Songstylist Nancy Wilson Burton has died and the Inland Empire remembers their famous resident with love and thanks for her special contributions. Wilson, a resident of San Bernardino County for the past several years, was frequently involved in the community from working with the San Gorgonio Girl Scout Council to attending a community celebrations and faith-based events. She was frequently called on to sing, emcee programs, give speeches at birthday parties, and lend her name to organizations she is passionate about supporting. Local girl scout troops were given permission to camp on her Pioneertown ranch, and she even raised funds for the scouts along with First Lady Betty Ford.
Most of the things she was involved in never made the news, she just did good in the community she called home.
“She was the epitome of warmth,” said actor Hal Williams, of the television show 227. “She played my wife on the Sinbad Show and was a regular down to earth person,” he said. Williams and Wilson went to neighboring high schools in Columbus, Ohio and had known each other most of their lives. “Nancy is the personification of a lady and she never forgot who she was. She was the kind of friend that if you did see each other for a while she’d just pick right back up and not skip a beat. She was never phony,” he said.
His comments were echoed by others. Don Griggs, longtime Rialto resident and businessman said, “One of my life’s thrills was meeting her. I found out that she was not only a great singer, she was a great person.” He said that in Iowa he grew up on Nancy’s music and never imagined he would ever meet her. He ended up meeting her several times in the Inland Empire. “She was kind and an entertainer beyond words. She was at home in our community. She seemed to be like the person who lived next door,” he said.
Former San Bernardino NAACP President Walter Jarman said that she was spiritual, “I’ve always loved her music, she sings from her spirit. She had a natural God given talent.” Nancy never had singing lessons. “The greatest experience I had in meeting her was I had just dropped by Hardy and Cheryl Brown’s house and they said she was on her way, just stopping by on her way home. I got a chance to get a wonderful photo and have a one-on-one conversation with her. Then at another time she attended an event I got a chance to go to dinner with her and her husband the Rev. Wiley Burton.”
That event was a fundraiser for newly displaced Hurricane Katrina refugees. “Wiley and Nancy called me because they were so upset as were many of us and we came up with the idea with the help of McKay’s Funeral Home in Fontana of having Nancy come and be on program to sing and pray for the families of victims of that terrible tragedy, Cheryl Brown reflected. “Nancy and Wiley came and the sadness so many felt was eased because we had purpose.”
Mark and Robin McKay were especially impressed that she would come to their small mortuary. “We will forever be grateful to have had such a selfless woman in our lives,” said the McKays. “In 2005, she entrusted our young mortuary to hold her benefit event for the Hurricane Katrina victims, She was truly a citizen of the world. We will miss her genuine generosity and abundant lovingness for her community,” they said.
Many people attended the benefit, among them was Bishop Emory James, Pastor of Ephesians New Testament Church in Fontana. “Her coming to Fontana at such a critical time, that move, made Katrina real, people could identify…this service brought it home to the local community, and made it real especially to family members living in the area. It gave us and opportunity to connect with relatives in New Orleans, for us to identify with the catastrophe. It was in her spirit to do.” James said that he was sad the Inland area didn’t get a chance to show her how grateful they were.
Bill Cobbs, an actor who also lives in the Inland Empire, said that he had known and loved her music for many years, He is a lover of jazz and especially her music. “As high as she reached in her musical career she never lost her sense of community,” he said. Cobbs said he knew and loved her music, attended her concerts, but did not meet her until he came to and event she attended in Riverside. “It was an amazing thing, she made meeting her, a real person.” He dedicated an event he was hosting at his home on Sunday to Nancy, playing her music for his guests.
Bruce Hall of Loma Linda said he attended his first concert at the Coconut Grove where Nancy was featured with Cannonball Adderley, “I was able to close the circle when I met her at Sierra Lakes. I introduced myself and told her how much of a fan I am, she was so kind and warm in my conversation. I will always remember that conversation. The world will miss her.” Hall joined Lois Carson of Rialto, who met her at an event in Los Angeles for Dorothy Height, President of National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). “She was from Ohio, near Wilberforce where I went to college. She was the entertainment for the event and she brought the house down,” said Carson. Nancy attended Central State College in Ohio. Carson is a founder of the Inland Empire NCNW.
Mayor Acquanetta Warren was saddened to hear of Nancy’s death. “I had met her at Hardy Brown’s birthday party a few years ago, but I was excited that she came to my city, Fontana for Cheryl Brown’s fundraiser. I grew up listening to her great voice on records. When she came I talked with her, she was proud I had gotten elected mayor of the city of Fontana. I walked on a cloud that night because she was so beautiful and talented always expressing love for others,” she said.
“She also was grateful that we took an interest and helped to secure a star for her on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Wiley, her biggest cheerleader and husband felt race was a factor in why she wasn’t awarded one after such a stellar career, so he enlisted help from us at the Black Voice News,” Cheryl Brown remembered. “The campaign was on in the community and she was so honored when it happened that she invited the community to come to the presentation. When she found we were planning a bus load, she had to put on the breaks. It was on the streets of Hollywood and she wasn’t sure how the overwhelming support would work. Plus she was having a reception at the Roosevelt Hotel following the event. So she compromised and said she would come to a local event at our house for the people who were planning to attend. Again she came and brought her husband, mother, father, mother-in-law and friends came to honor her. We presented her with a replica Hollywood star.”
Rest in peace, Nancy we love and miss you. Memorial arrangements will follow at a later date.
Napoleon Brandford Remembers Nancy Wilson
Napoleon Brandford, chairman emeritus of bond underwriting firm Siebert, Brandford, Shank, loves Nancy Wilson’s music. “Nancy is my favorite singer of all time and having an opportunity to introduce her in Riverside was the greatest privilege in my life. I warned her it would be the most unique introduction she ever received, later she agreed. I used her songs as the answer to help me through relationships I was dealing with. For my high school girlfriend I was leaving, I used “Face It Girl Its Over”. When I was going to be engaged at the University of Athens, I used “Don’t Misunderstand.” On my 25th Anniversary, I used “The Other Side of the Storm”. She ended with what every man in this room is afraid to hear “Guess Who I Saw Today”. Brandford said when he learned of her death, he’d been playing her music all day. He ended with “Lady with a Song”, she was a lady with a song and sang of how she wanted to be remembered.
Chris and Ernie Levister Remember Nancy Wilson
I remember meeting Nancy Wilson in 1995 while nervously pacing the admission gate hours before the opening note of the historic Blue Jay Jazz Festival held every summer in the San Bernardino Mountains. The atmosphere was surreal, part panic, part glorious, part blur, when out of no where, beautiful, graceful and smiling there she was accompanied by a longtime Blue Jay Jazz Festival supporter. “Just following the music” Nancy said. I gathered my composure with a gushing welcome, punctuated with just about anything I could cram into a 60 second elevator speech on the storied music festival and charitable organization I and a few jazz musicians and local old timers had established years before. Training her gaze on the swinging big band rehearsing just feet away, Nancy whispered “keep the music playing. It’s all about freedom, heaven rejoicing, transcending walls,” she said. In her unique style, she let her head bob to the urgent, thrum of the distant trombone. She snapped her fingers, paused and quietly disappeared into the crowded parking lot.
Following our introduction to Nancy Wilson, our foundation made several unsuccessful attempts to book her performance at our annual Blue Jay Jazz Festival. Years later Ernie and I saw Nancy, jazz icons Gerald Wilson and Bobby Rodriguez perform at UCLA during a star studded birthday bash for jazz great and longtime Blue Jay Jazz sponsor, Kenny Burrell. Kenny headlined at our festival in 1997. I currently serve as president of the Blue Jay Jazz Foundation, (BJJF) (an all volunteer nonprofit jazz entertainment and music education organization) The foundation hosts the annual Blue Jay Jazz Festival held at SkyPark in the San Bernardino Mountains. Ernie is a longtime member of the BJJF Board of Trustees.
Header Photo: Nancy and Wiley with their parents and the Browns