This week at the DAILY I am posting about “song stylists” I have always loved. Indeed, that is what Nancy Wilson insisted was her favorite description of her artistry since she felt at home in so many genres and brought her signature class to all of them. I adored her when I was a boy back in Mississippi and was thrilled when she was on a Merv or Johnny or Mike or a variety show. She even had her own variety hour for one season around 1967.
There were four Wilsons I latched onto that kept me company in that boyhood back in Mississippi. There was Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace. I was as bemused by “Good Ole Mr. Wilson” as Dennis was. Sometime I identified more with Mr. Wilson than Dennis. It was Mr. Wilson’s steamed affection for bad-boy behavior – so beautifully played by Joseph Kearns even if he weren’t a bad boy himself – or maybe once was which is why his affection is steamy. After filming the show’s 100th episode, Kearns died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Gale Gordon came onto the show to play Mr., Wilson’s brother. But it wasn’t the same. I missed “Good Ole Mr. Wilson.”
Another Wilson was named Flip. I adored his variety show. His character Geraldine brought drag into the mainstream much like Milton Berle did earlier. I could mimic Geraldine and feel hip and be up on the latest pop culture and not gay or sissy or too flamboyant. Plus, even as child I joked I was a black woman in a former life. So I got to be one in this one. And I got to talk like Flip talking like Geraldine so that remove gave me permission and made it less racist that a little white boy was speaking in the dialect that Flip used for Geraldine – even though I wasn’t evolved enough yet to realize that. I never even wondered if Flip were gay. He was just Flip. In fact, I’ve never wondered that about him until I just typed that sentence. I adored his show and the audience-in-the-round format and how a black man had become such a mainstream star – even doing drag. Or maybe that is why he did. It emasculated him in some way and he was less a threat to America. Geraldine was one of the great television characters. Do people still reference Flip Wilson? He has sort of been forgotten. I am referencing him today. I have not forgotten him.
And then there was Brian Wilson even though I was not a big Beach Boys fan. I just knew he was an iconoclast, was considered an artist, had some mental issues and was the serious one in the group and without him those guys would just be singing at weddings in Malibu. I tried to be interested in him more than I really was because I knew I should if I wanted to be interesting – and smart people I knew liked him. I always tried to do what smart people did back then until I could maybe be smart myself. But I just couldn’t work up much interest in him or the group. I wasn’t a West Coast guy about music until all those singers and musicians who were all fucking each other and writing songs and cross pollinating in the sounds studios and each other’s bedrooms moved into Topanga Canyon and David Geffen signed most of them. I actually liked just one of the Beach Boys albums – Surf’s Up. Mostly for the song “Disney Girls.”
Nancy Wilson was no Disney girl. I couldn’t imagine her ever being a girl at all she was so grown-up and self-possessed with that carefully contained class of hers, which she kept corralled until she released it at just the right moment when she was acting one of her songs. She was an actress when mining a lyric. Not like Mabel Mercer whose reticence and class were kept corralled as well but all the emotion swirled as subtext beneath the lyrics, lyrics she declared on the song’s beat more than she sang her repertoire. Mabel Mercer was also a song stylist – the epitome – but so much of her style was in her silence and when she chose to pause – often in a middle of a line. I loved it when when Wilson released that corralled class, then suprisingly rode it, galloping with reins held tightly, in her hit “Guess Who I Saw Today” because you just knew once she got it back in the corral it’s flanks would be twitching and her thighs would be humming from the ride and both would be elated to be back home together and rid of the man she saw. No feeling sorry for herself, this woman whose thighs hum with class.
Although she won one of her three Grammys for rhythm and blues – the other two were for jazz – she really wasn’t suited for R&B because of that innate class – it wasn’t hard-won and you’ve got to live a life of winning hard to sing some music. It wasn’t an easy life but her belief in her talent gave her purpose and poise. Plus, her growled notes always turned into a purr looking for perfection, which isn’t quite right for rhythm and blues which likes a little imperfection thrown in to keep it real. Her innate class got in the way. But make no mistake she could growl. She built her persona around it in a way. She might have been called “The Girl with the Honey-Coated Voice” but it was the growl mixed with that which gave it the Nancy Wilson kickl. I bet she was growling already when she was a girl at only four years old when she discovered she could sing and people were giving her affirmation and attention. I like to imagine her just thinking about all that attention, well, glad you agree with me. She sang in churches but she also went to the juke joint down the block when she was old enough back in Ohio where her father worked in an iron foundry and her mother was a maid. “That juke joint down on the block had a great jukebox and there I heard Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown, LaVerne Baker, Little Esther“. She would curl up with her father and listen to the albums he brought home – Billy Eckstein, Nat King Cole, Jimmy Scott, and Count Basie.
She dropped out of college and headed to New York to pursue her dreams of a singing career after she met Cannonball Adderly who told her to get her ass to the city and look up his manager. Here is a paragraph from Encyclopedia Brittanica about Adderly: “The son of a jazz cornetist, Adderley had directed a high school band in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, his home state, studied at the U.S. Navy School of Music, and led two army bands before moving to New York City in the mid-1950s. In the summer of 1955, Adderley attracted attention within New York jazz circles, garnering rave reviews for his performances with bassist Oscar Pettiford at the Café Bohemia. In 1957 Adderley embarked upon an 18-month stint with trumpeter Miles Davis, which proved to be one of the most fertile and creative periods in the careers of both men. Playing in Davis’s sextet alongside saxophone John Coltrane, Adderley favoured a busy style that contrasted well with Davis’s spare understatement.”
One of my favorite albums is the one that Nancy Wilson made with Cannonball in 1962 for Capital. Plus, she’s wearing a yellow dress on the cover. She always looked great in yellow. Here is a cut from that album.
STARS IN BLACK TURTLENECKS
NANCY IN ANOTHER YELLOW DRESS
Cannonball and Miles. “Somethin’ Else.” Cannonball and Nancy sure were.