Museum News

Statement on the Passing of Nancy Wilson, a Major Force in the History of American Music

December 14, 2018
Nancy Wilson performing at Convention Hall, Atlantic City, N.J. in 1980. Photo by Robert Houston. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of Robert and Greta Houston.

She was known by many names – Fancy Nancy, The Stylish Stylist, Diva Divine.  In her hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio, there is even a street named for her. But long before she had a street of her own Nancy Wilson had cut a wide path into the hearts of music lovers around the world. And for good reason.

Hers was a voice like no other, a thing of rare beauty. That magical sound, combined with an uncanny gift for storytelling, made it possible for her to take a song – any song – and turn it into something bigger and bolder. Something that could transform.

She worked her magic on many platforms:  jazz, R& B, pop, Broadway show tunes.  She put her mark on so many songs that provided the sound track for heartbreak, joy and profound love:  “Guess Who I Saw Today?” and “Forget it Girl, It’s Over.”  Perhaps her biggest hit came in 1964 with “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” which soared to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 list.

In her long and celebrated career – more than 50 years, more than 70 albums and three Grammy Awards – people idolized her because of her artistry.  But she had fans and impact in other areas.

In 2005 Oprah Winfrey hosted a “Legends Ball” to honor 17 African American women who had inspired her and played key roles in shaping her life and career.  A photograph of that gathering, now on view at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, shows America some of her visionaries:  Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Dorothy Height, Anna Deavere Smith. And there in that same photograph is Nancy Wilson, standing between Oprah Winfrey and Coretta Scott King. Nancy Wilson’s work in social justice – she was among the thousands who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 – has not gone unnoticed.  In 2005 she was inducted into the International civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.

As a musician, Nancy Wilson made history. She sang, people listened and they loved what they heard. We will miss her.  But we will not forget her.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Media Contact(s): 

Fleur Paysour (202) 633-4761; 
Lindsey Koren (202) 633-4052; 

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.