The Vault of Soul: Nancy Wilson

The Vault of Soul, WERS 88.9 FM, Nancy Wilson
Graphics by Celia Abbott

Each week of Black History Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul with profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into Nancy Wilson’s legacy, from her trailblazing in the music and television industries to the incredible body of work she leaves behind. 


By Isabella Kohn, Staff Writer



Born February 20 in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1937, Nancy Wilson was a Jazz and pop-soul music icon, whose unique style stands on the same side of history as that of vocalists like Nat King Cole. Her distinct classy and classic voice had a magic touch that made original tracks and covers alike soar through the charts, only standing second to the Beatles and surpassing fellow jazz and pop pioneers like Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Peggy Lee, and King Cole. 

Her love for music began at the young age of four. Growing up, she mostly showcased her talent through her church choir. Her father’s taste in music records also took part in her growing passion. By the time she was a 15-year-old high schooler, she won a television talent show and became a regular guest on the show Skyline Melodies. At that age, she had also worked in several nightclubs. Then, in 1956 at 17 years old, she recorded her first record with Dot Records in collaboration with an R&B band Rusty Bryant's Carolyn Club Big Band.

While many critics and publications would refer to Nancy as a jazz artist, she only considered herself a singer and interpreter of songs. Based on what she shared in past interviews, Wilson loved artists like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae, but was first raised and influenced as a teen by R&B artists early in her life. Artists such as Louis Jordan, Ruth Brown, the Drifters, the Coasters, LaVern Baker and ‘Little’ Esther Phillips made a huge impact in her life.



Her lengthy discography contains gem after gem of soulful music, which accredited her as a pioneer in the jazz and pop scenes of the late 50s. Several of her tracks were written by famous composers like Angelo Badalamenti. Famous collaborations included renowned saxophonist, Cannonball Adderley (1962) on the album Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, pianist Ramsey Lewis on The Two of Us (1984), and James Ingram on the album Love, Nancy. Her rise to stardom began with a Cannonball Adderley collaboration, 1963’s “Tell Me the Truth.”

It was Adderley’s influence that led young Nancy to move to New York City in 1959. She found a job at the Blue Morocco Night Club in the Bronx, where she met Adderley's agent. She signed with Capitol Records the very next year. 1960 marked the beginning of her stardom with her debut single, “Guess Who I Saw Today.” 



Wilson’s influential talent caught national attention in the 1966 debut of her Emmy Award-winning NBC television show The Nancy Wilson Show, which later was made into a successful soundtrack album. She made appearances on shows like The Andy Williams Show and occasionally pursued some acting gigs, quickly gaining recognition for all of her creative talents and endeavors. She was a trailblazer as one of the first African American Women to host a television show. 

Nancy took her song and lyric interpreting techniques and skillfully repurposed them into interpreting scripts for television from the early 1970s through early 2000s.
Her longevity was a testament to her success, and also to her choices, which at times included being strong enough to say ‘no.’ She retired in 2011, yet remained active in the music industry through mentorship of young artists and philanthropy. 

Nancy Wilson passed away in 2018 at the age of 81, leaving behind a legacy of magnificent and pioneering work in the music and television industries. To this day, she remains one of the most influential figures in the jazz and pop music scene, inspiring countless musicians and performers across the United States.



Nancy Wilson’s style was greatly influenced by the records her father would play when she was a young girl. Amongst the most influential musicians were:

  • Nat King Cole
  • Jimmy Scott
  • Billy Eckstine
  • Dinah Washington 
  • Ruth Brown
  • The Drifters
  • LaVern Baker



Nancy Wilson was (and still is) recognized for her unique style and groundbreaking contributions to jazz and pop music as a woman of color in the fifty-plus years she was active. Because of this, fellow artists and performers across genres looked to her for inspiration in their craft. Amongst these artists are: 

  • Natalie Cole
  • Whitney Houston
  • Roberta Flack 
  • Diana Krall 
  • Dianne Reeves 
  • Gregory Porter 
  • Patti Austin 
  • Rachel Farrel
  • Phyllis Hyman
  • Esperanza Spalding



  • Grammys, Best Rhythm & Blues for “How Glad I Am” (1965)
  • NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist (1988)
  • Inducted into Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame (1999)
  • Grammys, Best Jazz vocal album for R.S.V.P (Rare Songs, Very Personal) (2004)
  • Grammys, Best Jazz vocal album for Turned to Blue (2006)
  • Soul Music Hall of Fame (2013)




If I had two words to describe this track, I would say sweet and mellow. “Save Your Love for Me” is the type of song that you close your eyes to, and — if you are a hopeless romantic like myself — envision a love so beautiful that even if it's painful, you know you’ll walk back right into each other's arms. “Darling please save your love for me,” sings Nancy Wilson after expressing she would run away from her lover, saying she would be “wise” if she did. Yet, she loves this person so much that she is debilitated, and cannot do anything but love this person. Essentially, this is a song for the hopeless romantics out there who enjoy sweet tunes like myself. I must add that her charming voice makes the song all the more magical. 



This Track is one of those R&B gems in Nancy Wilson’s discography. Having won a Grammy for the song, it is one of her biggest hits, loved for its upbeat rhythm, yet tender and sweet lyricism. “My love has no beginning, my love has no end” is the opening line of the song and a sentiment expressed throughout it. Wilson later mentions she is “lost” in the “middle” of loving someone. She goes on, singing that she wishes she were “a poet” or “artist” so that she could properly express her feelings which she is glad to face — hence the title. 



Unlike the two tracks above, this love song embodies the sentiment of a woman who realizes her love is over. “Give me strength enough to take it, take it as a woman should,” she sings all the while background vocals say, “You better face it, girl.” Her singing in this song is powerful, getting the message across that she is on a mission to face her fading love. 



This track belongs to one of Nancy’s highest-charting albums Yesterday’s Love Songs/Today’s Blues. Written by Tony Bennet, “The Best is Yet to Come” was originally made popular by Frank Sinatra and is quite often associated with the musician's career. Nancy Wilson’s rendition is a wonderful twist to the song and is definitely worth a listen if you are a big fan of Sinatra and Nancy Wilson! 


Nancy Wilson always loved singing and resisted being boxed by categorizations. She took her craft as a performer and singer very seriously— better labels would include storyteller; interpreter of wonderful lyrics. While she wanted to have a career, she also desired to be a whole person— a daughter to her parents, and a wife, as well as a mother to her children. Because of this, the idea of performing for months on end didn’t appeal to her. Making quality songs and music with quality musicians always meant more. The bottom line for Nancy Wilson gave the best within her. We, the audience, were more than fine with the results and all the more better for hearing her. 


You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more. 

Interested in exploring the soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Or, take a deep dive into R&B, hip-hop and the legendary voices of soul alongside new and pioneering MCs by streaming ERS+.

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