Visible Women

Why you need to know about Grammy award winning jazz singer Nancy Wilson’s remarkable life

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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The pioneering crooner passed away today and the world is commemorating her life and achievements. 

The road from the town of Selma to Montgomery is about 80 kilometres long.

In March, 1965, it was this road that protesters took as they walked through the state of Alabama to demand that Black citizens be granted the same voting rights as white Americans. Twice they were driven back by barricades of state troopers, even though they were led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Finally, on 21 March, under protection from federal troops, around 3,200 people left Selma, walking for four days and spending their nights in fields. By the time the group reached Alabama’s state capitol of Montgomery, the protesters had swollen to a group numbering 25,000, including Nancy Wilson, at that point one of the most successful jazz singers of the time.

Wilson was an active supporter of civil rights, recognised by the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change with an award for her efforts in 1993, an N.A.A.C.P Hall of Fame Image Award in 1998 and was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2005.

Yesterday, she died at the age of 81. Today, the world celebrates her incredible life and career. 

Who was Nancy Wilson?

Born on 20 February 1937, Wilson was one of the most respected jazz singers in America, known for her “honey-coated voice” and her female empowerment anthems. 

She began singing at the age of four and grew up listening to the musical stylings of Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown, honing her talent for singing in her local church choir.

Nancy Wilson

After winning a singing contest at the age of 15 she was catapulted into the music industry, first joining a band and then breaking out on her own in New York. 

She was signed by Capitol Records in 1960, released an incredible five albums between the April 1960 and July 1962, before reaching new levels of fame in 1964, when four of her albums broke into Billboard’s top 10 charts. Her biggest hit came in 1964 when her single (You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am reached number 11 on the Billboard charts. Over the course of her career, Wilson recorded and released more than 70 albums over five decades.

She won five Grammy Awards, including Best Rhythm and Blues recording for 1964’s (You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am and two further Grammys in 2005 and 2007 for her most recent jazz albums. 

Nancy Wilson celebrating her most recent Grammy win

“I have a gift for telling stories, making them seem larger than life,” Wilson told The Los Angeles Times. “I love the vignette, the plays within the song.” 

Her trailblazing career

Wilson was an important figure outside the realm of music, too. Alongside her award-winning work with the civil rights movement, she also became a recognisable figure in the world of entertainment. She hosted her own day-time television program, the Emmy award-winning Nancy Wilson Show on NBC in 1967, becoming one of the few African American women to do so. 

She also made guest appearances on several television shows of the sixties and seventies, including Hawaii Five-O, Soul Food, The Carol Burnett Show and I Spy.

She will be remembered as a supremely skilled singer and advocate for civil rights. She is survived by her three children Sheryl Burton, Samantha Burton and Kenneth (Kacy) Dennis Jr.

“Nothing else gives me quite so much satisfaction,” she once said. “These are people I have walked with, held hands with, prayed with. This is home for me. My shoes and my footprints are home.” 

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign aims to raise the profiles of women in politics – and inspire future generations to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.

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