Remembering Nancy Wilson

Written by

Nancy Wilson Photo courtesy Capitol Photo Archives

I have a confession to make. When Nancy Wilson walked into KCRW’s humble studio on the John Adams Middle School campus on June 16, 1981, it caught me by complete surprise. I had forgotten to mark my calendar and never promoted her visit to the station. Stunned and unprepared, I tried to hide all the embarrassment and the tide of emotions pounding inside me as I greeted her and started the live interview. When I learned that Wilson had passed away in December 2018 at the age of 81, I decided to pull out the cassette recording of this archival Morning Becomes Eclectic interview and listened again after all these years. I was pleasantly surprised by my coherence given my lack of preparation. I guess being a jazz fan since high school, listening to jazz radio, and spending all my cash on jazz records paid off. We share the full interview from 1981 for this remembrance.

Wilson and I spoke about her biggest influences—Little Jimmy Scott and Dinah Washington—and living in the high desert of Southern California. We debuted her new album, At My Best, released on the small indie label ASI and recorded the year before at the swank Cocoanut Grove nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel. The album was only issued on vinyl and never reissued on CD. It’s a pretty rare find nowadays.

Wilson also talked about being a song stylist rather than a jazz singer. She knew how to interpret a song and tell a story, how to dramatize important passages. Take for example her mastery of one of her signature songs, “Guess Who I Saw Today,” building up suspense through to the climactic last sentence. She sure could weave a story in song—something she learned from Little Jimmy Scott.

I also love her version of the Lionel Hampton song “Midnight Sun,” with the brilliant triple rhyme that only Johnny Mercer could pen:

Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice,
Warmer than the summer night.
The clouds were like an alabaster palace,
Rising to a snowy height.
Each star its own Aurora Borealis,
Suddenly you held me tight,
I could see the midnight sun.

You can find “Midnight Sun” on the 1967 album Lush Life, one of my favorites by Wilson. I also recommend an early Capitol album with Cannonball Adderley with the eye-catching album cover showing Wilson in a form-fitting yellow dress and Adderley in a bespoke suit. The “Fancy Miss Nancy,” as Wilson was called by her fans and radio deejays, will always be one of my favorite singers of all time.