by Bruce Haring
Singer Nancy Wilson, whose torch song stylings made her a pop and jazz favorite for more than five decades, has died at age 81. She passed on Thursday after a long illness at her Pioneertown home near Joshua Tree, according to her publicist.
Wilson retired from touring in 2011 but her long time on the road as a jazz festival favorite and impact via recordings that were major pop landmarks kept her presence alive. Wilson released eight albums that reached the top 20 on Billboard’s pop charts in the 1960s alone, powered by such songs as “Guess Who I Saw Today” and the 1964 hit “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” which drew upon Broadway, pop and jazz.
Although many regarded her as a jazz singer, Wilson herself said she was a “song stylist.”
Wilson collaborated with many artists, none more prominent than Cannonball Adderley, with whom she recorded the albums “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley,” “Broadway — My Way”; “Lush Life”; and “The Nancy Wilson Show!” a best-selling concert recording.
“How Glad I Am” brought her a Grammy in 1965 for best R&B performance, and later Grammy victories included 2005’s award for best jazz vocal album for “R.S.V.P (Rare Songs, Very Personal)” and 2007’s “Turned to Blue.”
The National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a “Jazz Masters Fellowship” in 2004 for lifetime achievement.
Wilson also had a busy career on television, film and radio, appearing in Hawaii Five-O, Police Story, and the Robert Townsend spoof Meteor Man. She spent years hosting NPR’s “Jazz Profiles” series. She was also an activist in the 1960s civil rights movement, including the Selma march of 1965.
Born in Chillcote, Ohio, Wilson started singing in church. Her first major success came in high school, when she won a talent contest sponsored by a local TV station and was given her own program. After briefly attending Central State College, she toured Ohio with the Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band and met such jazz artists as Adderley, who encouraged a move to New York.
In accordance with Wilson’s wishes, there will be no funeral service, a family statement said. A celebration of her life will be held most likely in February, the month of her birth.
She is survived by her son, Kacy Dennis; daughters Samantha Burton and Cheryl Burton; sisters Karen Davis and Brenda Vann and five grandchildren.