouTube to see and hear again her ...
Nancy Wilson Sony

Minutes after I heard that Nancy Wilson was dead I went online to YouTube to see and hear again her glorious majesty, the wondrous beauty of her voice. Her signature song, “Guess Who I Saw Today,” popped up without any further search, and once again I was transported back as she recounted a song that she must have reprised hundreds of times.

Although her fans know the song’s ending, even so they never tire of her rendition, and there were times when she improvised on the lyrics or presented facial expressions and body movements to emphasize her surprise at being undone by her lover.

Some of the song was emitted in her smooth, mellow voice and part in recitative, but in both cases she was totally in control, and like so many of her performances she had the audience in the palm of her hands.

“Guess Who I Saw Today” might have been her most requested tune, but it was just one of many that made her a crowd favorite and a special vocalist for more than five decades, some 70 albums and numerous appearances on some stage or another. Often cited as a song stylist, a torch singer and a pop-jazz diva, she possessed portions of each designation, although she was probably best defined as a singing storyteller.

Wilson, on many occasions, said, “I never considered myself a jazz singer…I take a lyric and make it mine. I consider myself an interpreter of the lyric.”

And as an interpreter she made a repertoire of songs her own, winning three Grammys, recording a trove of chart-busting albums and making a slew of cameo appearances on television and in movies. That is but a portion of her illustrious career that now commands the press as her friends and relatives prepare for her home-going. Wilson, 81, died last Thursday, Dec. 13, at her home in Pioneertown, Calif., a town near Joshua Tree National Park. According to her manager and publicist Devra Hall, Wilson succumbed after a long illness.

She was born Feb. 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, Ohio, the eldest of six children. Her father worked in an iron foundry and her mother was a maid. A child prodigy who began singing in church, she had already chosen singing as her future profession at 4 years old. That dream began to take shape and become a reality by the time she was in high school in Columbus, Ohio. She was so good that she not only won a talent contest sponsored by a local television station, but also she was given her own show, “Skyline Melodies.”

After a few classes at Central State College, she began touring with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band. It was during this stint that she met alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, who convinced her to move to New York City. She wasn’t in the city long before she was performing at The Blue Morocco in 1959 and later signed with Capitol Records. All the while she was holding down a full-time job as a secretary for the New York Institute of Technology. “Like In Love” was her debut album, featuring Billy May’s band and from which flowed such gems as “Fly Me to the Moon” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower.”