Nancy Wilson AKA “The Girl With The Honey Coated Voice” Has Died Following Long Illness
Grammy-winning singer and actress Nancy Wilson died Thursday at her home in Pioneertown, Calif, following a long illness, according to her manager Devra Hall Levy. Wilson was 81.
Nancy Wilson was born on Feb. 20, 1937, in Chillicothe, Ohio. According to NY Times reports, she was the first of six children born to Olden Wilson, who was a supervisor at an iron foundry, and Lilian Ryan, a maid. It was her father who introduced her to music, exposing her to the recordings of primarily male artists, like Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine and Jimmy Scott, when he sang with Lionel Hampton’s Big Band. Wilson later noted on record to the Los Angeles Times that much of her phrasing was similar to Scott’s.
By the age of 4, Wilson was singing actively, and she became her choir’s lead singer at just 10. At 15, Wilson won a contest held by WTVN which landed her a twice a week gig on their show “Skyline Melodies,” and she spent the rest of her high school years singing at nightclubs, sometimes with Sir Raleigh Randolph and His Sultans of Swing, an 18-piece band. She spent a year in college at Central State in Ohio but dropped out to pursue music full time. Wilson toured the U.S. and Canada with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band, and did her first recordings with the band for Dot Records.
In 1959, she made a pivotal move to New York, where she signed with jazz manager John Levy, landed a contract with Capitol Records and released her debut album ‘Like In Love,’ produced by David Cavanaugh (who worked with Nat King Cole) in April 1960. Wilson would go on to become one of Capitol’s top-selling acts, at one point she was second only to the Beatles. Famous for her skills as a live performer, she raked in $30,000 a week from concert engagement in her prime. Over the years Wilson, recorded a number of different genres, preferring to call herself a “song stylist.”
After Wilson married her first husband, drummer Kenny Dennis in 1960, the pair started a management, music publishing, and TV production company that reportedly grossed $1 million a year, according to Mercury News reports.
In addition to her singing career, Wilson had a robust acting resume. She was one of the first black spokeswomen to appear in national radio and TV ads for products ranging from Campbell’s soup to Thunderbird wine. She was in commercials for Stroh’s beer, Johnson & Johnson baby products and Infiniti. She had her own self-titled NBC variety show in 1966 and made numerous appearances on similar shows hosted by Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett and Andy Williams. She sang on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show,” acted on “I Spy” and played Clair Huxtable’s mother on “The Cosby Show” and Sinbad’s mother on his sitcom “The Sinbad Show” in the ’90’s.
Wilson was a lifelong activist, marching in the 1965 protest in Selma, Ala and participating in other protests. She was a spokeswoman for the Urban League and promoted AIDS awareness, prenatal care and breast-cancer screenings in the black community. She received an award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in 1993, and an N.A.A.C.P. 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.
Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1970, but she wed a second time, in 1973 to Rev. Wiley Burton, who died in 2008.
Wilson is survived by a son from her first marriage, Kacy Dennis; two daughters from her second marriage, Samantha Burton and Sheryl Burton; two sisters; and five grandchildren.
As part of Wilson’s wishes, there will be no funeral service, a family statement said. A celebration of her life will be held most likely in February, the month of her birth.
Since news of her passing last night there have been a flood of tributes from famous friends and fans. Hit the flip to see some of them.
Country singer Nancy Wilson shared anecdotes about going through life with the same name.