AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Singer Nancy Wilson has died at her home in Pioneertown, Calif., after a long illness. The Grammy Award winner was 81. Public radio listeners may know Wilson as the host of the NPR series Jazz Profiles. Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Ebony magazine once said Nancy Wilson was a singer whose head, heart and soul always seemed totally enmeshed in her songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUESS WHO I SAW TODAY")
NANCY WILSON: (Singing) You're so late getting home from the office. Did you miss your train? Were you caught in the rain? No, don't bother to explain.
BLAIR: Smooth, elegant, with a wink - in the 1960s, Nancy Wilson was in a league with Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, at times even outselling them. She was beautiful and stylish, appearing on the covers of Ebony and Jet. Focused on her career from a young age, she once said she intentionally set out to make a hit when she recorded the song "You Don't Know How Glad I Am."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T KNOW HOW GLAD I AM")
WILSON: (Singing) I wish I were a poet so I could express what I'd, what I'd like to say.
BLAIR: The song went to No. 2 on the pop charts. Nancy Wilson was born in Chillicothe, Ohio. Her father was an iron foundry worker. Her mother was a domestic worker. Wilson grew up singing. Her grandmother had an organ that her aunts would play. She sang in church and devoured her father's record collection. That's how she first heard the high-pitched voice of singer Little Jimmy Scott. In an episode of Jazz Profiles devoted to Scott, Wilson talked about listening to his records over and over again.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
WILSON: It was as if he was singing just for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN DID YOU LEAVE HEAVEN?")
LITTLE JIMMY SCOTT: (Singing) Can you get back in?
BLAIR: That's Little Jimmy Scott singing. She once said there would be no Nancy Wilson if it weren't for Little Jimmy Scott. Wilson recorded some 70 albums. She was named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts. But she wouldn't be pigeonholed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST IS YET TO COME")
WILSON: (Singing) The best is yet to come, and, babe, won't it be fine? You think you've seen the sun, but you ain't seen it shine.
BLAIR: Her career went beyond music. She hosted her own variety show on NBC and appeared as a guest on many others. She was an NAACP Image Award winner and active in the civil rights movement, including the 1965 march on Selma, Ala. Nancy Wilson looked for songs that told stories. On NPR's Piano Jazz, she told host Marian McPartland she tried to tell those stories from the heart.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
WILSON: I really love a good lyric. I like songs that have a story. I want a beginning, a middle and an end. I think I try to close my eyes, and then I become wherever that song is. And that's what's so special about them.
BLAIR: Nancy Wilson did not want a funeral, according to a family statement. A celebration of her life is being planned. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF NANCY WILSON SONG, "FACE IT GIRL, IT'S OVER")
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