Ann Wilson – circa 1976
“’Come on home, girl,’ / Momma cried on the phone / ‘Too soon to lose my baby / And my girl should be at home’.” – ‘Magic Man’ (Ann Wilson, Nancy Wilson)
In mid-1974 20 year old Nancy Wilson leaves her studies at school to join her elder sister, Ann Wilson, in West Vancouver, Canada. Ann is the lead singer of a band called Heart. It’s a toss-up whether Heart should be considered a U.S. band or a Canadian band. The members are all born in the U.S.A. but the band is based in Canada when it first comes to prominence. It might be imagined that a young woman fronting her own band may not be thrilled to see her kid sister dogging her steps. However that’s not the way it is for the Wilson sisters. “The sibling rivalry never existed,” insists Nancy.
Ann Wilson (born 19 June 1950) and Nancy Wilson (born 16 March 1954) are born in, respectively, San Diego and San Francisco, California, and raised in Southern California. There are actually three siblings; they have an elder sister named Lynn. “We’ve come from a military family,” explains Nancy. Their father serves with the U.S. Marine Corps. “We travelled a lot in a tight little unit,” Nancy continues. Ann claims, “We had a mother who could have been called a feminist.”
Ann and Nancy Wilson look quite dissimilar. Dark-haired Ann takes after her father while Nancy, a petite blonde, resembles their mother.
On 9 February 1964 Ann and Nancy Wilson see the British pop group The Beatles perform on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’, a popular variety program on U.S. television. Immediately, the girls decide they want to be in a band. At school, they form a four-part vocal harmony act called The Viewpoints. In August 1966 the girls attend a Beatles concert. The Viewpoints put on their own first show at a folk festival on Vashon Island in the U.S. State of Washington in 1967. On retiring from the military, Ann and Nancy’s father had settled the family in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, Washington.
Now 17, Ann Wilson knows some of the local musicians in Seattle. Among her acquaintances are guitarist Roger Fisher (born 14 February 1950) and bassist Steve Fossen. These two are in a band known as The Army. This outfit also includes Don Wilhelm (lead vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Ray Schaefer (drums). While The Army soldiers on, Ann joins Roger and Steve in an occasional side project called Hocus Pocus.
In 1969 Roger Fisher leaves The Army to start a group called White Heart. The others involved in this enterprise are Gary Ziegelman (vocals), Debi Cuidon (vocals), James Cirrello (guitar), Dan Rothchild (bass), Ron Rudge (drums) and Ken Hansen (percussion). From 1969 to 1971, White Heart play gigs in the local area, sometimes calling the band, simply, Heart. The abbreviated name doesn’t stick at this point and the act regularly reverts to the White Heart tag. Roger Fisher’s elder brother, Mike Fisher, acts as the group’s sound engineer and manager.
In 1971, fearing he is going to be drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to fight in the Vietnam war, Mike Fisher decides to move to Canada.
Roger Fisher reorganises White Heart in 1971, ousting everybody else from the band. His old buddy from The Army (the band that is, not the military Mike Fisher is evading), Steve Fossen, is brought in on bass. Filling out their ranks are David Belzer (keyboards) and Jeff Johnson (drums). In late 1972, this line-up moves to Canada to join Mike Fisher. Washington is the northernmost State on the west coast of the U.S.A., so it is not very far for them to travel, even though it does involve crossing the border into another country. Vancouver, where they settle, is the southernmost State on Canada’s west coast.
In early 1973 White Heart officially becomes Heart. Mike Fisher becomes an active member of the band, playing guitar. However, the group is in need of a vocalist, so they advertise. “I answered a newspaper ad in Seattle,” Ann Wilson says, explaining how she came to join Heart. “It was already going,” she adds, attempting to clear up a misconception. Although the Wilson sisters are indelibly identified with Heart, they did not create the band.
In 1974 Nancy Wilson journeys to the Great White North to join her sister, Ann, in Heart. At the same time, David Belzer and Jeff Johnson exit to be replaced by John Hannah (keyboards) and Brian Johnstone (drums). Mike Fisher resumes his behind-the-scenes role as manager as Nancy Wilson becomes second guitarist and backing vocalist. Around this time, Ann Wilson, Heart’s vocalist, becomes romantically involved with Mike Fisher, Heart’s manager. Their younger siblings follow suit with Nancy Wilson and Roger Fisher also becoming a couple. So there is the unusual situation of the two Wilson sisters pairing up with the two Fisher brothers.
One more line-up change takes place before things click for the band. John Hannah and Brian Johnstone depart and the ‘founding’ line-up of Heart steadies in 1975 in this form: Ann Wilson (vocals), Nancy Wilson (guitar, vocals), Roger Fisher (lead guitar), Howard Leese (born 13 June 1951) (guitar, keyboards), Steve Fossen (bass) and Michael De Rosier (drums). At this point, Nancy Wilson is largely confined to strumming an acoustic guitar in the background. As the years progress and her skill and confidence grow, she becomes a more noticeable musical presence. It Is really her boyfriend, Roger Fisher, who is the musical focus of Heart. He is quite remarkable and his ability is sometimes ignored by latter-day fans.
‘Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson are the creative spark behind Heart.’ They are the group’s main songwriters. Nancy says, “The attention was always on the two of us, because we were just the obvious thing to focus on.”
Musically, “We’ve always been a little schizophrenic,” Nancy Wilson acknowledges, “Really soft and really hard.” This is true. Heart, generally, swap between gentle acoustic ballads and blasting rock, with the latter being their public image. “I think we do a lot of hard rock,” Nancy says, “verging on metal. We’ve heard that we’re a cult metal band.” Heart started out playing Led Zeppelin cover versions and this definitive British heavy metal band provides the template for much of Heart’s style. Ann Wilson certainly tackles the microphone like she wants to replace Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin. If Nancy’s not exactly in the same league of guitar heroes as Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, between Roger Fisher, Howard Leese and herself they aspire towards similar guitar textures as Page. Led Zeppelin are also prone to throw in some acoustic numbers to vary their output as well as songs that don’t fit either the ‘really soft’ or ‘really hard’ categories. Heart also tries some other kinds of songs over the years. Nancy concludes, “We’ve never been easily defined.”
In 1975 Heart are ‘a Vancouver bar band.’ Shelley Siegel signs them to the Canadian record label Mushroom Records. Their debut album, ‘Dreamboat Annie’ (1976) (US no. 7, UK no. 36, AUS no. 9) is released in February. It is the first of five Heart albums produced by Mike Flicker. The album’s lead single, ‘Magic Man’ (US no. 9, AUS no. 6), is the band’s finest effort. “A good man came to me / Never seen eyes so blue,” sings Ann Wilson of the title’s mysterious sorcerer. Well, he’s not really that mysterious; ‘Magic Man’ is about Ann Wilson’s boyfriend, Mike Fisher. The band’s manager is the one who, through his song surrogate, pronounces “I cast my spell of love on you / A woman from a child.” What really makes the song is Roger Fisher’s guitar work. The instrument moans and sighs like a living thing. This captures the bravura rock that is Heart’s hallmark as well as the personal charisma of the Wilson sisters. ‘Crazy On You’ (US no. 35, AUS no. 70) blends Heart’s “really soft and really hard” sides. “You may still have time / You might still get by,” it slyly offers over acoustic guitar before, throwing up its hands and admitting “Well, I tell myself I was doing alright / There’s nothin’ left to do tonight / But go crazy on you” and breaking into full-blooded electric rock. The title track, ‘Dreamboat Annie’ (US no. 42), is a more pastoral tribute to imagination…and maybe Heart’s frontperson? ‘Dreamboat Annie’ is also Heart’s best album because it ‘ranges from easy, quiet ballads to heavy metal without sounding unfocused or without direction.’ In Nancy Wilson’s assessment, “It’s a cool record.” Ann suggests the key to its success is “It was so different from everything that was going on…No one told us what to do. In those days no one expected us to have a hit.”
Heart begins work on a second album but are tempted into leaving Canada’s Mushroom Records for Portrait, an affiliate of the U.S. CBS Records. This prompts Mushroom to sue the group for breach of contract, stranding their partially completed follow-up in legal limbo.
At Portrait, Heart put together ‘Little Queen’ (1977) (US no. 9, UK no. 34, AUS no. 22). The whole band (with the exception of Steve Fossen) is credited with writing the pilot single, ‘Barracuda’ (US no. 11, AUS no. 15). A galloping Roger Fisher guitar riff spirals off into a breakneck rocker. “You’d have me down, down, down on my knees / Now would’ncha, Barracuda?” taunts Ann Wilson. The subject of the song is an American record company executive. “Possibly it’s the song that will be remembered the best,” confides Ann. “That song shows us at our most angry.” This is not a charge that could be levelled at ‘Love Alive’, an acoustic guitar meditation with Ann contributing some flute playing. Roger Fisher shares a writing credit with the Wilson girls for ‘Love Alive’. The group as a whole composes the title track, ‘Little Queen’ (US no. 62), a gilt-edged glam rock number. Ann Wilson alone writes ‘Kick It Out’ (US no. 74), a barroom rock out. ‘Little Queen’ is recorded in Seattle rather than Vancouver as Heart spend more time in the U.S.A. Nancy Wilson says this disc is “A trippy record…It was a psychedelic record.”
A judge makes the decision that Mushroom is entitled to release Heart’s shelved second album, but not without allowing the group to complete it to their satisfaction. So it is that ‘Magazine’ (1978) (US no. 17, AUS no. 66), Heart’s ‘second’ album, actually becomes, in April, their third official release. Inevitably, it’s somewhat compromised due to its troubled birth. “’Magazine’ was a good concept album,” Nancy Wilson decides, adding that it is “a cool idea.” It comes packaged with little clippings as though it is really a magazine. The album’s highlight is ‘Heartless’ (US no. 24), an ode to a love doctor who is “Sinning in the name of rock ‘n’ roll.” It’s a song notable for a funk rock feel with a popping bass, giving Heart’s by now familiar rock some new colouration.
‘Dog And Butterfly’ (1978) (US no. 17, AUS no. 48) in October embodies the schism in Heart’s songs by making one side hard rock (‘Dog’) and the record’s other side ballads (‘Butterfly’). Ann Wilson explains, “We thought, well, this band really has two natures, so we’ll have a soft side – or a more spiritual, sensual side – and we’ll have a kick-a** side.” The title track, ‘Dog And Butterfly’ (US no. 34), is perhaps Heart’s most effective acoustic song. A father tells his daughter a parable, “You see the dog and butterfly / Up in the air he’d like to fly,” to make her realise she can’t always get what she wants. It’s not very flattering, but it is a hard lesson that needs to be learned. This track is co-written by the Wilson sisters and Sue Ennis, a songwriter they will work with a number of times in the future. The same team’s responsible for the insistently funky ‘Straight On’ (US no. 15). Ann gives the vocal her best shriek and bids huskily, “Deal me in.”
In 1979 the relationships between the Wilson sisters and Fisher brothers come to an end with the same virtual simultaneity as they began. Nancy Wilson takes up with Heart’s drummer, Michael De Rosier. Mike Fisher relinquishes his role as manager and Roger Fisher leaves the band – without being replaced. Heart downsizes from a six-piece band to a five-piece unit. Although of necessity it means Nancy Wilson takes on more responsibility as a guitarist, it is actually Howard Leese who most often is lead guitarist.
February’s ‘Bebe Le Strange’ (1980) (US no. 5, AUS no. 78) is a transitional work. The group relocates from Portrait to Epic, another CBS affiliate. The title track, ‘Bebe Le Strange’ (US no. 109), is co-written by Ann and Nancy Wilson, Sue Ennis and Roger Fisher (indicating it was begun before his departure from Heart). The character of ‘Bebe Le Strange’ is a kind of role model for female rockers: “It gets you thinking of Johnny B. Goode [the guitar-playing folk hero of Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit] / And you know you ain’t no man.” Nancy Wilson’s pretty instrumental, ‘Silver Wheels’, is all the more effective because it contrasts so strongly with the song it precedes, ‘Break’. The latter is one of Heart’s most uninhibited thrash fests. Sue Ennis co-writes ‘Break’ with the Wilson sisters and the same team composes ‘Even It Up’ (US no. 33), the album’s highlight. This sounds like the kind of stuff Heart played as ‘a Vancouver bar band’, albeit with a punchy horn section backing up the guitar volleys. “A good man pays his debt / But you ain’t paid yours yet,” chuckles Ann Wilson in the lyrics. “We always wrote songs about things that were happening to us,” notes Ann.
‘Greatest Hits / Live’ (1980) (US no. 13, UK no. 4) in November ‘compounds the confusion’ about Heart. This is a double album consisting, as the title suggests, of a collection of hits on one disc and live recordings on the other. The live set includes a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock And Roll’ but also sneaks in a new studio recording, a coolly soulful take on Aaron Neville’s 1967 hit ‘Tell It Like It Is’ (US no. 8, AUS no. 51).
‘Private Audition’ (1982) (US no. 25, UK no. 77) is best known for the finger-clickin’ pop of ‘This Man Is Mine’ (US no. 33), another song on which Sue Ennis assists the Wilson sisters.
Long-time rhythm section Steve Fossen and Michael De Rosier depart before Heart’s next album. Presumably De Rosier’s exit coincides with the end of his relationship with Nancy Wilson. Mark Andes (bass) and Denny Carmassi (drums) debut on ‘Passionworks’ (1983) (US no. 39). The group composition ‘How Can I Refuse’ (US no. 44) is a guitar soundtrack to desire. ‘Allies’ (US no. 83), a song written by Jonathan Caine of corporate rock act Journey, is a blustering indicator of what is to come.
‘Passionworks’ ‘slumps’ and ‘the group is largely written off by industry watchers.’ CBS / Epic lets go of Heart and Capitol Records picks up their contract.
There is a price to pay. “It was a prescribed thing then that rock bands…were going to be doing songs by [Los Angeles] songwriters,” Ann Wilson remembers. “They weren’t even willing to entertain original songs by Nancy and me as singles, even though they were on the records.” Heart has some advantage over other acts of the era in so far as they are actually a working band and have been for years. Their corporate masters have more in store for them. “All of a sudden you had to look like hot models and be perfect in every way,” Ann notes. “That was when MTV was starting up.” MTV, a cable television network, is devoted to broadcasting music videos twenty-four hours a day. So Heart are groomed for maximum airtime. This being the 1980s, it means big hair, big shoulder pads and big heels. “My feet hurt just thinking about the ‘80s,” quips Nancy Wilson later.
‘Heart’ (1985) (US no. 1, UK no. 19, AUS no. 37) launches the new version of the band. ‘What About Love’ (US no. 10, AUS no. 28) announces what is to come with atmospheric bold strokes. Ann and Nancy Wilson get to contribute to the songwriting of ‘Never’ (US no. 4, AUS no. 48), as does Holly Knight, a notable female songwriter. With bright piano fused to rockin’ pop, this is probably the album’s best track. “You’re bangin’ your head again / ‘Cos somebody won’t let you in,” sings Ann in what may be a disguised comment on the band’s own situation. ‘These Dreams’ (US no. 1, UK no. 62, AUS no. 27) is co-written by Martin Page and Bernie Taupin, the regular lyricist for pop maestro Elton John. The song was originally offered to Stevie Nicks and it is easy to see how it would have suited her witchy stylings. Instead, it becomes a rare showcase for Nancy Wilson as lead vocalist. She sounds surprisingly similar to Ann, but maybe a little quieter and gentler. “That was a marriage made in heaven – Nancy’s voice and that song,” comments Ann. This soft metal ballad is also Heart’s first no. 1 single. The controlled, measured rock of ‘Nothin’ At All’ (US no. 10, UK no. 76, AUS no. 87) is also present on this album as well as ‘If Looks Could Kill’ (US no. 54), which works up a bit of steam. ‘Heart’ is produced by Ron Nevison as is its follow-up.
On 27 July 1986 Nancy Wilson marries Cameron Crowe, a filmmaker who will go on to direct such movies as ‘Jerry Maguire’ (1996), ‘Almost Famous’ (2000) and ‘Vanilla Sky’ (2001).
“If you have a no. 1 hit on the radio, life changes so radically,” Ann Wilson points out. “We flew on private airplanes,” Nancy Wilson says. “We had our dogs with us on the plane and it was really an overblown kind of time.” The title of Heart’s next album, ‘Bad Animals’ (1987) (US no. 2, UK no. 7, AUS no. 10), is a joke on the band and their pets. Hit-makers Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly provide Heart with the song titled ‘Alone’ (US no. 1, UK no. 3, AUS no. 6). Listening to her sister perform the song, Nancy claims, “That is soulful stuff.” Ann herself says of this dramatic piano ballad, “’Alone’…does present physical challenges because it has to go high and low.” Steinberg and Kelly place another song on the album, the aching, half-paced ‘I Want You So Bad’ (US no. 49). Holly Knight returns on this album. She co-writes ‘There’s The Girl’ (US no. 12, UK no. 34) with Nancy Wilson, a track that plasters rock across keyboard pop. Dianne Warren, another famed hired-gun songwriter, contributes the well-groomed rock of the defiant ‘Who Will You Run To’ (US no. 7, UK no. 30, AUS no. 62).
The Richie Zito produced ‘Brigade’ (1990) (US no. 3, UK no. 3, AUS no. 11) closes out Heart’s time in what Nancy Wilson calls an “inauthentic landscape.” She also claims, “It was a little hard to live behind because the image of it was intensely unreal.” ‘All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You’ (US no. 2, UK no. 8, AUS no. 1), a song written by Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, prompts Ann Wilson to react against the songs the group is being handed. She positively hates it. “What does it even mean?” she exclaims irritably. Well Ann, it’s a soap opera about a woman who uses a man to get herself pregnant since her regular partner (husband?) is apparently infertile. The song was originally intended for Don Henley, best known for his country rock days with The Eagles. One can only assume it goes through a pretty heavy duty rewrite to alter the narrator’s gender to a female perspective before Ann Wilson sings it. Mutt also lands the polite hard rock of ‘Wild Child’ on ‘Brigade’. Diane Warren provides the Mills & Boon romance novel meets metal of ‘I Didn’t Want To Need You’ (US no. 23, UK no. 47). ‘Stranded’ (US no. 13, UK no. 60) and ‘Secret’ (US no. 64, UK no. 79) also come from this album.
Although unmarried and apparently unattached to any man, Ann Wilson adopts a daughter, Marie, in 1991. She later also adopts a son, Dustin, in 1998.
Heart steers an unusual course over the next few years. After a concert recording, ‘Rock The House Live!’ (1991) (US no. 107, UK no. 58), Ann and Nancy Wilson take a sabbatical. They put together The Lovemongers, an acoustic quartet, in which they are joined by Frank Cox and their songwriting buddy, Sue Ennis. The Lovemongers issue a four song EP in 1992 and full-length albums in 1997 and 1998. This is threaded through Heart’s continuing activities. ‘Desire Walks On’ (1993) (US no. 48, UK no. 32) sees Mark Andes and Denny Carmassi depart to be replaced by Fernando Saunders (bass) and Denny Fongheiser (drums). ‘The Road Home’ (1994) (US no. 87) is a live album produced by John Paul Jones, the bassist from Led Zeppelin, a band that Heart counts as a major influence. In 1995 Nancy Wilson tells her sister, “I don’t want to do Heart anymore, at least for a while.” From 1995 to 1998, Ann tours with an all-new version of Heart with the sole exception of faithful guitarist Howard Leese. Then from 1998 to 2002 Heart is put on hiatus all together.
With the aid of an egg-donor and surrogate, Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe become the parents of twin sons, Curtis and William (born 23 January 2000).
Heart is reactivated again in 2002 as Ann and Nancy Wilson again join forces. Howard Leese does not return to the fold. Subsequently, a rather bewildering array of other musicians shuffles through the ranks of Heart. ‘Jupiter’s Darling’ (2004) (US no. 94, UK no. 120) is the first album of this new era.
Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe separate on 13 June 2008 and divorce on 9 December 2010.
Heart carries on with the album ‘Red Velvet Car’ (2010) (US no. 10, UK no. 196).
In September 2012 the Wilson sisters’ memoir ‘Kicking and Screaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is published. The following month, Heart releases a new album, ‘Fanatic’ (2012) (US no. 24, UK no. 142).
‘Beautiful Broken’ (2016) (US no. 105, UK no. 77) is a mix of new songs and Heart’s reinterpretations of their past hits.
Heart’s best music was produced in the 1970s. This was when the band was free to exercise their individuality and write their own music. The 1980s era Heart was less distinctive. However, if the band had not been willing to make the changes required of them (e.g. using outside songwriters, a more calculated image), their career could have ended with the 1970s. For at least some of their fans, Heart in the 1980s was the definitive version. It was certainly the most commercially prosperous incarnation. Ann and Nancy Wilson shared a musical as well as sisterly bond, and this was, if you will, the ‘heart’ of Heart. ‘Heart is remembered for its often excellent music rather than simply as one of the earliest bands to introduce women as rock instrumentalists.’ ‘Heart managed to touch millions of fans around the world with a distinctive sound that’s both aggressive and honest – music that appealed to the dog and butterfly in each of us.’
- wikipedia.org as at 1 July 2013, 4 January 2017
- Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson speaking at the music expo SXSW (South by Southwest) in the U.S.A. (9-18 March 2012)
- Notable names database – nndb.com as at 1 July 2013
- ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine – Ann Wilson interview conducted by Jessica Hopper (21 May 2012) (reproduced on rollingstone.com)
- allmusic.com, ‘Heart’ by Jason Ankeny, Greg Prato as at 4 August 2013
- ‘The Essential Heart’ – Sleeve notes by David Wild (Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 2002) p. 3, 4, 5, 10
- Nancy Wilson speaking on U.K. television (1985)
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 24, 102
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 107, 157
- ‘Kicking and Screaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock ‘n’ Roll’ by Ann Wilson, Nancy Wilson, Charles R. Cross (Harper Collins, 2012). Excerpt published in ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (17 September 2012) (reproduced on rollingstone.com)
- ‘The DVD & Video Guide 2007’ by Mick Martin, Marsha Porter (Ballantine Books, 2006) p. 26, 582, 1212
Song lyrics copyright Warner / Chappell Music with the exceptions of ‘Magic Man’ and ‘Crazy On You’ (both Rondor Music P/L) and ‘Heartless’ (Control)
Last revised 12 January 2017