Nancy Whiskey (b Anne Alexandra Young Wilson, Bridgeton, Glasgow, Scotland, 4 March 1935 – d 1 February 2003) was a Scottish folk singer, best known for the 1957 hit song "Freight Train".
If Lonnie Donegan was the king of skiffle, then Nancy Whiskey, was fleetingly its queen. As vocalist with the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group, she had a top five hit in the summer of 1957 with Freight Train, arecord that also penetrated the American top 40 at a time when British artists rarely made any headway. Her success came in that confused time, in the aftermath of the breakthrough of rock 'n' roll in 1956, when British record buyers, searching for an exciting, homegrown musical form, encountered both local rock 'n' rollers and skiffle.
Freight Train was driven by Whiskey's ebullient soprano and McDevitt's whistled obligato. It was the group's first single, and its upbeat arrangement belied the gloomy lyrics of its 1905 composition by black North Carolina singer Elizabeth Cotton. Its unexpected US success led to appearances by Whiskey and McDevitt on the Ed Sullivan Show, and other television slots, and a handful of stage shows, including one at Palisades Park, New Jersey.
Whiskey was born to a musical family in Glasgow. After her father, a lorry driver, taught her the guitar, she performed on the local folk club circuit while attending art school as part of her apprenticeship as a potter. Among her fellow students was Jimmie McGregor, the singer and guitarist later resident on Tonight, the BBC television magazine programme of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He introduced her to blues and hillbilly music, though it was from a Glasgow folk song, The Calton Weaver - with its "Whiskey, whiskey, Nancy, whiskey" chorus - that she took her stage name.
After moving to London in 1955, she was reluctant to surrender her growing reputation as a solo performer, but was persuaded to join the Chas McDevitt group for a Radio Luxembourg talent contest. She was signed to Topic Records and recorded Elizabeth Cotten's song "Freight Train". The record made the top five in the UK Singles Chart in 1957, and she also toured the United States with McDevitt’s group. "Freight Train" sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
After their US appearances, Whiskey and McDevitt (photo below right) recorded a well-received album, The Intoxicating Miss Whiskey, and managed another Top 30 entry with Green Back Dollar. The failure of the follow-up, Face In The Rain, was among the factors that led her to resume her solo career. Another was her pregnancy, and subsequent marriage, to pianist and drummer Bob Kelly - he was not yet divorced, and the episode triggered a brief flurry in the tabloids.
With Kelly in her backing group, the Skifflers, Whiskey put out three more singles and an LP, Nancy Whiskey Sings, before the skiffle craze was over. Renaming her accompanists the Teetotallers, she broadened her appeal with more generalised pop and jazz standards, and proved capable of quite a sophisticated cabaret act. Records were adjuncts to earnings on the road, and there were further attempts at the charts with Bowling Green (1965), and a remake of Freight Train two years later.
[photo of Chas & Nancy with her daughter Yancey Kelly taken Dec 1998]
By the 1970s, family commitments had forced Whiskey into virtual retirement, though from her home in Leicester she resurfaced occasionally, most recently at a skiffle revival with Lonnie Donegan, at the Royal Albert Hall in March 1999. Her husband died in 1999. She is survived by her daughter Yancey, named after the blues piano player Jimmy Yancey. (info mainly www.guardian.co.uk)
Clip taken from "The Tommy Steele Story"