What is the most elegant chanteuse on the supper club circuit doing in Pioneertown?
The collection of Nancy Wilson vinyl LP's from the Sixties gathers dust on the bookshelf, elegant reminders of a pre-digital age, refreshingly old-fashioned in this chilly new world of shiny CD's. Those '60s covers had gumption, though, give them that much: "This monophonic microgroove recording," it reads on the back, "is playable on monophonic or stereo phonographs. It cannot become obsolete."
Talk about optimistic. The claim for non-obsolescence missed the mark on technology, of course, but it certainly applies well enough to the music Miss Wilson recorded on these discs nearly 40 years ago, works that have stood the test of time. Amazingly, when heard again recently, many of these performances show absolutely no sign of age.
Take "Guess Who I Saw Today," for example, a song she recorded for her second Capitol album, Something Wonderful, in 1962.
"You're so late getting home from the office," she begins, in her trademark sophisticated, breathless style. "Did you miss your train? Were you caught in the rain?" Her voice is mocking. "No, don't bother to explain….
"Can I fix you a quick martini?," she continues, playing the role of the dutiful '50's housewife only coated with a veneer of irony and sarcasm. "As a matter of fact, I'll have one with you." Then a big pause for effect. "For to tell you the truth, I've had quite a day, too."
The song, written by Murray Grand and Elisse Boyd, then takes our heroine through her day with a surprise ending no listener forgets – even 38 years later, "Guess" is still her most requested number in concert and has become Nancy Wilson's signature song. "It is one of those experiences everybody can relate to," she says today about the song's theme of infidelity. "It's universal."
Wilson's music lasts, no doubt about it. Starting with her earliest Capitol recording (April 1960's Like In Love), Nancy Wilson's discography encompasses the whole range of popular music and mines an evergreen seam of material, from the jazzy classic Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley to the pure pop silky smoothness of her latest, If I Had My Way.
Many of her still-classic LP's have been re-mastered on CD's now, because Capitol, no fool, is cashing in on Miss Wilson's recent Best Female Jazz Vocalist Award from Playboy readers and the heat generated from her hosting of the National Public Radio Jazz Profiles series. So is Nancy now suddenly digital-friendly? Au contraire.
"Vinyl just sounds so much better to me," she says. "It's warmer." She's also not too crazy about the new modern way records are made. "When we were recording those Capitol albums, all of the musicians were in the same room playing. Now, you record all by yourself with headphones on. The musicians aren't even in the studio." She speaks from experience at both ends of this musical continuum: Most recently she participated in Quincy Jones' CD Jook Joint, singing alone in Jones' state-of-the-art style of record production. And she was also featured on Barry Manilow's 1991 Johnny Mercer tribute With My Lover Beside Me. "His music is so lovely," she says about Manilow. "It surrounds you when you put those headphones on. Still." she pauses. "Nobody else was there when we were doing it." As happy as she is to contribute to these albums, it was still not the same as the Capitol days.
That was such a great label," she says, nostalgically. "It was the wonder years there. Look at the artists who were recording for Capitol: Nat King Cole, Dakota Stanton, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin.And, of course, Frank Sinatra!" What made it so different? "It was owned by Johnny Mercer," she says. "And there was such a feeling of family."
But, she's resigned to the inevitability of the digital age. "You know," she sighs, "I still haven't unpacked my own vinyl records from the garage."
She's referring to the garage at her home in Pioneertown where she and her husband of 27 years, the Reverend Wiley Burton, have lived for two decades.
Whoa!! Pioneertown? Nancy Wilson, the essence of supper club chic, the most glamorous jazz vocalist of the age, Grammy, Emmy winner.Pioneertown???!! Yup, pardner.
Nancy and Wiley bought their place in the high desert as a setting to rear their three children. Pioneertown, heretofore famous as the background landscape for the Roy Rogers serials of early TV, is now home to the Burtons, a pair of horses, a buffalo, ostriches and emus, four dogs, plenty of peacocks, doves and quails and goodness knows what else. The house which she says, "has grown like Topsy," now occupies 17,000 square feet with six bedrooms and six baths and still has plenty of room to stretch out. And does she need it.
This month, for example, she'll be hosting and entertaining 50 to 75 friends and family members at her annual Christmas dinner. Which she hastens to add, she is cooking entirely by herself. Included in the party will be the Burton's children, son Kacy Dennis, an investment banker struggling to break into the music business ("into that electronic stuff I don't quite dig," Mom says, quietly) and their two daughters, Samantha and Sheryl, who have introduced Nancy to the likes of Mary J. Blige and other hip-hop artists. Sad to report, the Christmas party this year will be shy two, due to the untimely deaths of Nancy's father and mother both in the past year ("a really bad time for me," she says). "I usually have big crowds for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but this Thanksgiving, Wiley and I just want to celebrate alone. It will be, believe it or not, the first time in a year that I've had time to actually grieve."
With all the cooking and baking, does she ever worry about her weight? "I don't really work at it," she says. "I don't exercise or anything. And I do indulge during the holidays once or twice a year. But I know I can't eat everything in sight." Her secret to staying so slim? "I eat only when I'm hungry."
Sixty albums later, a career filled with laurels, a successful marriage, rearing happy, well-adjusted children, a slim waistline.Is this the perfect life? "I know I've been lucky," she says. "I count my blessings every day." PSL
This article was originally published in the December 1999 issue of Palm Springs Life.