The remarkable Nina Simone ranks alongside Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald as one of the great voices of black music. Not only that, but she ranks alongside James Brown in the music world as a proponent of civil rights, a cause she espoused from early in her career after being rejected by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute on, she felt, racial grounds.
Born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina in 1933, she showed an early aptitude for both organ and piano which led to her attending New York’s Juilliard School of Music. She started moonlighting from her classical studies to make a living as a singer. Her stage name combined Nina (‘little one’, a nickname from an Hispanic boyfriend) with Simone (borrowed from French actress Simone Signoret). A night-club date in Atlantic City saw her signed by the Bethlehem label, and the first session yielded the Billie Holiday-inspired US Top 20 hit ‘I Loves You Porgy’.
The two albums combined here were her second and third studio efforts for Columbia Pictures’ Colpix label. She joined them with the promise of complete artistic control and proceeded to exploit that to the full, recording ten LPs before moving on to Philips in 1964.
Recorded in New York with producer Cal Lampley in 1961 and released that same year, ‘Forbidden Fruit’ was an eclectic mix. The ten tracks of the original release (augmented here by a generous eight bonus cuts) include three compositions from the outrageously talented Oscar Brown Jr, including the title track and the opening ‘Rags And Old Iron’. ‘Gin House Blues’ would become a chart item in the hands of Amen Corner in 1967, while Nina herself would revisit the song on 1968’s ‘Nuff Said’ album. She also re-recorded Oscar Brown’s ‘Work Song’ on several occasions and in different musical settings, its tale of an oppressive chain gang clearly resonating.
The instrumental trio of Chris White (bass), Al Schackman (guitar) and Bob Hamilton (drums) provide sympathetic backing to Simone’s voice and piano. Schackman in particular shines on ‘Just Say I Love Him’ and the previously mentioned ‘Rags And Old Iron’.
The original sleeve note of ‘Forbidden Fruit’, when released on vinyl, read as follows: ‘In “Forbidden Fruit”, Nina Simone sings of people in love and the circumstances that sometimes keep them from it. While some of the songs are conventional in the sense that their melodies are haunting and in the love song tradition, others are concerned more with the realities of troubled love… This album, more than ever, proves Nina’s amazing versatility and stamps her again as one of the great talents of our time.’
Music trade journal Billboard was enthusiastic about its sales potential, stating in its 5 June edition: ‘While this excellent album features mostly vocal stylings, there are spots which showcase the gal’s powerful piano technique. The act should go well with her many fans and could make a distinctive pop-jazz item.’
While Nina’s black and white picture was hardly prominent on the cover of ‘Forbidden Fruit’, the over of ‘Sings Ellington’ featured a larger colour head shot. It was to have been a full-length picture, but plans were changed as Simone was pregnant. The album also appeared in an alternative sleeve with a white background, coloured typography and small head shot surmounted by a coronet, while a later Golden Guinea label issue in Britain unaccountably had Duke Ellington’s portrait larger than Nina’s herself!
The album, as the title suggests, showcased 11 songs written by and associated with the great jazz bandleader. The Malcolm Dodds Singers supplied backing vocals to augment Nina and her piano, an unidentified orchestra also present on the 1961 sessions. Her approach was typically unorthodox, ‘Satin Doll’ being tackled as an instrumental and ‘I Got It Bad’ possessing a gospel feel.
The album was released in 1962, and its original sleevenote read in part: ‘It was inevitable that Nina would one day sing Duke Ellington, and that day, much-waited and much-wanted, is happily here… Ellington’s individualistic and timeless music is complemented perfectly by one of the great stylists of our time. Her range, through the Ellington standards and the lesser-known but nonetheless unique creations is nothing short of masterful.’
Nina Simone spent much of her later life in exile and, when she passed away in April 2003, was living just outside Marseille, France. Twice married and divorced, she was survived by daughter Lisa. Her ashes were scattered in several African countries, symbolising both her nomadic lifestyle and affinity with the continent.
Artists as diverse as Laura Nyro and Diana Krall have had reason to doff their stylistic cap to Nina Simone, while even John Lennon, another politically motivated musician, credited her as having inspired the Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ through her version of ‘I Put A Spell On You’. These albums were recorded before the Fab Four first ventured into the studio with George Martin but retain their vibrancy and immediacy despite the passage of half a century.