Updated: Aug 20, 2021
In June 1959, singer Nancy Wilson hopped on a train (back when you could do that sort of thing in Columbus) and went to New York City to pursue her dream. By the end of the year, she got a regular gig at Blue Morocco, was signed to Capitol Records, and had recorded her first album, Like In Love. She’d go on to become the most successful “song stylist” ever to emerge from Columbus with three Grammys, an Emmy, over 100 albums, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Capitol Records - T-1319 (mono), ST-1319 (stereo)
Any discussion of Columbus music has to include Nancy Wilson, and her stature is such that she should come up early in that discussion. But somehow her legacy has always seemed tainted by the debate over whether she was too pop for jazz or too jazz for pop. The obsession over authenticity and non-commerciality in jazz is mystifying to me. It’s music - do you like it or not? The AllMusic review of Like In Love calls Wilson’s vocal style Sarah Vaughn-meets-Dinah Washington. That perfectly encapsulates her art and commerce gumbo, which is no sin. She didn’t write much, which probably prevents her from reaching the upper echelons. Fair enough.
Wilson accomplished quite a lot musically before leaving Columbus for the bright lights. She hosted Skyline Melody on local TV, an experience which probably didn’t hurt in eventually getting a show on NBC and developing an acting career. She got her first serious gig touring with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club band with whom she recorded Don’t Tell Me, which was largely unknown until being released on Verve’s Jazz Divas: Gold compilation in 2007. Hank Marr wrote Sweet Nancy about her.
Capitol must have felt they had something special considering how quickly she was signed and how little expense was spared starting with Like In Love. Capitol quickly flew her out to LA and paired her with arranger Billy May (Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole) and heavy hitters like Willie Smith and Benny Carter to record Like In Love. Immediately on the first track, On The Street Where You Live, we hear the confidence and signature style she’d showcase the rest of her career. It’s no surprise that the 22-year-old had already been honing her craft for seven years at this point. She was already a pro.
Billy May’s arrangements are tasteful and support Wilson’s vocal style perfectly. If you’ve heard and dug any of May’s big band charts with Frank Sinatra, you’ll probably like this too. At times, like on Almost Like Being In Love, her style can come across as too breezy for me, but you have to give her credit for putting her stamp on these songs with her unique style and phrasing. As a debut, it’s mighty impressive. For me, I’m a sucker for the slower stuff and the vibraphone on tracks like In Other Words.
Here’s Nancy’s take on her start from a 2010 JazzWax interview:
NW: I thought Rusty Bryant’s band was perfect for me to hone my craft. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to go to New York sooner than I did. But I played with a lot of local bands before Rusty.
JW: For example?
NW: I remember working with a big band—Sir Raleigh Randolph and His Sultans of Swing in Ohio [laughs]. I played the maracas and sang three songs a set. I was 16 years old. My dad would go with me as my bodyguard. But he didn’t have to. At age 16 I was driving and was very responsible. I was adult even when I was a kid [laughs].
JW: Were you being urged to make the leap to New York sooner?
JW: But there must have been something else holding you back.
NW: I was a big fish in a small pond in the Columbus area. I had had a TV show at age 15. That experience did a lot for me. It gave me confidence, but it also gave me a taste of what would be coming. So I already knew and found I wasn’t impatient. It wasn't fear. It was knowledge. When you take that kind of step, there’s no going back. You’re in it. Either you’re prepared and succeed or you fall short and never get another shot. I didn’t go to New York until I was 22 years old. I worked those seven years preparing for New York.
Released in April 1960, Like In Love is where Nancy Wilson's rise to the big time started. By October, she’d be back in the studio with Billy May recording her follow-up, Something Wonderful. No sophomore slump for Nancy - her second album is still considered one of her best. And she’d continue recording every six months or so for the duration of her time at Capitol. Just an amazing talent and one of Columbus’ finest.
A2 Night Mist
B5 All Of You
Conductor – Billy May
Producer – Dave Cavanaugh*, Tom Morgan
Nancy Wilson – vocals
Willie Smith –alto saxophone
Benny Carter – alto saxophone (1–2, 4–6, 8–9, 11–12)
Jules Jacob – saxophone (3–5, 7, 10–12)
Charles Gentry – saxophone (3–5, 7, 10–12)
William Ulyate – saxophone (1–2, 4–6, 8–9, 11–12)
Jerome Kasper – saxophone (1–2, 6, 8–9)
Fred Falensby – saxophone (1–2, 6, 8–9)
Milt Bernhart – trombone (1–2, 4–6, 8–9, 11–12)
Tommy Pederson - trombone (3, 7, 10)
Milt Raskin – piano
Jack Marshall – guitar (1–3, 6–10)
Bob Gibbons – guitar (4–5, 11–12)
Myer Rubin – double bass (1–2, 4-6, 8–9, 11–12)
Joe Mondragon – double bass (3, 7, 10)
Irving Cottler – drums (1–3, 6–10)
Stan Levey – drums (4–5, 11–12)
Emil Richards – drums (3, 7, 10)