Tributes and remembrances are springing up far and wide following the passing of vocalist Nancy Wilson on Thursday at the age of 81. One of the most comprehensive obituaries we've found is this one from the New York Times.
Nancy Wilson holds a special place in our hearts and history at CapRadio.
The year was 1994 and the legendary singer had just released her 57th album, Love, Nancy. Like other radio programmers across the country, CapRadio's Gary Vercelli had long been a Nancy Wilson fan and her new release was getting prominent airplay on CapRadio. When the station started exploring ideas for a gala fundraising concert to commemorate our 15th Anniversary, Ms. Wilson's name immediately sprung to mind. Also, since Love, Nancy was brand new, her record company might be willing to help out with the cost of the concert, in support of the album. And that's just what happened.
CapRadio presented An Evening with Nancy Wilson at Pavilions on Saturday, June 25, 1994. The elegant dinner-concert took place under the stars in the Pavilions' courtyard in Sacramento. Ms. Wilson delighted and enchanted with her signature vocal style, as you can read in this review by the Sacramento Bee's Robert Masullo.
On the day before the concert, Ms. Wilson paid a visit to the CapRadio studios. After graciously spending time with lots of staff around the station, she sat down with Gary Vercelli for an on-air interview. Here are some highlights from that 1994 conversation.
GARY VERCELLI: Welcome to Sacramento, Nancy. We’re excited to have you here for our gala dinner concert at Pavilions.
NANCY WILSON: It’s great to be here, Gary.
GARY VERCELLI: You met with a local youth choir today. What advice do you generally give to young singers when you talk to them?
NANCY WILSON: I talk to them about attitude and about what it takes to be a performer, about your belief in yourself and in a higher power, really, which enables you to do things in the correct way as opposed to sacrificing everything for a career and for show business. Because the singing, the voice, the music is always there. Recognize two things: one is show business and the other is a gift. Make show business work but use your gift wisely. And that’s basically what I do in the master classes because I’m not a musician. I really do not know that much about music per se. But I can teach you and talk to you about attitude and about what makes a performer a performer.
GARY VERCELLI: I read somewhere recently that as you were starting your career, you were wary of the dangers of rising too far too fast…
NANCY WILSON: I just didn’t feel that I wanted to sign contracts, and I was not interested in a recording career at 15 or 16 years old. I looked at the history of show business – we’re not talking here about singing, we’re talking about show business – and it was not a pretty thing to look at, and I did not think that I was ready at that point in time to deal with what could happen. I wanted to live a long life and I wanted happiness, which had to do with being a wife and a mother and a daughter as opposed to being a star. And I figured that if I was supposed to be that, it would all happen in good time, and I didn’t think that at 16 it was the time to do it. I did not want to leave school. I had a career that was doing very well in a smaller setting, granted, but by the same token I felt that I should learn my craft before I went to New York. I know when I got there I’d want to know who would be the correct manager to have, what would be the record label that would be the best for Nancy Wilson. And the only way to know that is to take the time to discover it and find out. So I took my time. I worked all around the Midwest, Ohio, I was on the road with Rusty Bryant’s band. At 15 or 16 I sang with a big band every weekend, just about. When I went to New York, it was with the recording aspect of the career in mind. It was to do the supper club scene. I wanted to play the Coconut Grove. And if I was going to record, I wanted to record for Capitol. I wanted David Cavanaugh who produced Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dakota Staton, George Shearing. That’s why I wanted to go. And I knew if I had gone to New York and said ‘make me a star,’ or just allowed anybody to do it… I figured that if I choose who does it, I’d have some say so. I’m in control that way, rather than to just be out there and I want it so badly I’ll just take whatever comes. I never wanted anything that badly. I don’t believe our young people should sacrifice themselves at the altar of money. I believe they should be true to their craft and learn their craft. I don’t like the managing and the entire manufacturing of records these days. I like creativity coming from the artists as opposed to the engineer.
When I went to New York, it was with the recording aspect of the career in mind. It was to do the supper club scene. I wanted to play the Coconut Grove. And if I was going to record, I wanted to record for Capitol. I wanted David Cavanaugh who produced Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dakota Staton, George Shearing. That’s why I wanted to go. - Nancy Wilson
GARY VERCELLI: Nancy, you’ve worked in many different genres of music, but you’ve always been tied to the jazz tradition. You’ve had the respect of musicians such as Cannonball Adderley, Benny Golson, Art Farmer and all the greats. Can you share something about your jazz roots?
NANCY WILSON: Bottom line really is the start with Rusty Bryant, which was basically R&B. He had a couple of big hits like “All Night Long.” And he was a fine musician. And Raleigh Randolph and I played standards and what not. When I met Cannon, I guess I’d been formed already. I love it when people say Cannonball [Adderley] discovered me… you just can’t dismiss Rusty Bryant and Raleigh Randolph because without them I would not have been in New York. Cannon had just come up from Florida. He and Nat and I met on 52nd and Broadway – at some point in time you met everybody there – so we were friends. I talked to Nat and got to know the family. They knew that there was a girl singer in Ohio, consequently I saw him in Ohio and we would run into each other on the road. I never really worked with Cannonball until I brought him to Capitol. Actually, John Levy managed both of us. Cannon was the one who called and said ‘John, she’s in town now and she’s working. Go see her at the Blue Morocco.’ Cannon to me was the freshest, most brilliant… in his speaking, the way he brought his audience to the music was to me the special effect that Cannonball had, aside from the brilliance with which he played the instrument. I think that Julian lives on because he chose to share what the music was about verbally with his audience. And that was what was so special. I remember some of the fun that we’ve had, we’ve laughed a lot. Nat Adderley and I to this day still play cards together. I remember being pregnant on stage at the Apollo singing “Save Your Love For Me,“ and [I sang] the line “I can feel it” when I was about seven, seven-and-a-half months pregnant. And my son shifted and I mean the dress moved visibly from one side to the other and the next line was “can’t conceal it.” Well, Julian could not play, Nat could not play, and the entire band just fell apart. We were at the Apollo Theater just killing people and could not stop laughing! This baby shared our stage with us that night. I love Julian a lot. I still feel when I listen to [saxophonist] Vincent Herring and some of the new things that are coming out through Nat – Nat’s been very faithful to his brother’s memory – that we’ve been blessed to have known Cannon. I think that music and jazz are far better for him having been here.
I remember being pregnant on stage at the Apollo singing “Save Your Love For Me,“ and [I sang] the line “I can feel it” when I was about seven, seven-and-a-half months pregnant. And my son shifted and I mean the dress moved visibly from one side to the other and the next line was “can’t conceal it.” Well, Julian could not play, Nat could not play, and the entire band just fell apart. We were at the Apollo Theater just killing people and could not stop laughing! This baby shared our stage with us that night. I love Julian a lot. - Nancy Wilson
GARY VERCELLI: Nancy, share with our listeners some of your non-musical interests. What keeps you busy?
NANCY WILSON: Nancy is a very well-rounded person. There’s a lot more to me than the singer. I’m a wife and a mother. My parents are alive and we’re all very close. My major interest really is children. I started a high school program and I never talked about ‘don’t drop out.’ I always assumed that because you’re listening to me, you’re here and I always talk about scholarship. I think that is more positive than the negative side, ‘don’t drop out.’ I did that in the early 60’s and I continue to work with kids. I do a lot of work with the UNCF. I support black colleges. I’m all over the country raising money for that. I believe in trying to give our innercity children an opportunity to experience a rural atmosphere. I was brought up in a rural area. I believe that’s a great foundation. So I wanted some children who only see cement to experience what it’s like to see cows and horses. I do plan to open some group homes with some therapists that I believe in, who know how to deal with a hands-on technique, who can help young people stay out of trouble, out of the system. I don’t want kids to just be tossed around from pillar to post with no hope. There are so many children who are dealing with an abusive situation who need to know that they’re loved and they’re wanted.
GARY VERCELLI: Sounds like family is really important to you.
NANCY WILSON: Oh that’s why I’ve never worked that hard. I mean I’ve always kind of done it halfway. Now that the girls are [grown] up, I plan to work almost whole force for a while and then cut back and take some time for Nancy.
GARY VERCELLI: Thanks for sharing time with us today, Nancy.
NANCY WILSON: Thank you, Gary.
NPR's Jazz Profiles
Another CapRadio/Nancy Wilson connection involves the Peabody award-winning NPR program Jazz Profiles, which was narrated by Nancy. The weekly, one-hour documentary series was featured on radio stations across the country, including KXJZ, from 1995-2002. Paul Conley, now CapRadio's managing editor for music, was one of the show's producers and wrote copy for Nancy to read over that 7-year period. Conley says it was a joy to hear Nancy react to the scripts with comments like "that's nice writing" or "I didn't know that about him." Conley says the most satisfying feeling came at the end of a tracking session when Nancy finished her final line and said how much she enjoyed the show and how much she learned about that particular subject, even if she already knew him or her. Of the ten shows Conley produced, this profile of saxophonist Paul Desmond drew particular praise from Nancy.
The creator of Jazz Profiles, Tim Owens, has written a remembrance of his time working with Nancy Wilson. You can read it here and you can also listen to some of Nancy's favorite Jazz Profiles shows.