Legendary jazz singer Nancy Wilson joined her ancestors Dec. 13 at the age of 81. She was a True Believer, who liked to be known by her self-described title: a “song stylist.” And she did indeed, style some songs for us, over a career that spanned five decades and 70 delightful albums. She received many nicknames including “Sweet Nancy,” “The Baby,” “The Girl With the Honey-Coated Voice,” and my favorite: “Fancy Miss Nancy.”
My own transition from kid into the cool, urbane, adult I would become, would have been impossible if I didn’t just, on my own, adore the music of Nancy Wilson. To all of us Kool Kats and Kitties, we knew the words and could sing along with her biggest hits: “…The waiter showed me to a dark secluded corner/And as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom/I saw two people at the bar who were so in love/Even I could spot it clear across the room…”
That’s from the signature song, “Guess Who I Saw Today?,” her first big hit. She said that song was the most requested in her songbook whenever she made personal appearances. “Guess Who I Saw Today?” was such a big hit that it propelled five successful album releases for her between 1960-1962.
Nancy Sue Wilson was born on Feb. 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, Ohio, the eldest of six children of an iron foundry worker and a maid. She took that beginning and made Black Girl — no, Black Woman — Magic, and we loved it and loved her for it.
In the mid-1970s, about 15 years after her stunning initial success — she was introduced on an album by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley — I met her, and she was all the warm, friendly diva I hoped she would be, even before we had the word diva in our vocabulary.
I was editor of the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Speaks newspaper, and I got the privilege of escorting Ms. Wilson and her husband, Presbyterian minister Rev. Wiley Burton, around to see all the NOI’s landmarks in Chicago — the Salaam Restaurant, the Guaranty Bank & Trust Co., the newspaper printing plant, etc.
She was a lifelong advocate of civil rights, a commitment that included marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. For that work, she received an award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta in 1993 and an NAACP Hall of Fame Image Award in 1998. In 2005, she was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.
So, we were so very, very proud that day that a big star like the one and only Nancy Wilson would hang out with us to see what Mr. Elijah Muhammad and his followers had accomplished there in Chicago. I loved her, all the more.
Then, under the influence of the good reverend, she stopped performing in bars and supper clubs where alcohol was served for the next 20 years. But she still performed at the Cook County Jail. She was my kind of diva.
She released a bunch of platinum albums, and she won three Grammy Awards from seven nominations. She also appeared on television, including her own Emmy-winning variety series “The Nancy Wilson Show” and as Denise Huxtable’s mother-in-law on “The Cosby Show.” She was so very, very easy on the eyes. Nancy Wilson was fine!
She was so very, very, very, very ultra-cool for me, and fine. She was every bit, Fancy, Fancy Miss Nancy Wilson.