Nina Simone is a unique voice in the annuls of soul history. Trained as a classical pianist in segregated North Carolina, and retaining a desire to perform such material while upholding one of the most acclaimed vocal jazz careers of the sixties. Her war-like persona is almost as famous as her music; but her passion radiates through her deep, expressive voice and a catalogue of fantastic material – containing some of the most iconic ballads ever laid to wax. For a woman whose best work was recorded more than half a century ago, Simone’s talent still stands tall and touches deeply to this day. Here’s my guide on where to start.
Her 1958 debut album Little Girl Blue was unusually quick to tap the essence of Simone’s talent. It’s a jazzier record than some of her later big band efforts but is also in many places a more stripped back one, focussing on the strength of her voice and the delicacy of her classically trained piano. ‘Plain Gold Ring’ sees her performing a Doors-esque dirge 10 years before Jim Morrison would, and her first classic ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ sees Simone at her melodic best; piano chords falling like jackhammers.
1965’s I Put A Spell On You is an easy access as it contains two of her most iconic songs; ‘I Put A Spell On You’ and soundtrack to every perfume commercial ever; ‘Feeling Good.’ The bombast of these tracks lasts through the whole album however, whilst retaining Nina’s idiosyncrasies – just look at the crazy vocal improvisations on the tail end of the title track, or the French ballad ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas.’ Much of Nina’s classic material though sees her in her natural territory; performing live. 1964’s Nina Simone In Concert lives up to its title; seeing Nina giving stunning vocal performances on the likes of ‘Pirate Jenny’ and ‘Don’t Smoke In Bed’ but also displaying her reluctant but charming humour on ‘Go Limp’ where she forgets the lyrics to her own song.
1966’s Wild Is The Wind opens the door to two more of Nina’s facets. Firstly on the track ‘Four Women’ is her strident political civil rights edge, but also here is her deep and trembling darkness. Her renditions of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ and ‘Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair’ are deep and trudging; almost dirge like, and Simone’s twisted baritone imbues the songs with a stunning alien anguish. The only other place that pops up outside of her music is in this year’s Netflix Original documentary Whatever Happened, Miss Simone?: an at times joyous, but ultimately heart-breaking, portrayal of the troubled singer which really opens the door to much of her work.
Simone’s position in the jazz world means that much of her best work isn’t so easy to get into; 1970’s Black Gold for example see’s songs stretched over ten minutes in length and broken down to their core rhythm. Simone’s greatest artistic achievement though is almost certainly 1964’s Pastel Blues. Starting with the stunning ‘Be My Husband’ in which Nina wails and improvises over a simple drum beat; and closes with two of her most famous tracks; ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Sinnerman.’ Kanye’s sample of the first on 2013’s Yeezus may have brought it resurgence but it rather knocked the potency from a pained ballad positing lynched black bodies as fruit on a tree. The final track is her finest jazz shuffle, iconic from its opening notes and shooting off like a strange rocket ship, a breakdown seeing Nina just screaming “Power! Powerrr!”
Her best live work came after her initial successes in 1976, having retreated from the public eye to Africa and Switzerland, Nina Simone, Live At Montreux is filled with expanded swing versions of some of her best material, but its most stunning moment comes in the 17 minute medley ‘Stars/Feelings.’ Simone was a woman near broken by her fame, so to hear her performing the Janis Ian track which goes “stars they come and go/they come fast or slow/They go like the last light of the sun/all in a blaze all you see is glory/but hey, it gets lonely” is a startling musical moment.
Blues On Purpose
The nature of the record industry in the sixties before The Beatles’ revolution meant LPs were mostly just collections of songs rather than a coherent set, and the pressure on artists to produce more than once yearly means that many are hit and miss. Some of Simone’s very best songs like ‘Aint Got No, Ain’t Got No Life’, ‘Don’t Let Me Be Miss Understood’ and ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ all stand alone on their respective albums. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some lesser cuts where the good still far outweighs the bad though.
1959’s Amazing Nina Simone shows off another side to her repertoire; that of the big band sound and cool-jazz instrumentation. ‘Stompin’ At The Savoy’ lives up to its joint-flexing title and ‘That’s Him Over There’ displays gorgeously the ice queen’s warm heart.
Also from 1959 came Nina Simone At Town Hall; a stripped back set of songs that, with tracks like ‘The Other Woman’, put heartbreak to the fore. 1967’s Simone Sings The Blues is an interesting oddity in the collection too; seeing Nina trying her hand at blues and Americana; harmonica rips all over this thing like a Dylan record. ‘I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl’ is instantly iconic.
In classic Nina defiance her 1969 album Nina Simone And Piano saw her respond to her commercial success with a concept album featuring only her and a baby Grand; but with this being the essence of her being, there are some fantastic tracks here, like her haunting rendition of ‘Desperate Ones’ – and indeed she said it’s the one she wants to be remembered by.
1993 saw her release her final album, A Single Woman, and despite being one her most simple sets it a hard listen. Although it was recorded a decade before her death she sounds in pain here; with an ever deeper voice and a gravity of loss; ‘Love’s Been Good To Me’ is haunting on sentimentality alone.
2013’s Nina by Xiu Xiu is also worth a look – a collection of covers by the art rock band which features some stunningly weird avant-garde jazz reinterpretations of some obscure Nina songs; it’s impenetrably in every way, and for that reason is probably the only tribute album to really capture the essence of her. It also taps the final side to Nina Simone the likes of David Bowie and Nick Cave would most definitely attest to: that of the influencer.
Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out
After a mental breakdown in the early seventies, even abandoning her young daughter with her father in America, Nina’s output lulled to almost nothing and the quality was hurt. 1978’sBaltimore for example saw her performing arrangements and songs she had no say in, and 1982’s Fodder On My Wings has even fallen out of circulation.
Some of her biggest records were also some of her most lacking: High Priestess Of Soul is mostly just forgettable standards and 1963’s Forbidden Fruit is much of the same, although it’s probably worth trying for ‘Work Song’, the start of a politicism that would derail her career for a time. Unsurprisingly she didn’t take a soft approach, saying explicitly ‘I was never non-violent.’
Nina Simone was a tragic figure in many ways. The ‘high priestess of soul’ never liked her most famous moniker and perhaps that was because it rung too close to home; it was lonely at the top. Abused by her husband, victim of the same discrimination all of her race at the time endured; drug and sex addict and schizophrenic, her life evoked great sympathy while her rock-hard demeanour made it hard to give. Her music though immortalises her – an incredible instrumental talent, an iconic voice both commanding and vulnerable to its core: Nina Simone made some of the most glorious jazz and soul music of the 20th century, and it’s well worth paying her her dues.