Icon: Nina Simone
To say Nina Simone was “one of a kind” is an understatement. Her particular talents and passions absorbed, in seemingly equal measure, Bach, southern spirituals and oddball pop hits. Her activities ranged from the radically political to party animal (she loved to strip off her clothes and dance the night away). Then, of course, there was Simone’s musical genius: that phenomenally expressive yet flat-sounding voice, coupled with possibly the best piano hands of her generation.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933, Simone grew up poor but proud in the best ways. Her parents had been financially comfortable until the privations of the Great Depression, and never ceased striving to improve the lives of their eight children. As Simone herself wrote in her candid and fascinating autobiography I Put A Spell on You (1991, written with Stephen Cleary), “Everything that happened to me as a child involved music.” She was picking out songs on her mother’s upright from the age of two, and soon thereafter began formal classical piano lessons.
The rest of Simone’s childhood would have been amazing enough had she been a boy born with this sort of talent in 19th Century Vienna: she practiced as much as possible, all day, every day, preparing for auditions to classical conservatories. But for a black girl in the Jim Crow south, her devotion and unswerving self-assurance was miraculous. When, in her early 20s, Simone was shocked not to receive admission to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, she had to figure out how to make a living. In the course of playing accompaniment and club gigs, she ended up inventing her own musical genre.
The next stage of Simone’s life may be best construed from her musical path. Though she started in the fifties with coolly complex versions of jazz tunes such as “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “Porgy,” Simone began to write her own songs by the 60s – spurred on by friendships with intellectuals and revolutionaries from James Baldwin to Stokely Carmichael. There’s more black history in the anthems “Young, Gifted and Black,” “Four Women,” and “Mississippi Goddam” than in many textbooks.
The years following the Black Power Movement’s peak were not always kind to those who’d been on the front lines. “I’d presumed I could change the world,” Simone wrote, “and had run down a dead-end street leaving my career, child, and husband way behind, neglected.” Pursued by ghosts – and the IRS – she left the United States by the mid-70s, rarely returning for any length of time until her death in 2003. Her last few decades may have been less creatively fertile than those that had come before; even so, she continued to draw sold-out crowds around the world. Her influence can be heard in artists from Rickie Lee Jones to the Roots, but there’s never been another artist quite like her.
Don’t Call It Jazz
Simone's second record on RCA starts out a little middle-of-the-road. But then comes "Look O' Love" and all of a sudden she's is channeling New Orleans keyboard masters James Booker or Dr. John (or even Randy Newman) with thrilling results. The album's other obvious standout is "I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free," a song that feels traditional but was actually penned by the great jazz pianist... Billy Taylor. When she gets to "Save Me," a tune written and made famous by Aretha Franklin, Silk & Soul has reached a typically Simone-ic weird-out apex. It is especially strange to remember that by the time of this album's release Simone was not only at the height of her political activism, but also believed the United States was on the verged of armed revolution. So what's up with covering "Cherish" by sixties pop group the Association?more »
Protest Singer: from Civil Rights to Black Power
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on April 4, 1968, and Simone recorded Nuff Said live at New York's Westbury Music Fair, on April 7. In the ensuing three days, riots erupted in many American cities, scores of people died and thousands were arrested. Listening to this record, however, provides a measured perspective on that heartbreaking, enraging time. To many people, Simone included, the spirit of nonviolence died with... Dr. King, and while she's clearly angry (on "Backlash Blues," especially), her sadness and fear far dominate the performance. As Simone sings her tribute, "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)" (which she premiered that night), "Will our country stand and fall? Is it too late for us all?" 40 years later, the answer still feels unclear.more »
This compilation of Simone's "freedom songs" her own preferred term is incredible. Forever begins with the studio cut of "Young, Gifted and Black," and it's not only worth having this and the live version from Black Gold but both Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway's covers as well the song's just that good. These unedited versions of "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)" and "Mississippi Goddam" are unreleased elsewhere. "Mississippi's" infamous chorus... consists of Simone listing various "solutions" to America's racial problems, with the band shouting "Too slow!" after each one. When, in a break between these, she tells her audience, "I ain't 'bout to be nonviolent, honey!" it's as shocking as "Turn! Turn! Turn! (There is a Season)" is simple and beautiful.more »
One of Simone's great gifts as a pianist was her ability to break elements of familiar songs down to their bare bones, and then build them up in a way that recalled an earlier, and more complex musical era. For such a virtuoso, these '60s pop songs were perfect starting points, familiar, but not iconic until she finished with them. While the arrangements are often weird (the strings and background vocals sound... more goofy than hep) her piano is gorgeous, strange, simple, and rich. If you've got a soft spot for Dylan covers, I particularly recommend "Just Like a Woman" and "Tom Thumb's Blues." "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today," is also wonderful. Randy Newman's mix of sentiment and acerbity is a perfect fit for the high Priestess of Soul.more »
While many of the songs here are available on other albums and compilations (and with better sound quality), Protest is an essential for listeners who would like to hear Simone's own powerful opinions on her music. As a series of unnamed interviewers discuss her most controversial and political songs, the singer does not hold back. For example, when one of the interviewers asks, "Did you find at any time of your career... you were hassled about these songs?" Simone answers, "Oh yes. I'm quite pleased!" She goes on to explain how a range of listeners, black and white, male and female, felt offended by "Four Women," explaining, with no irony, "I'm glad it touches them."more »
Expatriate or Exile?
"Trust the art, not the artist," someone smart once said.more »
They might as well have been talking about Baltimore, an album loathed by its creator but liked by many listeners of taste.
Tellingly, it's the sole album the notoriously ornery Simone ever cut for the jazz label CTI. She had no control over its content, and so disavowed it shortly after its release in 1978. Perhaps the only things Simone has to be mildly... embarrassed about are some of the arrangements which, unlike most in her elastic cannon, peg the disc to its time. Whiffs of late '70s disco funk mar the work, as does the ill-advised move to cover Hall & Oates' then huge "Rich Girl."
Of course, Simone made a career out of offering boldly re-thought versions of popular songs, turning familiar pieces into her own patented mix of art-song, soul ballad and jazz vamp. The best covers here receive that individual stamp.
The title track, written by Randy Newman, suffered a satirist's distance in the author's context. But Simone sings it from the inside, not only capturing a city down on its luck but adding a subtext of racial strife in her haunted and frustrated vocal.
Simone turns existential in a revelatory run at Judy Collins' "My Father." The dreaminess in her voice, as well as the shower of strings in the arrangement, gives the piece a surreal quality that nails its will to sweep through several generations of experience.
While the production on the album can show a heavy hand, Simone's erudite piano work pokes through on several signature songs.
By Simone's towering standards, Baltimore will never hold a capitol place. But, if nothing else, it proves, once and for all, that an interpretive genius like Simone can only go so wrong.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, NC, the late jazzy chanteuse and pianist known as Nina Simone is an icon in the black community — even after her eventual "defection" to France, where she lived out the remainder of her life — particularly (and to the world at large as well) for her post-war refresh of the vocal jazz aesthetic and her activism. However, despite tending to be classified as a jazz... or sometimes a soul artist, Simone's music is truly unclassifiable, swinging as it does from hillbilly classics ("Cotton-Eyed Joe") to pop to blues ("House of the Rising Sun") to standards and island folk ("See Line Woman"). (The gem is the rockin '"No Opportunity Necessary," also done brilliantly by Richie Havens.)more »