Born: 4 March, 1935, in Glasgow
Died: 1 February, 2003, in Leicester, aged 67
NANCY Whiskey took her stage name from a well-known folk song, and briefly enjoyed chart success with the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group at the height of the skiffle craze in the Fifties.
The group had a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic with her version of Freight Train, which they performed in the 1957 movie The Tommy Steele Story. The success was rather soured - artistically and financially - by a subsequent American court action after it had been revealed that the song had been introduced to Britain by Pete Seeger’s sister, Peggy, who had learned it from the black American folk singer Elizabeth Cotten. The copyright arrangements were eventually settled out of court.
Nancy Whiskey was born Nancy Wilson in Glasgow, and began performing as a folk singer in the city in the early Fifties. She met the jazz pianist Bob Kelly and they formed a relationship, although Kelly was already married. The couple moved to London in 1955.
The singer was persuaded to join the skiffle group led by fellow Glaswegian Charles McDevitt - the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group - in 1956. They had heard her sing in a talent contest, and were on the look-out for a girl singer at the time. The group had already recorded Freight Train with McDevitt on vocals, but went back into the studio and rerecorded the song with their new singer.
The McDevitt group, who also featured Jimmie MacGregor for a time, were second only to Lonnie Donegan as the most successful band of the skiffle era, and Freight Train was a launching pad to that success.
They played at the first major skiffle concert in the UK at the Royal Festival Hall in April 1957, and subsequently visited America that summer, where they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, with several American guests added to the band to satisfy the stringent Musicians’ Union rules of the time (McDevitt recalled that that show also featured the first public performance by the Everly Brothers of Bye, Bye Love).
Freight Train was a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic, but Nancy Whiskey was a reluctant convert to skiffle, and her outspoken comments against the style made headlines, and alienated many of the band’s fans. She left the group in 1958, although her vocal on Greenback Dollar provided another hit for them (her replacement was Shirley Douglas, who subsequently married McDevitt).
Her relationship with Bob Kelly, who was still married to his first wife, also attracted the attention of the press. The pianist left Ken Colyer’s Skiffle Band around the same time as Nancy Whiskey was parting company with McDevitt, and they performed together for a short time, with Kelly on drums rather than piano.
With a studio group, the Skifflers, she recorded some singles for Oriole in the late Fifties, including He’s Solid Gone and I Know Where I’m Going, together with the album The Intoxicating Miss Whiskey.
She and Kelly left London for Melton Mowbray at the end of 1958 after the birth of their daughter, Yancey Anne (named after one of Kelly’s great role models, the American pianist Jimmy Yancey), and remained there until after Kelly’s death in 1999, when Nancy Whiskey moved to Leicester. According to the pianist Ralph Laing, a friend of the couple from their days in Glasgow in the early Fifties, she did not take well to widowhood.
Although she was never to recapture the level of success she enjoyed with Freight Train, she continued to perform in less visible settings throughout her life. She took part in a major celebration of the skiffle era at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1997, a gala concert billed as "The Roots Of British Rock". Chas McDevitt both hosted and performed in the concert, and Nancy Whiskey was featured alongside the Chris Barber Band, Chas & Dave, Tony Sheridan, Diz Disley, Ray Bush, Wee Willie Harris, Lonnie Donegan, Adam Faith, Joe Brown and Bill Wyman.
She is survived by her daughter.