Nancy Wilson, the iconic jazz vocalist, self-described “song stylist,” and three-time Grammy winner died Thursday at the age of 81.
Her rep confirmed the news to the Associated Press, saying that the singer succumbed to a lengthy illness at her home in Pioneertown, Calif. — in the vicinity of Joshua Tree Park.
Nicknamed “The Girl with the Honey-Coated Voice,” Wilson’s passionate interpretations of torch songs and jazz standards made her a platinum-selling artist and an in-demand concert draw until her retirement in 2011. At the time, she wished “to spend all of her time with her family, especially her grandchildren,” according to a quote on her website.
Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, Wilson began her singing career in church at just 4 years old. After winning a talent contest as a high school student, she was briefly given her own local television program before heading out on the road to sing with big bands. It was during these early tours that she met jazz artists including Cannonball Adderley, with whom she’d later collaborate on the 1961 disc, Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley. Adderley encouraged her to move to New York, where Adderley’s manager arranged for her to record a demo. This would become her breakthrough single, 1960’s “Guess Who I Saw Today.”
A formidable run of albums soon followed, eight of which would break the Top 20 in just the ’60s alone. She earned her first Grammy (for best R&B performance) in 1965 for How Glad I Am, and later took home the prize for best jazz vocal album in 2005 for R.S.V.P (Rare Songs, Very Personal) and in 2007 for Turned to Blue. She was honored in 2004 by the National Endowment for the Arts, who bestowed upon her their prestigious lifetime achievement award.
In addition to her musical output, Wilson also made regular appearances on television and film — scoring roles in Hawaii Five-O, Police Story, and the 1995 feature The Meteor Man.
Married twice — first to drummer Kenny Dennis, whom she divorced in 1970 — she’s preceded in death by her husband Wiley Burton, who died in 2008. She leaves behind three children.
John Legend was one of many stars to pay tribute to the late icon.
“So sad to hear about the passing of the great Nancy Wilson. She was a magical performer,” he wrote on Twitter. “I’m so glad I was able to spend time with her and hear her beautiful voice in person.”
Chaka Khan added, “My soul mourns the loss of my dear friend Nancy Wilson. She was such a beautiful person & songstress that the world of jazz will forever miss. Her polished vocals & style were unmatched as the #SongStylist. I will miss her dearly as friend & mentor. RIP Nancy.”