A lot of singers have sung this one, from Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Mathis to Diana Krall and the Orioles, the post-war R&B vocal quartet. For me, though, Nancy Wilson’s has always been the definitive reading. She nails the sense of hopeful anxiety that surrounds Dec. 31 every year, even while continuing to display a hushed longing — like a more contemplative Dinah Washington.
As her sleek, knowing vocal cuts through this 1963 side, it’s no surprise that Wilson became Capitol Records’ second-best selling artist of the decade, behind only a certain mop-topped crew. More confusing is why Nancy Wilson is so seldom in the conversation about the great jazz singers.
No, Wilson couldn’t fashion a dizzying, horn-like scat solo in the memorable style of a Ella Fitzgerald — who had made her own version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s” in 1960. Even back then, before age deepened and darkened her voice, Wilson didn’t have the vaunted six-octave range of a Sarah Vaughan. But there’s little the versatile Wilson wasn’t capable of in between.
She could swing a jazz song, pop through contemporary mainstream tunes, get down into gritty blues, go deeper still in soul, and handle the standard songbook with aplomb. She can even transform a coquettish lyric like the one in legendary Tin Pan Alley and Broadway hitmaker Frank Loesser’s 1947 tune “What Are You Doing New Year’s,” recorded by Nancy Wilson during the sessions for Yesterday’s Love Songs, Today’s Blues — but only later included in expanded compact-disc editions.
“Maybe, it’s much too early in the game,” Wilson, just 26 at the time, wisely ponders. Then, later, as a gloaming doubt creeps in: “Maybe I’m crazy to suppose I’d ever be the one you chose.” This holiday’s traditional champagne toasts set their own deadline, though. “Wonder whose arms will hold you good and tight,” Wilson sighs, “when it’s exactly 12 o’clock that night?”
Loesser, who always composed great story songs, gets the writing credit. But it’s Nancy Wilson who lays bare the calendar-driven romantic disquiet of New Year’s Eve, even with so much frivolity all around.
She’s backed by a nimble orchestra led and arranged by the truly great Gerald Wilson, who envelops Wilson like a warm embrace. Yesterday’s Love Songs, Today’s Blues finds a way to seem intimate, even before it winnows down into a small-band format for Wilson’s blues offerings. (Trumpeter Al Porcino, guitarist Joe Pass and organist Wild Bill Davis are featured elsewhere.)
As the strings gently rise behind her, Wilson finally torques herself up enough to ask the question that’s been on her lips the whole time: “But in case I stand one little chance, here comes the jackpot question in advance: What are you doing New Year’s?”
Well, I can tell you what I’ll be doing: Spinning Nancy Wilson, one more time.
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