Born in California on March 16, 1954, Nancy Wilson is a singer-songwriter, guitarist and one-half of the rock band Heart, alongside her older sister, Ann Wilson. The band is known for albums such as Dreamboat Annie (1976), Little Queen (1977), Dog & Butterfly (1978) and Private Audition (1983), and for hits singles like "Magic Man," "Crazy on You" and "Barracuda." Nancy Wilson was married to famed film director Cameron Crowe from 1986 to 2010.
Nancy Lamoureaux Wilson was born on March 16, 1954, in San Francisco, California. Her mother, Lou Wilson, was a concert pianist and choir singer, and her father, John Wilson, a former Marine, was also a musician and singer who had once led the U.S. Marine Corps band. Nancy's older sister, Ann, would later become her band mate in Heart.
Due to John Wilson's military career, the family moved frequently when Nancy was a child, living near bases in Panama and Taiwan before settling in Seattle, Washington in the early 1960s.
In order to maintain a sense of home no matter where in the world they resided at any particular time, the Wilson family turned to music. "On Sunday we'd have pancakes and opera," Nancy Wilson recalled. "My dad would be conducting in the living room. We'd turn it way up and rock. There was everything from classical music to Ray Charles, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, bossa nova, and early experimental electronic music. I learned a tremendous amount early on."
Wilson later remembered that she first set her heart on becoming a rock star at the age of 9, when she watched the Beatles' legendary debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Nancy and Ann Wilson "were Beatles fans who wanted to be the Beatles, not be their girlfriends," Wilson said.
In 1963, Ann fell seriously ill with mononucleosis and had to miss several months of school. To keep her occupied during those months, her parents bought Ann a guitar. But it was Nancy who quickly took over the instrument, showing greater talent and inclination for the guitar while Ann, also a music lover, proved to be every bit as talented and passionate a singer. Studying Mel Bay's classic book Guitar Chords and learning to play Beatles songs by ear, by the time she reached adolescence Wilson was already a highly accomplished player of the instrument, taking especially to acoustic guitar.
While Nancy was in junior high and Ann was in high school, the Wilson girls performed in local band such as Rapunzel and Viewpoint. After her sister graduated from high school, Nancy Wilson performed often on Seattle's coffeehouse circuit as a solo artist. After graduating from high school herself in 1972, she declined an invitation to join her sister's band Heart in Vancouver, instead enrolling at tiny Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, to study art and German literature.
However, under constant prodding from her older sister to come to Vancouver and join Heart—who had already established themselves as one of Vancouver's premier bands—Wilson finally relented in 1974, leaving school to join her sister and her bandmates in Canada. "Ann and I were always going to end up playing in a band together," Nancy Wilson later recalled. "I just felt in my soul really that I needed to hold that off and experience life without Ann so that I'd have more to bring to the table when I came back."
While she was the newcomer and youngest member of Heart, Wilson immediately made her presence in the band felt. "I started writing right away and we wanted to incorporate the acoustic into the hard rock. Led Zeppelin was an influence on us, because they had both electric and acoustic. That was our focus. We were going to redefine the band, and we did. We got turned down by every major label, twice, in the process." Finally, in 1976, Heart convinced a small Canadian label, Mushroom Records, to release their debut album, Dreamboat Annie.
Boosted by the strength of its iconic lead track "Magic Man" and two additional hit singles, "Dreamboat Annie" and "Crazy on You," Dreamboat Annie (1976) became a surprising commercial success, peaking all the way at No. 7 on the U.S. albums chart. Heart's 1977 follow-up album, Little Queen, featuring the now-classic song "Barracuda," proved another enormous commercial and critical success.
Other noteworthy early Heart albums include Dog & Butterfly (1978), featuring the singles "Straight On" and "Dog & Butterfly," BeBe le Strange (1980), featuring "Even It Up," and Private Audition (1983), featuring "This Man is Mine."
Although members of Heart have come and gone with considerable frequency over the duration of the band's long career, Nancy and Ann Wilson have always remained the band's driving force—its lead guitarist and lead singer and its primary songwriters. Heart thus enjoys as important place in rock history as the first entirely female-driven rock band to achieve widespread popularity.
In 1985, Heart shifted gears to deploy a more pop-friendly sound with their eighth album, Heart. The result was even more commercial success. Heart became the band's only album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts on the way to selling over 5 million copies. The single "These Dreams" reached No. 1 on the U.S. singles chart, and three other songs, "What About Love," "Never" and "Nothin' At All," cracked the Top 10. Heart's next album, 1987's Bad Animal, nearly replicated that success, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard chart behind the hit songs "Alone" and "Who Will You Run To." Completing a trio of albums that marked the peak of Heart's popularity was Brigade (1990), featuring the iconic single "All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You."
After their 1993 album Desire Walks On failed to achieve the success of the band's previous efforts, the Wilson sisters briefly disbanded Heart to form a new band called The Lovemongers. The Lovemongers toured briefly in the Pacific Northwest and released one album, Whirlygig, in 1997. However, the sisters then reformed Heart and released a 2004 comeback album, Jupiters Darling, which received high critical praise but didn't sell especially well. Heart's most recent album, Red Velvet Car, released in 2010, returned them to national prominence and commercial success, reaching No. 10 on the Billboard charts and featuring the popular singles "WTF" and "Hey You."
Nancy Wilson married film director Cameron Crowe in 1986. They had twin sons before divorcing in 2010, after 24 years of marriage.
As lead guitarist of Heart—the band that injected acoustic guitar and femininity into hard rock, becoming one of the most enduringly successful rock bands of all time with hit albums spanning more than three decades—Nancy Wilson holds a special place in music history. However, even after all those years and hit songs and records, Wilson and her sister remain steadfastly focused on what they see as their life mission—to make and share beautiful music.
"I like to stay focused on what we're trying to get done, so we can hopefully make something great and maybe even uplifting," Wilson said. "Because I think that's what we were put here to do."
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