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Nancy Wilson, Grammy-Winning Jazz Singer and TV Personality, Dies at 81

Nancy Wilson, one of the most revered jazz singers of the 20th century, has died, her manager told the Associated Press. She was 81.

The singer passed away at her home in Pioneertown, a small California community north of Palm Springs, after a long illness, according to manager Devra Hall.

Wilson’s three Grammy awards spanned a more than 40-year period, with her first coming in 1965 in the Best Rhythm & Blues category for her Capitol single “How Glad I Am.” Her last was in 2007, awarded for Best Jazz Vocal Album for “Turned to Blue,” her final release. (She had seven nominations in all.) Wilson’s recording career actually dates back to 1959, when she released “Like in Love,” an album arranged by the legendary Billy May.

Outside of the music intelligentsia, Wilson may be remembered by millions of TV viewers who recall her 1974-75 NBC variety series, “The Nancy Wilson Show,.” She was frequently a guest herself on the variety shows hosted by Carol Burnett, Andy Williams and Flip Wilson as well as acting on “The Cosy Show” and dramatic series like “The F.B.I.” and “Hawaii 5-O.”

From 1996 through 2005, Wilson was familiar to NPR listeners as the host of “Jazz Profiles,” a documentary series that produced more than 190 episodes. The Peabody-winning series remains available as a podcast.

She retired in 2011 after performing her last concert in Athens, Ohio, saying, “I’m not going to be doing it anymore, and what better place to end it than where I started — in Ohio.”

CREDIT: Stuart Ramson/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Wilson began her career on television in Columbus, Ohio as a teenager before moving to New York City in her 20s, following the advice of Cannonball Adderley, with whom she would later record a collaborative album. Her first record deal was with the Dot label, but upon signing with Capitol, Wilson’s early-’60s sales were said to be behind only the Beatles and ahead of Frank SInatra’s.

Writing about her in 1964, Time magazine said her records should be filed under “See Fitzgerald, Ella, Heir Apparent To.” The publication wrote, “At her opening at Los Angeles’ Coconut Grove last week, the crowd of 1,000 voted her everything but the deed and title to the place. In the ‘great tradition’ of blues, torch and jazz singers that began with Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson leans toward the left wing, where pop meets jazz, a translator of popular standards into the jazz idiom. Her repertory is a treatise on variety and taste, spun by a voice of agile grace and knowing jazz inflection and phrasing. Yet heard in person, she poses a problem. Willowy, tawny, perfectly featured and somehow kissed by ice, she seems sometimes too beautiful for the consistently fey interpretation she gives to the lyrics of her songs.”

Wilson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — and can also be found on the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, honoring her participation in the integration marches of the 1960s. She was also the recipient of a NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award, the United Negro College Fund Trumpet Award and the Oprah Winfrey Legends Award.

Wilson stayed up on contemporary music in her later years and was not a snob about modern pop. After winning her final Grammy, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wilson said, “I love me some Sting. When Police got on stage, I rushed to my seat. I was not going to miss Sting. I got to know Sting and the gentleman that he is when we were both awarded honorary doctoral degrees from [Boston’s] Berklee School of Music on the same day. … The only other person I have a crush on like that is Ludacris. I saw Ludacris at the Oscars, and he had on the best-looking tuxedo of anyone there. He doesn’t know that I have a crush on him.”

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