NO ONE NEED remind Nancy Wilson that in pop music, as in life, what goes around comes around. Time was, and not all that long ago, when Wilson's brand of intimate balladry was a rarity on the radio. Then up popped Anita Baker, Regina Belle and Phyllis Hyman -- singers who view Wilson as one of their primary influences and, in some cases, their mentor, just as Wilson had looked upon Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington in her youth.
"I was the baby of that group," says Wilson, who has a new record out -- "A Lady With a Song" -- and will perform with her trio Saturday at Baird Auditorium. "I was already signed to Capitol and fairly well established when I met Dinah, but she was always very kind to me. So were Sarah and Ella. It wasn't that they made things happen for you; they just made you feel secure, and that's important. They were concerned . . . . I've been there for Regina and also for Anita. In some ways we're closer than I was with the people who I met coming up because we have more access to each other these days."
Speaking from her home outside of Palm Springs, Calif., where she now spends half of each year away from the rigors of the road, Wilson recalls the first inkling she had that things were going to take a turn for the better.
"I think it started with Whitney Houston," she explains. "Not so much that she sounds like me but because the singer was being heard over the music again. We were hearing big ballads and great songs again. That helped pave the way for the rest. But there's always been a station in every city that would play my music and my kind of music. You just had to go out and find it."
And just what kind of music is Wilson's? Pop, R&B, jazz, gospel? There are elements of each in her unusually expressive and dramatic delivery.
"I don't do one thing to the exclusion of another," she insists. "I don't see why people have to be put in a box. I certainly am jazz-oriented, but I'm not specifically a jazz singer. The object of the game is to get hold of material you love and sing. I can't sing unless I'm happy."
The new emphasis on lyrics in pop hasn't surprised her, Wilson adds. Nothing surprises her.
"I never look beyond today because you never know what's going to happen. I watched the recording industry self-destruct for a while. There was all this disco and you couldn't find anything you wanted to hear on the radio if you were over 16. The music had to come back because these people had to grow up," she says. "There's always going to be someone who's a teenager, but the bottom line is that my generation stopped buying records and now they're buying them again. But as crazy as the recording industry got, it never affected my personal appearances. Never has."
Over the years, ever since she made her area debut at the Howard Theater "many, many years ago," Washington audiences have been particularly responsive to Wilson's music. Her frequent performances here, whether at a club or a charity event, often seem as much a homecoming as a concert.
"It's nice to know that you can go to certain places and that there will always be an audience for you," she says. "And as long as there's been a club or a place to play, I've been back to Washington at least once a year ever since. I see a lot of old familiar faces, but now they are bringing their children. Actually, I've got three generations of people to keep up with now."
NANCY WILSON -- Appearing Saturday at Baird Auditorium in the National Museum of Natural History. Call 357-3030.