R.I.P. Nancy Wilson, who passed away yesterday at 81 — I had an opportunity to interview her in 2002 when EMI put out a four-CD box set of little known older material, which was released concurrently to a date with Ramsey Lewis. This is the unedited version.
Nancy Wilson (2-8-02):
TP: First I’ll ask about the box set, and then a few things about MEANT TO BE, because both will be reviewed on the website on the date they come out. As far as this lavish set, what made this such a good time for you to release this project in the manner that you did it.
WILSON: Actually, EMI had the idea.
TP: So it was basically you cooperating with them.
WILSON: I was glad that they released the four-box set, yes.
TP: I’m under the impression you had quite a bit of input in it.
WILSON: Months ago, when we talked about what should go in it, yes.
TP: In the publicity they’re sending out, the impression is that you had your hands on a lot of what went in.
WILSON: I didn’t know what went in it. Initially, I picked certain songs that I thought should be in it, and I wanted that live album to go in it.
TP: You wanted that live album from the Sands.
TP: But did you pick all the material that’s on Disk 3, as you said?
TP: Are you someone who’s very analytical about yourself, your records? Do you listen to them once you’re done?
WILSON: No! [LAUGHS] Not at all. I do it, I did it. I can’t tell you how it came about. I just go in there and do it.
TP: That said, in making these selections, did you go back and listen to your records?
WILSON: I know the songs. “Over The Weekend” and some of the other songs are songs I rarely get a chance to do on songs, and they’re some of the most wonderful songs. The lyrics deserve to be heard more.
TP: The box is interesting in that it spans four decades, and spans such a range of styles and sonic palettes and approaches to music, and also many different sounds to frame your voice in.
TP: Depending on the situation, do you change the phrasing or timbre of your voice? Does the instrumental context make any difference in how you project your voice?
WILSON: I never thought about it. I just go ahead and sing the song over what is being played. I’m certain that certain music will bring a different feeling to it. Certain music will bring out something else in a singer. But I don’t analyze what I do. I hear it, what they’re playing, I listen to it, we go in and I usually play the chart down, I hear what they’re doing and I hear where I go, and the downbeat comes down and we do the track.
TP: About how much time would it take you to internalize the lyric?
WILSON: Internalize the lyric?
TP: Or get it to the point where you can sing it and want it to be documented.
WILSON: It doesn’t take but a minute.
WILSON: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
TP: Is that right? You make it sound so easy!
WILSON: But it is! I mean, it isn’t a job. It’s not work. But that is my gift, I guess. I don’t really sweat over a song, or worry over it or anything. If I like it, I sing it, and it just comes out.
TP: You mean, you just know what to do.
TP: And has that always been the case?
WILSON: Yes. I tell stories, and that does not change.
TP: But it’s interesting because you’re projecting your story through the medium of someone’s lyric, and with the range of material you address, it’s really quite a gift.
WILSON: But that’s my gift. I am an interpreter, and have always known that. I am not a writer of songs. I interpret lyrics, and I’ve been blessed to have some of the greatest lyrics ever.
TP: I’ve been reading up on you. When you were 18 and dropped out of Wilberforce College in Ohio to go with Rusty Bryant’s band, would you say that gift was in place at that time?
WILSON: Yeah. I had a television show when I was 15, with a big band, called “Skyline Melody” in my home town, twice a week. People would call in or write in and request songs, and I would sing their songs for them.
TP: At what point in your career, would you say you got beyond influences?
WILSON: I think I’m a product of everything I ever heard. I know there’s… On, say, the love of the humor, the chit-chat, probably I would say is Dinah Washington. The gowns, the look and whatnot, I loved Lena Horne. The sound? There’s a lot of Jimmy Scott there. The phrasing, there’s a lot of his. I heard male influences when I was 3-4-5.
TP: Nat Cole, Jimmy Scott?
WILSON: Mmm-hmm. Billy Eckstine. I loved Louis Jordan.
TP: This was the music of the day. So you just heard this, and by osmosis it got into your style? Or did you break down those recordings and study them?
WILSON: [LAUGHS] I was 8! No, I didn’t break down anything. I’ve never broken down anything in my life. I don’t even know what that means.
TP: I guess I mean playing the records over and getting whatever you got.
WILSON: No, I never did that. I listened to the song, learned the lyrics, and then I didn’t pay any attention to that any more when I sang my song.
TP: Do you play any instruments?
WILSON: I played piano for a hot minute, but the more I sang, the less I could play. I would be singing and my hands would not be moving.
TP: Would you care to offer a song or two by Billy Eckstine and Dinah Washington and Jimmy Scott that you’d cite as a total favorite or very influential?
WILSON: Dinah Washington, “This Better Earth.” “If It’s The Last Thing I Do” is on my first album. Jimmy Scott, “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So,” “Very Truly Yours.” Billy Eckstine, “Cottage For Sale.”
TP: How much autonomy did you have in choosing either material and/or the people you recorded with when you were with Capitol?
WILSON: Complete. I get asked questions often, “Well, who told you what to do?” and “Who picked material?” It wasn’t like that back in the day. We were artists. We weren’t fodder. Nobody came in and told us what to wear, and how to do this and how to do that, or set us up there and said, “You’re going to sing this.” They submitted songs, I had a management, I had an excellent record company, and my producer was a good guy — Dave Cavanaugh. We sat down and went over many, many things. We went to Broadway for a lot of stuff. We did the best stuff that was out there.
TP: You did a lot of film music, too, it seems like.
TP: This question may be immaterial given your answer to my first question. But in listening back to yourself, if you did at all, can you look upon how your sound has changed over the years?
WILSON: Well, I’m forty years older than when I started recording. The voice has lost maybe… Most of the songs that I sang when I was 22 I still sing in the same key. Rarely do I have to change or drop it down a half-tone. I have a much wider and prettier bottom. I’ve always had that little growl, the whisper; that’s still there. So I haven’t lost a great deal of anything. But if I listen to it, I think I like the Nancy Wilson sound at 50 as much if not more than I did at 20.
Listen to someone like Rosemary Clooney. Same thing. Her voice is just as mellow and beautiful today as it was 30 or 40 years ago. Because they have VOICES. They have naturalvoices. We’ve always sung where it was natural, where we could do it. We weren’t going around singing falsetto, and singing songs all high-pitched and out of our range. We were able to go in a comfort zone. And when you do that, you have a tendency to keep your voice.
TP: Let’s talk about Ramsey Lewis. You met him in the early ’60s.
TP: But you didn’t record until ’84.
WILSON: Right. We did a lot of work together, though. We did a lot of concerts together. My trio, his trio, we would go out and package it.
TP: Apart from being born around the same time and having gone through a lot of similar experiences, what would you say is the cause of the chemistry that you have?
WILSON: He’s funky. When he played, back in the day, The Three Sounds and Ramsey Lewis had two of the swingingest trios out, and… I mean, they could play a ballad and make you cry. And it was soulful. It wasn’t just technique. They touched your heart with their playing. And those were two trios that I thought were very much similar to the kinds of things that I liked. When Cannonball came along with “Mercy, Mercy” and all, unhh!, that stuff was great! That’s the music of my life. That’s the music I like.
TP: I gather this record was done on September 11th?
WILSON: We were supposed to record the first tune on September. We stayed in Chicago and did it the 12th and 13th.
TP: Tell me about the tunes. There are three signature ballads, and “Moondance”…
WILSON: “Moondance” turned out to be really nice. I liked it. It’s a good tune. I heard it by Grady Tate. I heard about Van Morrison, and then I knew that I wanted to do it because I heard Grady, because it was swinging, really singing. Now I will put it on the floor next week at Yoshi’s with my own trio, and we will do it different, probably. We will keep the same tempo, but it won’t be as structured. It will be freer.
TP: Can you tell me about the three ballads you sang?
WILSON: On “First Time Love,” the composer is Patti Austin. I know she sang it; I think it’s her tune. I don’t know who wrote “Did I Ever Really Live?” But I went out and did, oh, like 21 days with Joe Williams a couple of years ago, and he used to do it at the end of his show. I would stand in the wings. I thought it was one of the best songs I ever heard. It’s a beautiful song. Especially when you’re a senior citizen, and you’ve reached the point where you have grandchildren (or I was about to have some hopefully; and I did), then that’s something that you really pay attention to. Brenda Russell wrote “Piano In The Dark.” It was an R&B Pop tune, and I thought it was really apropos for Ramsey.
TP: “Peel Me A Grape” was fun. You got to pull out the stops on that.
WILSON: It was. I remembered it so well by Blossom Dearie when I was a young girl. Then I’ve heard it obviously by so many others. I just thought it had been done very soft and gentle, and I just thought it needed a little more edge! Heh-heh.
TP: Is it just intuitive to you that you treat songs as a dramatist?
TP: You’ve always done it?
WILSON: Always. That’s who I am. That’s what I do.
TP: How much did your early experiences singing in the church inflect your musical personality?
WILSON: Well, I don’t think singing in the church did, but being a child of God did. I couldn’t sing in my church, in the Pentecostal church. I sang in the choir at the Methodist Church. My Mom… I would be out in front with her or her sisters for a few times, being the lead singer at like 12 or 13 with them. But I didn’t consider myself a gospel singer. Because I sang secular music, consequently, I wasn’t able to sing in the choir in my home church.
TP: But in your voice there are so many sounds and techniques that one would associate with that.
WILSON: I think that’s just osmosis. That’s how you grow up and you are what you are.
TP: Did you ever, when you were learning how to sing, emulate instrumentalists as well as other singers? Did you ever think of your voice as an analog to an instrument?
WILSON: No. I was singing lyrics. I was all about what the song said.
TP: And the phrasing was always just whatever the song required.
TP: It’s amazing to have 80 selections that have barely been reissued and encompass so much scope.
WILSON: Yes, that’s what I like about it.
TP: You’re rather emphatic about including some of the material you recorded in Japan in the ’70s and early ’80s. Was there a qualitative difference in attitude for you in recording for the Japanese labels?
WILSON: No. Unh-uh.
TP: You said that they allowed you to be yourself and record who you were.
WILSON: But I was able to do that always. That I was able to record was more important. I couldn’t get a record label in this country. It was good. I had a wonderful producer, a pianist-arranger, Masahiko Satoh, who was brilliant. And I was able to sing, “If You Want To Sing Me, I’ll Be A Song” and “I’m A Balloon,” some really wonderful pieces of material, that were only imported into this country, and I think they should have some exposure now.
TP: Do you have your next recording project in mind?
WILSON: No. I’ve got a lot of work between now and June. Really busy.
TP: You’ll be on the road?
TP: Concerts or clubs?
WILSON: One club, the rest concerts.
TP: What material will you be performing? Things from the new record, or a mix?
WILSON: Some things from the record. Always a mixed bag. Certain songs I have to sing, or the audiences will walk away disappointed.
TP: How do you stay fresh on “Guess Who I Saw Tonight” after you’ve sung it 20,000 times?
WILSON: That song is so great, it does not matter. You can bring something new to that always. You can make it funny, you can make it bitter… It depends on the audience. But it’s still a fabulous tune.
TP: Do you feel that way about all the songs that are signature songs for you?
WILSON: Yes. I don’t mind singing “Save Your Love For Me.” In fact, I study it every now and then. I can sing any of the Shearing things and feel comfortable with them today. Anything from Cannonball, I can do and feel comfortable with. We just changed direction on “The Masquerade Is Over.” We don’t do it as a ballad any more. We’ve funked it up. The guys just had a ball doing it.
TP: How long have been working with this trio now?
WILSON: Twenty years with the drummer and bass player, almost 15 years with the conductor.
TP: What is it about them that makes them so suited for you?
WILSON: Well, they’re excellent. They’re wonderful. The bass player has just got richness and tone, and that’s my major instrument. That’s what I need. I’ve always had a great bass player. And great piano players, too! [LAUGHS]
TP: You may have been asked this 8,000 times for all I know, but if you could name the three arrangers that you most enjoyed working with, who would they be and why?
WILSON: Jimmy Jones, whose harmonic structure was wonderful, who played piano so brilliantly. He was a great accompanist; consequently, he was able to surround the voice with instrumentation that was wonderful. I thought Billy May wrote the best music ever on LUSH LIFE. I love Gerald Wilson and Oliver Nelson on the big band things, and I loved the harmonies and how they phrased the brass sections, and the woodwinds were wonderful. They always did a good job. They were so dependable, and they wrote… Their music just went different places. You can find so many things in their music.
TP: I’m not familiar with everything you did for Capitol, but I’m under the impression you didn’t do too many things with small ensembles.
WILSON: A few.
TP: And you included three tracks with Hank Jones from the BUT BEAUTIFUL record, which are lovely. Why so few?
WILSON: Well, that wasn’t what was being done during that time. I was a supper club singer. I sang with big bands. That was what I did, other than with Cannon and with Shearing. When we were out, we would usually try to have a big band. The only time we didn’t was in some of the concerts and the theaters, like at the Apollo and things like that. But if I was in a club, it was at a supper club with a big band.
TP: Again, do you find yourself approaching the different functions in different ways?
TP: You just go out there and do it.
WILSON: Yes. Actually, it doesn’t change anything. It spans it. I don’t necessarily have to sing anything differently because it goes from rhythm section to 18 pieces? The music is still the same. It still surrounds my voice, as opposed to me having to change because it’s a big band. The music is written for my voice as opposed to being just written for anybody. It is written for me to sing, and it does not get in my way. They write stuff that…it’s really wonderful how they do it. They leave space, open space for me. You could sing the same song exactly the same way with either a rhythm section or an 18-piece band.