The polished pop-jazz vocals of Nancy Wilson (February 20, 1937-December 13, 2018) made her a platinum artist and top concert performer. Influenced by Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole and others, Wilson covered everything from jazz standards to "Little Green Apples," and in the 1960s alone released eight albums that reached the top 20 on Billboard's pop charts.
Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, the eldest of six children of an iron foundry worker and a maid, Wilson sang in church as a girl and by age 4 had decided on her profession. In high school she won a local TV station's talent contest and was given her own program. When she later moved to New York, she soon had a regular gig at The Blue Morocco. Then, a demo recording of "Guess Who I Saw Today" got her a phone call from Capitol Records. "Within six weeks I had all the things I wanted," she said in an interview.
Sometimes elegant and understated, or quick and conversational and a little naughty, she was best known for her breakthrough "Guess Who I Saw Today," and the 1964 hit "(You Don't Know) How Glad I Am," which drew upon Broadway, pop and jazz.
Play excerpt: "Guess Who I Saw Today"
"How Glad I Am" brought her a Grammy in 1965 for best R&B performance, and she later won Grammys for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2005 for the intimate "R.S.V.P (Rare Songs, Very Personal)," and in 2007 for "Turned to Blue," a showcase for the relaxed, confident swing she mastered later in life. She performed worldwide at nightclubs, concert halls and jazz festivals.
Wilson also had a busy career on television, film and radio, including years hosting NPR's "Jazz Profiles" series. Active in the civil rights movement, including the Selma march of 1965, she received an NAACP Image Award in 1998.
She resisted being identified with a single category, especially jazz, and referred to herself as a "song stylist," covering songs by Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and Aretha Franklin.
"The music that I sing today was the pop music of the 1960s," she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010. "I just never considered myself a jazz singer. … I take a lyric and make it mine. I consider myself an interpreter of the lyric."