Nancy Wilson doesn't play clubs, she plays to win
Written with Cedar Sigo
Nancy Wilson has been quoted as saying that she doesn't play clubs, she plays Yoshi's. That's the truth this weekend, especially on Feb. 20, when Miss Wilson will be celebrating her 73rd birthday on stage with a pair of shows. There is only one Nancy Wilson, only one singer who can bring a fusion of longing and attractiveness to a recording such as "He's My Guy." On the occasion of her birthday and upcoming Bay Area visit, I asked someone near and dear to me, the poet Cedar Sigo, if he'd like to interview Miss Wilson. He did.
SFBG It's always a pleasure to hear you live. I have so many of your recordings, from the Capitol and Columbia albums to the more recent ones, and some of the live tracks really stand out to me.
NANCY WILSON I love [The Nancy Wilson Show] Live at the Coconut Grove (1965, Capitol).
SFBG Listening to "Don't Take Your Love From Me" [off The Nancy Wilson Show], it's a recording, nothing visual, but I can see you under the spotlight.
NW I understand what you're saying.
SFBG Over the years, have you gotten a lot of crazy fan mail?
NW No, it's been calm. I haven't had a lot of crazies in my career.
SFBG Have fans painted portraits of you?
NW I've gotten some portraits [laughs]. Some of which were quite good. One was not at all good.
SFBG I've always been fascinated by your image, particularly during your albums with Columbia. Did you work with one particular stylist?
NW I never had a stylist.
SFBG The cover of Something Wonderful (Capitol, 1960) is terrific.
NW Oh yeah. My hands on my knees, right?
SFBG That's the kind of music I put on when I'm trying to look totally hot and go out for the night. More recently, I like R.S.V.P. (MCG, 2004).
NW It's hard to find songs, in fact I was just talking to MCG the other day and saying, 'Just go through Gershwin and Cole Porter and Billy Strayhorn — is there anything I haven't done?' Finding something I have not recorded, that's the hardest thing. I've done so many of the really great things already, and finding things of the same caliber is difficult.
SFBG When you were recording for Capitol, would you do many albums in a year?
NW At Capitol, we'd record every six months. Myself, Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Tennessee Ernie Ford.
SFBG Are you still a quick study with a song? The impression I get is that you can instinctively or innately put your stamp on a song.
NW I just sing. I am what I am. It's painless, it's not a painful process.
SFBG When I listen to "Blame It on My Youth" [on R.S.V.P.], I think that your voice is not that different from when you first recorded. How do you account for that?
NW I don't!
SFBG The same applies regarding your face, your body, your spirit.
NW Hey, listen, it is what it is!
SFBG I've heard you acknowledge Dinah Washington and Jimmy Scott as vocal influences.
NW Dinah — more the humor. Jimmy Scott, the sound and the phrasing. I guess my dad had recordings of when Jimmy was with Lionel Hampton. I was about 10, I guess. When he came out with his own album, my dad bought that, and I loved it. It just so happens that we phrase similarly, not so much that we sound alike. We phrase alike.
SFBG Yes, the long notes. Are there others besides Dinah Washington and Jimmy Scott you'd name?
NW Lena Horne.
SFBG What about instrumentalists?
NW I don't know that any instrumentalists have influenced my vocal style. I don't know that anyone has influenced my vocal style. I don't recall wanting to be like or sound like anybody. It's just been there.
SFBG That is completely true of you. It's common for people to talk about a singer sounding like an instrument, but you've always brought a sense of drama.
NW I'm a lyric person. I'm not interested in vocalizing. I want to get the story across.
SFBG It seems now that the art of being an entertainer as well as a great singer is being lost. You bring that.
NW Yes. Hopefully it will come back, and there will be places for people to learn and hone their craft. It's out there, you just have to hunt for it, whereas what I sing today was the pop music back in the day.
SFBG Lena Horne, whom you mentioned earlier, is an example of someone who could sing but also entertain.
SFBG One of my favorite of your albums is I Know I Love Him (Capitol, 1973). That one has "Don't Misunderstand," by Gordon Parks.
NW I'm the godmother to one of his children. I love Gordon.
SFBG Did he write a lot of music?
NW No. I don't know where that one came from. But it's a goodie.
SFBG Do you enjoy playing in the Bay Area?
NW I love Yoshi's. I love that club.
SFBG It's a nice size.
NW It's the perfect size. If you're going to choose a place to hang out and have some fun with a guy, that's the place to do it.
SFBG I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing you there again.
NW There are certain songs I'll have to sing — "I Can't Make You Love Me" and "Guess Who [I Saw Today]?" Certain songs, you've just got to do them.
SFBG I don't think people would let you off stage until you've done "Guess Who [I Saw Today]?" [Laughs] Songs like that one and "Face It Girl, It's Over" have a gay appeal. Have you always had a strong gay following?
NW I would assume so. [Laughs]
SFBG Going to see you, one of the best things is the audience — they're usually a great group of people who seem happy to be together.
NW I've been blessed, I've been fortunate.
SFBG Thank you. It's an honor to talk with you after appreciating your music for so long.
NW I'm glad you called. It was enjoyable just to talk with someone who knows the body of work and appreciates it.
Thurs/18–Sat/20, 8 and 10 p.m., $50
510 Embarcadero West, Oakl.