Nina Simone was more than just a singer. History ranks her alongside James Brown as a proponent of civil rights for black Americans, while her legendary temperament was enough to intimidate musicians, audiences and promoters alike.
Yet her delivery, originally inspired by Billie Holiday, of even the most banal of lyrics put her in the premier league of jazz and soul divas. Indeed, many critics believe that no-one since has approached Simone's achievements as a vocalist/instrumentalist.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, the sixth of eight children in North Carolina in 1933, she showed early promise at the piano and made her concert debut with a classical recital at the age of ten. (It’s said her parents were forced to leave the front row to make way for white people, and she stubbornly refused to continue until they were moved back.)
She was given free music lessons by a local teacher, while the local black community set up a fund to
finance her musical education. But she moonlighted from her classical piano studies at New York’s Juilliard School of Music to make a living in the New Jersey night-clubs. Her stage name combined Nina (‘little one’, a nickname given her by an Hispanic boyfriend) and Simone (borrowed from French actress Simone Signoret), while she began singing through necessity to augment her evident instrumental skills.
A club date in Atlantic City saw her signed by the Bethlehem label, and the very first session yielded the 1959 US Top 20 hit ‘I Loves You Porgy’ from Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess. (‘Summertime’ also came from that source.) She would tackle many more show tunes over the course of her career, a later example her biggest UK hit single ‘Ain’t Got No – I Got Life’ from the hippie musical Hair which climbed to Number 2 in 1968.
We feature all the songs from her original debut album, recorded in New York in 1957 and released on the Bethlehem label. Originally titled ‘Jazz As Played In An Exclusive Side Street Club’, it is perhaps better known as ‘Little Girl Blue’ from one of its many standout tracks.
The record included three instrumentals – ‘Good Bait’, ‘You'll NeverWalk Alone’ and ‘Central Park Blues’, plus ‘I Loves You Porgy’, the tune that got her signed, and seven more songs. Among these is ‘Plain Gold Ring’, later covered by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’. The latter would expose the talents of Nina Simone to a new generation when it became the theme of a TV ad campaign for Chanel No 5 perfume in 1987, and a UK Top 5 hit for good measure.
Her classical training is showcased throughout, while it is good to hear her with just the drums of Tootie Heath and bass of Jimmy Bond as accompaniment, as opposed to the big arrangements with which some of her later work was encumbered.
She also exhibited a flair for rearranging songs and challenging preconceptions. The Duke Ellington standard ‘Mood Indigo’, almost always played at a slow tempo, is here delivered in a swinging version that sounds quite natural. Conversely her slow, soulful, rendition of ‘Good Bait’ transforms a normally upbeat song, while choosing to ignore the over-familiar lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘You'll Never Walk Alone’ adds unexpected intensity to the Carousel classic.Taken as a whole, the result is one of the all-time great jazz albums (though, typically, Nina preferred the term ‘Black Classical Music’ to be applied to her work).
When Nina Simone passed away in April 2003, she was living in the Mediterranean town of Carry-le-Rouet just outside Marseille. Her ashes were scattered in several African countries, symbolising both her nomadic lifestyle and affinity with the continent. A compilation album released that year made the UK Top 30, the third such release in a decade to do so, underlining the respect in which she was held by her audience.
Alicia Keys, Jeff Buckley, Mary J Blige and Lauryn Hill are among recent artists to have paid homage to the High Priestess of Soul; now it’s our turn.
Also available on CD