Legendary 'Song Stylist' Nancy Wilson Dies at 81

Nancy Wilson poses with her award for ‘Best Jazz Vocal Album’ backstage during the 47th Annual Grammy Awards February 13, 2005 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo: Carlo Allegri (Getty Images)

Nancy Sue Wilson, the award-winning singer who lent her vocal instrument to the world for over five decades, has died at the age of 81. Wilson’s publicist confirmed that the iconic singer died at her home in Pioneertown, Calif., on Thursday following a long illness, according to Deadline. A specific cause of death hasn’t been disclosed.

Wilson was born on February 20, 1937 in Chillcote, Ohio, and began her singing journey in church. After winning a talent contest in high school, Wilson toured Ohio and later moved to New York at the recommendation of Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley. She would later record several prominent albums with the acclaimed jazz alto saxophonist.

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With notable songs such as “Guess Who I Saw Today,” “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” “The Things We Did Last Summer,” and “He’s My Guy,” Wilson firmly etched her place in music history as an undeniable talent. She won three Grammys and charted on the Billboard Top 20. In fact, the songstress was once known as one of the best-sellers at Capitol Records, next to the Beatles.

In 2004, she was awarded a “Jazz Masters Fellowship” for lifetime achievement by The National Endowment for the Arts.

In “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers” jazz historian and critic Will Friedwald described Wilson as “the most important vocalist to come along after these three genres [pop, jazz, and blues] were codified and move freely among them.”

Though primarily known as a jazz singer, Wilson actually resisted the label, preferring the term “song stylist,” according to the Washington Post.

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“That’s my essence,” she told the publication at the time, “to weave words, to be dramatic.”

A woman of many talents, Wilson also embarked on a television, film and radio career, appearing in Hawaii Five-O, Meteor Man and hosting NPR’s Jazz Profile series for several years. She also became one of the first black spokeswomen in national commercial ads, representing brands such as Thunderbird wine and Campbell’s Soup. Additionally, Wilson was an activist during the civil rights era and participated in the famed Selma march in 1965. Further, she used her notoriety to champion causes such as literacy and education for low-income black children, prenatal care, breast-cancer screenings and AIDS awareness.

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After making her mark as a master of utilizing her powerful crescendo to evoke emotion through her “torch songs,” Wilson retired from touring in 2011.

Married twice, Wilson is survived by her son, Kacy Dennis, daughters Samantha Burton and Cheryl Burton, and five grandchildren. According to Wilson’s family statement, there will be no funeral services. Instead, a celebration of her life will likely be held during her birth month of February.

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My personal tribute to Ms. Wilson is simple and heartfelt: I vividly remember the day I found out she wasn’t the original singer of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” realizing it was, in fact, Bonnie Raitt. Through my jazz-aficionado mother, Wilson’s music raised me and I don’t know a day without her voice. And I certainly never will.

Rest in power, Nancy Wilson.

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Tonja Renée Stidhum

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.