Joe221

THE BONGOS throb, the spotlights shine through a sea of tuxedoed and bejeweled Hollywood revelers, the potted palm trees come aglow – and onto the stage glides Nancy Wilson, Capitol Records’ brightest young star. It was July of 1964, and Wilson had just opened at the Cocoanut Grove, a South Sea Island of a showroom where Sinatra, Lena Horne, and other top-tier names performed. Wilson was no newcomer: Capitol had issued her first LP in 1960, and from there the beautiful singer had ascended into TV and prestigious clubs with an ease unmatched by almost any black entertainer before her.

But her Grove debut was special; it would be recorded and covered nationally. “If that opening night was successful then the longevity was established,” she explained. And so it was, for in 2007, when she made that remark, Wilson celebrated her seventieth birthday at Carnegie Hall. By then she had done over fifty albums and influenced a flock of young songbirds, just as clearly as Dinah Washington had inspired her. Audiences at the Grove saw a smiling figure with ladylike poise and a haughty confidence; they heard a singer with attitude. Wilson’s icy wail carried a sting; she stretched and bent phrases until they trembled with tension. She might start a line all hushed and breathy, then spit out its key word of love. Her humor, borrowed from Washington, had an edge of steel. Wilson was no wounded torch singer on a trail of tears, but a clear-minded achiever who represented a new age of accomplishment for black women.

The show preserved on this album was created for her by Luther Henderson, Horne’s former conductor; and Martin Charnin, a director, librettist, and the future lyric-writer of
Annie. It helped land her in Time – some coup for a choir-singing girl from Chillicothe, Ohio. With gut determination she’d scored her own TV show at fifteen; Capitol signed her at twenty-two. The label teamed her with several jazz giants – Billy May, Cannonball Adderley, George Shearing – but Wilson had her eye on something broader: “The supper clubs were what we wanted.”

Her Cocoanut Grove debut helped seal a banner year in her life. In January 1964 she had joined Bing Crosby and Mickey Rooney on the premiere of TV’s smash variety series,
The Hollywood Palace; later she recorded a pop-R&B hit, “How Glad I Am,” that won her a Grammy. Her show at the Grove had to aim high. That’s why Wilson and her Capitol producer, Dave Cavanaugh, enlisted Henderson, a pianist and arranger who had collaborated with Duke Ellington. By the time he died in 2003 he’d arranged over forty Broadway shows.

His act for Wilson started with
Fireworks, a flagwaver from a recent Broadway hit, Do Re Mi. The Music That Makes Me Dance was the showstopping eleven-o’clock number from Funny Girl, the musical that cemented Barbra Streisand’s stardom. Every club act needed “special material,” and Wilson scored with Don’t Talk, Just Sing, written for her by two Oscar-winners, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.

There are torch songs here, but she refused to sing as a victim. She’d heard Nina Simone’s brooding rendition of Irving Berlin’s
You Can Have Him, the lament of a woman whose submissive doting can’t keep her man home. Wilson steeps it in sarcasm and defiance – the same qualities she brings to Guess Who I Saw Today?, her first single and enduring trademark. As introduced on Broadway in New Faces of 1952, the song depicted a housewife in pained confrontation with her untrue husband; when Wilson sings it she slowly twists the knife, making her philandering mate squirm. In The Saga of Bill Bailey, Henderson’s updating of a Dixieland standard, Wilson is on a mission, demanding that the man she scorned come back at once.

She flexes her jazz chops in Ellington’s
I’m Beginning to See the Light. A fine rhythm section spurs her on – pianist Ronnell Bright, bassist Buster Williams, and her husband Kenny Dennis on drums – as well as the Grove’s resident orchestra, normally led by swing-era bandleader Freddy Martin.

The Nancy Wilson Show gave the singer one more powerful boost. The next year she sang at the Oscars, while continuing a relationship with Capitol that lasted through 1980. Recalling this album, Wilson saw no need for modesty: “It was one of the great acts ever written.”

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2007

[James Gavin, the author of
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is writing a biography of Lena Horne for Simon & Schuster.]