NANCY WILSON-KALEIDOSCOPE AND I KNOW I LOVE HIM.

NANCY WILSON-KALEIDOSCOPE AND I KNOW I LOVE HIM.

Not many artists have enjoyed the longevity that Nancy Wilson has. Nancy released over seventy albums over a career that’s spanned six decides. Her career started back in 1956, when she was just nineteen. Three years later, in 1959, Nancy released Like In Love for Capitol Records. It was at Capitol Records where Nancy established a reputation as one of the finest jazz singers of her generation. By the late sixties, Nancy’s music began to change.

With vocal jazz was no longer as popular, Nancy incorporated soul and R&B into her albums. This didn’t help Nancy replicate the commercial success and critical acclaim she’d enjoyed earlier in her career. As the seventies dawned, Nancy’s career was at a crossroads. Music had changed so much in a short space of time. Nancy’s music was almost a reminder of an earlier musical era. Proof of this was Nancy’s first album of the seventies, 1970s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. 

Can’t Take My Eyes Off You saw Nancy stick to the musically tried and tested formula of releasing an album of cover versions. While this was popular early in the sixties, music had changed since the. Produced by David Cavanaugh, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You stalled at just number 155 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-eight in the US R&B Charts. After the commercial failure of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, Gamble and Huff, who were establishing a reputation as a successful songwriting and production partnership were brought onboard for 1970s Now I’m A Woman. 

Hiring the hottest songwriting and production partnership of the early-seventies, Gamble helped rejuvenate Nancy’s career. With M.F.S.B. providing the backdrop to Nancy’s vocals on Now I’m A Woman, it’s no surprise it reached number fifty-four in the US Billboard 200 and number five in the US R&B Charts. It looked like Nancy Wilson was on her way to recapturing the commercial success and critical acclaim of her earlier career. Would that be the case? That’s what I’ll tell you after I’ve told you about Kaleidoscope and I Know I Love Him, which were recently released by SoulMusic Records.

For 1971s Kaleidoscope, it was a case of deja vu. There was no sign of Gamble and Huff. They’d been replaced by Nancy’s longtime producer David Cavanaugh. The return of David Cavanaugh seemed strange. He’d produced a string of albums that hadn’t been particularly successful. One change he made was the two arrangers that he brought onboard. However, they favored different approaches to arranging.  

James Mack, who arranged eight of the ten tracks on Kaleidoscope, favored lush string-laden arrangements, Phil Wright’s approach was very different. His arrangements were much more spartan, and understated. With such different approaches to arrangements, this could result in an album with an identity crisis. Especially, given the choice of music on Kaleidoscope.

Another change on Kaleidoscope, was the choice of music. There was a return to cover versions. Many of the songs chosen were songs Nancy heard on the radio. Others were suggested by producer David Cavanaugh or Nancy’s manager John Levy. There was no new material. That was a shame.  Nancy had blossomed on Now I’m A Woman, with its mixture of new material and suitable cover versions.

Among the cover versions chosen for Kaleidoscope were Mr. Bojangles, Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine and If I Were Your Woman, which gave Gladys Knight a hit single. Then there was I’ll Get Along Somehow penned by Buddy Fields and Gerald Marks, plus two tracks penned by Reuben Brown, Middle Of The Road and Everybody Knows. Along with covers of The Greatest Performance Of My Life, Let It Be Me, Once In My Lifetime and To Be The One You Love, which features on the soundtrack to The Anonymous Venetian. These ten tracks became Kaleidoscope, which was produced by Dave Cavanaugh, while James Mack and Phil Wright arranged and conducted the ten tracks. Would this fusion of vocal jazz, soul, easy listening and R&B replicate the success of Now I’m A Woman?

Before Kaleidoscope was released in 1972, The Greatest Performance Of My Life was released as a single and failed to chart. Things got even worse when Kaleidoscope was released in 1972. It stalled at just number 151 in the US Billboard 200 Charts. Rather than building on the success of Now I’m A Woman, Kaleidoscope, it seemed, was a backwards step. Reuniting Nancy with her longtime friend and producer David Cavanaugh hadn’t worked. Despite the commercial failure of Kaleidoscope, Nancy it was album that found favor among her loyal fans. Still, they enjoyed Nancy’s mixture of vocal jazz, blues, easy listening soul and R&B that was Kaleidoscope.

Dramatic and emotive describes Nancy’s delivery of The Greatest Performance Of My Life, which opens Kaleidoscope. Mixing power, passion and bravado, she’s accompanied by an arrangement that has a sixties sound. Shrill strings and rasping horns accompany Nancy, as she deliberately delivers the lyrics. Good as Nancy’s version is, Loleatta Holloway is responsible for the definitive version. 

Three songs on what was side one of Kaleidoscope demonstrate why Nancy enjoyed such a long successful career. The first is If I Were Your Woman. Wistful and full of longing describes Nancy’s reading of the lyrics. Jazz, soul and sass combines as Nancy and her band kick loose. Melancholia and frustration fill her vocal, which veers between power and tender. Tender describes Nancy’s vocal on I’ll Get Along Somehow. Filled with loneliness and sadness, she’s accompanied by a languid, jazz-tinged arrangement. Accompanied by an arrangement whose roots are in the church, Let It Be Me features a needy, heartbroken Nancy at her best. 

Mr. Bojangles is an oft-covered song. Covering it isn’t easy. After all, how do you bring something new to the song? Using an understated, piano lead arrangement to accompany Nancy’s heartfelt, breathy vocal is how. Add in a lush strings, acoustic guitar and bluesy harmonica and the track is transformed. Similarly, Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine is transformed. Swathes of strings, bursts of drums and rasping horns accompany Nancy. Her impassioned vocal is full of emotion. As it becomes a scat, the tempo quickens and the drama builds, before reaching an emotive, wistful crescendo. 

Two loves songs which bookended side two of Kaleidoscope demonstrated just how Nancy could breath life and meaning into a sing.To Be The One You Love features a vocal that’s spellbinding in its beauty. The heartfelt reminiscences of Nancy see her mix power, emotion and drama. Then on Once In My Lifetime, we hear another side of Nancy Wilson. It’s an acoustic song, originally recorded by Harry Belafonte in 1968. The understated arrangement allows Nancy’s tender, thoughtful vocal to take centre-stage on what’s akin to a musical love letter. 

Released in 1972, Kaleidoscope was an album that sounded as if it had been recorded a couple of years earlier. It didn’t have a contemporary sound. Instead, it was classic Nancy Wilson. This means a mixture of vocal jazz, easy listening, soul and R&B were the order of the day. That was all very well, but and it’s a big but, this was no longer musically fashionable. Nor were albums like Kaleidoscope commercially successful. They appealed to an ever-decreasing fan base. No wonder. Music had changed, but Nancy’s music hadn’t really kept abreast of changing musical fashions. 

Ironically, Philly Soul ruled the airwaves. Gamble and Huff, two of the architects of Philly Soul had produced Nancy’s most successful albums of recent years Now I’m A Woman. Rather than sign Gamble and Huff up to sign Nancy’s next few albums, Now I’m A Woman was a delicious taste of what might have been. Following Now I’m A Woman, it was business as usual. David Cavanaugh reclaimed the producer’s chair. The result was Kaleidoscope, Nancy Wilson’s least successful album of recent years. However, despite the lack of success, Kaleidoscope wasn’t a bad album. 

No. Far from it. Kaleidoscope was a pleasant reminder of a more innocent musical age, way before the sixties swung and things became psychedelic. In many ways, Kaleidoscope was a reminder of the golden age of vocal jazz. Maybe Nancy’s next album would see her music given a makeover, one that brought it up to date?

I KNOW I LOVE HIM.

After the commercial failure of Kaleidoscope, Nancy’s manager John Levy decided to change things around. To do this, he brought in one of the most innovative groups of the early seventies, The Crusaders. They were brought in to record rhythm tracks. David Cavanaugh stayed on as producer, but Don Sebesky would arrange and produce what became I Know I Love Him, which would be a crucial album in Nancy Wilson’s career. Another commercially unsuccessful album wasn’t really an option. If I Know I Love Him wasn’t a commercial success, then critics would question whether Nancy was musical relevant.

Realising that Nancy Wilson’s career was at a crossroads, Nancy, David, Don and The Crusaders set about choosing a selection of songs that would rejuvenate Nancy’s career. This included James Nix and Marvin Gaye’s We Can Make It Baby, John and David Lehman’s Morning In Your Eyes, Gordon Parks’ Don’t Misunderstand, Mark James’ Are We Losing Touch, Randy Edelman’s The Laughter And The Tears and Barry Mann’s I Heard You Singing Your Song. Alan O’Day wrote Easy Evil, Hal Davis and Herman Griffith cowrote Can I, while Charlap and George songwriting team penned I Was Telling Him About You. Wade Marcus and Bodie Chandler’s I Know I Love Him contributed the title-track.

As recording of I Know I Love Him got underway, The Crusaders joined Nancy Wilson to record the ten tracks. The line of The Crusaders included drummer Stix Hooper, bassist Wilton Felder, guitarist Arthur Adams and keyboardist Joe Sample. They were joined by guitarist David Cohen, of Country Joe and The Fish. With all-star lineup accompanying Nancy Wilson on I Know I Love Him, surely her luck was about to change.

No. There was change in Nancy Wilson’s fortunes after the release on I Know I Love Him. Released in 1973, I Know I Love Him failed to chart. Neither did the single Are We Losing Touch. It seemed the change in personnel didn’t help rejuvenate Nancy’s career. I Know I Love Him was officially Nancy’s least successful album of the seventies. Why was that? That’s what I’ll tell you after I’ve told you about I Know I Love Him.

From the opening bars of We Can Make It Baby, which opens I Know I Love Him, The Crusaders provide a smokey, jazz-tinged backdrop. Hope fills Nancy’s pleading vocal, while strings reflect the emotion in her vocal. Driven along by Wilton’s bass, Joe’s Hammond organ adds to the atmospheric arrangement as Nancy tries and succeeds in her attempt to rebuild her flagging career.

Several songs on Know I Love Him feature a vintage jazz sound. Given that’s how Nancy made her name, that’s no surprise. However, it was no longer as popular. They’re a reminder of Nancy at the peak of her powers. Especially Don’t Misunderstand is a glorious, slice of vintage jazz. It’s Nancy at her very best. Here, she’s accompanied by a wistful piano and lush strings, as she delivers a pensive, hurt-filled vocal. The result is the highlight of I Know I Love Him. I Was Telling Him About You is another track with a vintage sound. With piano and saxophone at the heart of the arrangement, a worried Nancy explains I Was Telling Him About You.

Are We Losing Touch is one of several songs that have a a much more contemporary, soulful sound. This is another example of Nancy’s versatility. Accompanied by The Crusaders, flourishes of harpsichord, layers of strings and Thom Bell influenced horns provide the backdrop for a vocal that’s wistful, emotive and tinged with regret at losing touch with someone she once loved. Easy Evil sees The Crusaders lay down a funky backdrop for Nancy, whose vocal is reminiscent of Esther Phillips. Sassy and sensual, The Crusaders join lush strings in creating a moody, meandering arrangement. Together with Nancy, they create a track that brings Nancy’s music up to date. So too, does the heartfelt and soulful Can I, which featured on Eddie Kendricks’ debut album All By Myself. Against just an understated arrangement, Nancy delivers a tender, pleading vocal. Soon, it grows in power and passion, becoming needy and sensual. Quite simply, it’s one of the highlights of I Know I Love Him.

Enigmatic. That describes the title-track which closes I Know I Love Him. Just over a minute long, weeping guitars, piano, picked guitar and percussion accompany Nancy’s heartfelt vocal. The lushest of strings are added and prove the perfect accompaniment to a vocal that’s wistful and soul-baring. A tantalizing taste of what might have been, this seems a fitting way to close I Know I Love Him.

Bringing The Crusaders to provide the backdrop for Nancy’s vocals on I Know I Love Him worked. They were talented, versatile musicians, capable of flitting between musical genres. Jazz, soul, funk and R&B, The Crusaders could play it. Similarly, if an emotive, dramatic or understated backdrop was needed, The Crusaders could provide it. The Crusaders accompanying Nancy Wilson was something of a masterstroke. So was bringing arranger and conductor Don Sebesky onboard. 

Don’s arrangements on I Know I Love Him veered between soulful, jazzy and funky. They were variously contemporary and returned to the vintage jazz sound. Maybe Nancy and her manager John Levy should’ve gone further and allowed Don to produce I Know I Love Him? After all, Don must have realized that Nancy’s career was at a crossroads. If she didn’t get it back on track, then she’d risk being perceived as no longer relevant musically. Rather than just a few of the songs on I Know I Love Him having a more contemporary sound, Nancy’s music needed a musical overhaul. Then she wouldn’t have had to jump onboard the disco bandwagon later in the seventies. Just like politics is the last refuge of a scoundrel, disco was the last refuge for a musical career in decline. All that could’ve been avoided, if Nancy’s career was given a musical makeover. Despite that not happening, I Know I Love Him is still an enjoyable album.

With its combination of soul, easy listening and vintage jazz, I Know I Love Him is an accomplished album, but one that was partly at odds with musical tastes. Sometimes, it’s as if artists forget they’re not making an album that they like, but one that many people like. While some of the songs had a much more contemporary sound, that wasn’t enough. What was needed was the majority of the songs having a much more contemporary sound. Then I Know I Love Him would’ve been a commercial success. Instead, I Know I Love Him is an album that, had it been released a few years earlier, it would’ve been a commercial success. Possibly, the problem was that Nancy was too loyal to her longtime friend and producer Dave Cavanaugh? Unfortunately, her career was at a stage when she couldn’t afford to be loyal. I Know I Love Him had been her least successful album in recent years. So, her musical career was at a crossroads. That however, wasn’t the end of Nancy Wilson though.

Following the release of I Know I Love Him Nancy’s career continued for three further decades. While neither Kaleidoscope nor I Know I Love Him, which were recently released on one CD by SoulMusic Records, weren’t Nancy Wilson’s most successful albums, they weren’t lacking in quality. Combining vocal jazz, blues, soul, easy listening and R&B, both Kaleidoscope and I Know I Love Him were reminders of one of the most versatile and talented singers in the history of popular music. Standout Tracks: Ain’t No Sunshine, Once In My Lifetime, Are We Losing Touch and Can I.

NANCY WILSON-KALEIDOSCOPE AND I KNOW I LOVE HIM.

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