Nina Simone

TrackAlbum / Single 
Love Me Or Leave MeLittle Girl Blue
BlackbirdNina Simone With Strings
Mississippi GoddamNina Simone In Concert
Nobody Knows You
When You're Down And Out
Colpix CP 158
SinnermanPastel Blues
I Put A Spell On YouI Put A Spell On You
To Be Young, Gifted And BlackRCA Victor 74-0269
Take My Hand, Precious Lord'Nuff Said!
My Sweet Lord / Today Is A KillerEmergency Ward
Funkier Than A Mosquito's TweeterIt Is Finished

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Nina Simone photo

 

 

Contributor: Ian du Feu

Records take on a personality; some come and go, some hang around for a bit, a few become part of the family, and some have a magical presence.

My Baby Just Cares For Me

In late 1987, my friend gave me their favourite single, a copy of Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares for Me. I was vaguely aware of the tune; the single was re-released to accompany a Chanel No.5 TV advert and there was an early Aardman animation video too.

I was intrigued by the single; the cover photo of Nina Simone in an evening gown suggested a previous era and the title song was a perfect piece of smouldering, girly jazz pop. I flicked the record over to play the B-side, Love Me Or Leave Me, and liked it so much I played it again and again. The tune is quite upbeat and the lyric is a demanding ultimatum, all or nothing, love me or go. The piano playing is a beautiful accompaniment to the vocal and then veers off into a virtuoso break where Nina incorporates an homage to Bach, before returning to the tune. Thirty years on I still marvel at the song (originally recorded by Ruth Etting in 1928) and play it regularly.

The single rooted in firmly among my other 7″ records and acted like a deep cover agent for all things Nina Simone, occasionally encouraging me to get an album of hers. Information about Nina was a bit sketchy. Paul Weller spoke highly of her but at the same time was guarded in his recommendation, admitting some of her shows weren’t great. Thanks to the internet, and being able to see Nina’s performances, my casual interest became serious.

On September 11th 1960, Nina was a guest on the Ed Sullivan Show and this version of Love Me Or Leave Me was captured for posterity. At this point, Nina’s approach – her appearance, posture and playing – is in the style of a classical pianist.

That 7″ single from 1987 had been an entry point to Nina Simone’s legendary life for me; her background, her training, her rise to stardom, her relationship with civil rights and eventually her leaving America.

What can be said about Nina Simone that hasn’t already been said? There are biographies, documentaries and websites devoted to her and they all detail her life really well, and from different perspectives. Nearly sixty years after her initial popularity, she is still relevant and her music has an honesty which still resonates with people.

Nina’s records showcase her musical talents and cover many styles; classical, spirituals, gospel, hymns, jazz, blues, folk, show tunes, pop and soul, all are encompassed in her work. There is a whole range of emotions in the recordings. Most of all I find myself drawn to her ability to capture anger, frustration, sorrow and despair in her performances. She was able to highlight how unfair and unjust life can be through her music.

 

Nina Simone (birth name Eunice Kathleen Waymon) was born in 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina.

Nina Simone house

The house where Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born.

Eunice was the sixth of eight children and showed a natural gift for music from a very early age. She played piano and accompanied her mother, a preacher, at religious meetings. Her father was also musical and encouraged her piano playing. Local people began to notice Eunice’s talent and collected money so that she could have piano lessons. Her childhood seems to have been humble and fairly typical for the American south of the time. Her life appears to have been structured around school, church and dedication to piano practice.

At the age of twelve, Eunice gave a debut piano concert; her parents were asked to give up their seats for some white people. Eunice refused to play until her parents were reseated back at the front. This event shows the social environment of the time and also a young girl’s view of this situation. Her parents didn’t outwardly acknowledge racism. The town of Tryon was relatively integrated but it became a cause which was very important in her life.

Eunice continued to excel at the piano, and had a dream to be the first black American concert pianist. The educational fund, which had been established at church, paid for her high school education and a period at the Juilliard School in New York. This was in preparation for an application for a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Eunice was not accepted for the scholarship. Apparently there were better candidates, but she always believed this was due to racial prejudice.

At this point her family had moved to Philadelphia and Eunice needed a job to support herself and them. She began to give piano lessons and, in the evenings, performed in clubs as a piano entertainer playing a mixture of classical, folk, blues, jazz and gospel tunes. She was encouraged to sing by a club owner and quickly started to pick up interest and fans. Knowing that her mother would disapprove of her playing the devil’s music in these establishments, Eunice took the stage name of Nina Simone and kept her performances a secret.

Nina’s popularity increased; she continued giving concerts and, in 1958, recorded an album, Little Girl Blue, for Bethlehem records. She held conflicting emotions about her new vocation; it paid well but she still wanted to play classical music and be a concert pianist. Immediately, Nina sold the rights to her first album for $3000 and shut herself away for some time after the recording.

When Little Girl Blue became a surprise success (the 1987 single My Baby Just Cares For Me and the B-side Love Me Or Leave Me are taken from this album) Nina didn’t receive a cent in royalty payments. Depending on whose account you believe, Charly Records ensured Nina got what she was due, or Nina sued and was awarded a very large pay out for the use of her music. The increased exposure helped revive her career and she performed right until the last few months of her life.

After the success of Little Girl Blue she continued to play concerts. Initially, her audiences were quiet and listened appreciatively, similar to a classical concert. This wasn’t always the case but, despite becoming frustrated with chattering audiences, she was getting accustomed to the idea of being a popular entertainer.

Nina Simone’s work was recorded mainly between 1958 and 1974 (although albums were released until 1993). There are around fifty albums of which about half are live recordings, and some are a mixture of live material and studio sessions. Her live recordings are very good; she surrounded herself with great musicians and the live renditions offer different interpretations to the studio recordings.

By the early 1960s, Nina was enjoying some success. She had married, become a mother and moved to the Mount Vernon area of New York. Her near neighbours were Malcom X and his family, and Nina was increasingly a part of the 1960s civil rights movement. At the same time her husband and manager were negotiating a new improved record deal with Philips.

Although the arrangement with Colpix was terminated there was enough material in the can for a further five albums. This was taken from studio sessions, recordings at home and live material. The album Nina Simone With Strings was released by Colpix in 1966 after Nina had started recording with Philips. It is cobbled together from leftover tracks, many of which had strings added much later. The second track on the album, Blackbird, is Nina accompanied only by a shuffling rhythm. The song is a plaintive whisper of despair from somebody prejudiced by race and gender. The lyric is so affecting it leads the listener to a general feeling of pointlessness. The sentiments are surprising coming from somebody so talented and enjoying success. The song was composed by Nina and suggests a continued personal anguish. Paul McCartney was provoked into responding with his uplifting Blackbird song.

 

Nina Simone In Concert was released in 1964 and is made up from live recordings at the Carnegie Hall in New York. The album ends with Mississippi Goddam.

The tune and tempo are upbeat and owe a little to Brecht’s Alabama Song. In contrast the lyric is full of anger and outrage at the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi and also the four young schoolgirls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Carol Denise McNair, in a church bombing in Alabama. The latter atrocity came eighteen days after Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and is a harrowing reminder of the turmoil in the southern states of America in 1963. This clip from a Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 features an evening concert in support of the civil rights movement. Nina and her entourage had flown from New York to support the marches but had difficulty getting to Montgomery as airports were closed in an attempt to discourage people from coming to protest. The marches were a pivotal part of the movement, helping to achieve broader voting rights for all. The final verse of Mississippi Goddam starts:

You don’t have to live next to me,
just give me my equality.

Nina was in tune with the civil rights movement and, in turn, her music became a soundtrack to the times.

The 1965 album, I Put A Spell On You, contained more ‘pop’ covers; there was a reworking of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ song of the same name (see Toppermost #646) and also featured the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse composition for The Roar Of The Greasepaint-The Smell Of The Crowd, Feeling Good, and Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas. Nina’s version of I Put A Spell On You has a luscious swooning strings arrangement which fills the sound and her gentle piano playing is accompanied by a yearning saxophone. The vocal is quite straight, compared to the original, and you get the feeling Nina is singing to somebody who is already half asleep and firmly under her spell. She sometimes referred to the state of grace she felt when a concert was going really well and she knew the audience were enthralled in the moment. I Put A Spell On You was a fair assessment of Nina’s concerts and career.

Later in 1965, Pastel Blues was released. It has a great collection of songs from a variety of genres. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out is a classic blues, often associated with Bessie Smith and prohibition-era America. Nina manages to give the song swing, and yet keep it tight, allowing the pressure to build throughout. Nina’s relationship with the songs she covered could be a little confusing. Sometimes she derided the blues as poor music, other times she praised it as pure folk music. When it became apparent that British groups were playing blues numbers wholesale, and acknowledging their sources, Nina was interested and almost amused that what she referred to as the ‘negro’ music of her childhood had surfaced as a popular style.

Pastel Blues ends with a ten minute version of Sinnerman, a song which often concluded her concerts. Nina first came across it at her mother’s church meetings where it was used to encourage people to confess their sins. It is an African American traditional and Nina probably also knew that the song had started to be covered by a variety of groups, particularly in the Greenwich Village folk scene. The lyrics describe a sinner trying to hide from divine justice. Musically, the song is held together by a piano riff and jogging rhythm which moves on to a call and response where the audience is engaged in participating in the song. The universal theme of being accountable for one’s actions is tied to the civil rights protests but, as with most of Nina’s work, it can be interpreted from different angles and ultimately encourages the listener towards introspection.

To Be Young, Gifted And Black was released as single in 1969 and also recorded live at New York’s Philharmonic Hall in an extended version which appears on the 1970 album, Black Gold (both versions can now be found on the 2006 Nina Simone compilation CD, Forever Young, Gifted & Black: Songs Of Freedom And Spirit). This is another song which is so well known it is instantly recognisable, leading to it being covered and parodied many times. The version from Sesame Street is really good, looking like an educational film from the 1970s with an affirmative message for black America.

The tune is very catchy and the message is reinforced by the dramatic pauses between phrases. She has stated that the song wasn’t aimed at white folks and there is a theme running through her work of scaring off white people. Nina’s version of civil rights was more militant than Martin Luther King’s, incorporating separatist ideas from Malcom X. In spite of this, To Be Young, Gifted And Black has an innocent feel; it was written by Nina when she was deeply saddened by the premature death of her friend, the writer Lorraine Hansberry.

1968 saw the release of ˈNuff Said!, a (mainly) live album. It was recorded on April 7th 1968, three days after Martin Luther King’s death, at a concert that Nina dedicated to him. The track Take My Hand Precious Lord is a gospel hymn, and a song Nina probably learnt in church. The original tune by Rev. Thomas Dorsey was based on another hymn melody, Maitland. Dorsey wrote it during his inconsolable grief at the death of his wife and infant son. It was also a hymn associated with civil rights; a Martin Luther King favourite that was sung at his funeral. The documentary, Nina Simone: The Legend, has a great version of the hymn (at about seven minutes in) played by Nina in a church service. She came from a Methodist background and throughout her work there are references and songs which bear witness to her own strong relationship with religion. The version of Take My Hand Precious Lord on ˈNuff Said! is quiet, restrained and sorrowful, a complete contrast to the louder gospel rendition.

 

Emergency Ward

In 1971, the album Emergency Ward was released. It was well received, critically, but didn’t sell in large amounts. The background of the sleeve is a collage of newspaper cuttings about the Vietnam War, on top of which is scrawled in red, Emergency Ward!. Side one of the record is an eighteen minute version of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord which segues into a proto hip-hop poem by one of the original Last Poets, David Nelson; Today Is A Killer is from the soundtrack to the film, Right On. Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland had asked Nina to perform for black soldiers returning from Vietnam. Nina had agreed to this on condition that her music was used in their next two films. The sheer audacity of the request really upset Jane Fonda and was considered bad form. She wasn’t asked again.

The record itself is an amazing performance, although Nina’s recollection is that the soldiers were subdued, almost depressed. Nina’s dialogue with the Beatles’ people continues with her version of My Sweet Lord. The song is given a strident gospel makeover, returning it to one of Harrison’s inspirations for the piece, Oh Happy Day by the Edwin Hawkins Singers (he was also accused of ‘subconsciously plagiarising’ the Chiffons’ He’s So Fine). The Hare Krishna chant is dispensed with and the song has an air of pleading for peace, asking that the Lord show himself, running through to an accusation that God is a killer, which is completed with the accompanying choir’s “hallelujah”. It’s a complex and thought provoking piece, a gospel song on the holiness of God, which then calls God a killer, and accepts the accusation. This probably isn’t what George Harrison imagined when he wrote the song but Nina’s combination of these two works produces a piece which takes on a different meaning from the sources. Instead of viewing it as two separate songs, if we combine them to make a whole, then ‘My Sweet Lord Today is a Killer’ is the troubling concept of worshipping a violent god. Nina Simone’s choice of material to cover and work with was always interesting!

After her divorce and a period of living in Barbados, Nina returned to New York and financial difficulty. The IRS had taken her house in Mount Vernon in lieu of unpaid taxes, and she was at a loss of what to do next. Around this time she was befriended by David Bowie who encouraged her to continue her work as a musician.

In 1974, she performed few concerts and found herself isolated; chased by the IRS and with little support from family and friends, she decided to leave America. The final album for RCA Victor was the live It Is Finished. The album title has a biblical resonance and could refer to the civil rights movement being over, the contract with RCA being concluded, Nina’s time living in America coming to an end, or even that she thought her career was over. It Is Finished has quite an African feel, from the cover art to the instrumentation and rhythms. The version of Ike & Tina Turner’s Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter is a particularly groovy and smoky affair as Nina vents her frustration at an unnamed man.

Nina Simone left America and joined Miriam Makeba in Liberia, eventually settling there for a couple of years. There were very few recordings or performances during this time, with the notable exception of concerts in Paris and at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The album Baltimore (the title track is the Randy Newman song) was released in 1978 and was followed by a strange nomadic existence, periods in hospital, chaos and confusion. Nina spent time in Switzerland and in Canada and settled in Paris for a while. It was during this period that she released Fodder On My Wings, in 1982.

In the mid 1980s Nina played a few residencies at Ronnie Scott’s. Now visibly older, she was still able to command an audience’s attention. During this time of stability the Nina’s Back album was released. She made a return to America, performed at some large shows in Europe, and with the unexpected hit of My Baby Just Cares for Me, a new generation of fans was introduced to her music.

Nina continued to tour and, with a large supportive group of people around, her situation improved. Five of her songs were included in the film Point Of No Return starring Bridget Fonda and her work continued to be used in commercials and television series. Her autobiography, “I Put A Spell On You”, was published in 1992. Derided by some for being sentimental and fictitious, it has a beautiful lyrical style. There could still be difficulties though, and it is around this time that a duet album with Elton John was shelved when they were unable to get along.

Her final studio album, A Single Woman, was released by Elektra in 1993 when Nina was living in the south of France. Her time there was infamous; at one point it was alleged she shot at a neighbour’s children for being noisy. She continued to play concerts and she could now demand a very large fee. Her iconic status was such that she was invited to Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday party where she shared a stage with Michael Jackson.

Her last concert was in Poland on June 29th 2002. She continued to pick up a lot of recognition towards the end of her life and received an honorary award from the Curtis Institute of Music just a few days before her death; the place where she had been denied a scholarship all those years ago.

Nina Simone, the High Priestess of Soul, died of cancer on Easter Sunday 2003.

 

 

Nina Simone (1933-2003)

 

 

 

Nina Simone recorded several hundred songs in a long career. Here are 10 more that would make up Ian’s Top 20. All twenty tracks are on our Spotify playlist:

TrackAlbum
My Baby Just Cares For MeLittle Girl Blue
Pirate JennyNina Simone In Concert
Little Liza JaneNina Simone At Newport
Strange FruitPastel Blues
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be FreeSilk & Soul
Feeling GoodI Put A Spell On You
Ne Me Quitte PasI Put A Spell On You
Ain't Got No, I Got Life'Nuff Said!
Don't Let Me Be MisunderstoodBroadway-Blues-Ballads
Backlash BluesSings The Blues

 

 

The Official Home of Nina Simone

The Nina Simone Database

Nina Simone Memorial Project

“Nina Simone – The Legend” (1990 documentary on YT)

“What Happened, Miss Simone?” Documentary movie directed by Liz Garbus (2015)

A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned the movement into music – Claudia Roth Pierpont (The New Yorker, 2014)

Nina Simone facebook

Nina Simone YouTube Channel

Nina Simone biography (iTunes)

Nina Simone Carnegie Hall

This is Ian’s fifth post for Toppermost (after Fats Waller, King Tubby, Dawn Penn, Melvins). He spends time listening to music and can be found @IanFergie.

TopperPost #677

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Nov 20, 2017

    Ian, thanks for this brilliant piece. Would have to have ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ in my top ten, though – its one of the most stunning pieces of music that even she did and one of the greatest versions of a Gershwin song. Also worth mentioning her Dylan covers (like this one) which are always interesting and sometimes brilliant.

    • Ian
      Nov 20, 2017

      Thanks for reading Andrew, & good song choices. You’re right, the Dylan covers Nina recorded are brilliant. I’m very partial to her version of ‘Just like a Woman’.

  2. Colin Duncan
    Nov 23, 2017

    Thanks, Ian. A great article and I learned loads. I really liked your opening sentence – that sums up collecting music for me. I’m not an expert on Nina Simone, but I got interested as you say in the eighties and know most of your choices. I would put in a shout for Nina’s versions of ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ and ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ both very different in the way they have been produced. I’m going to read the article again. I wish I had seen her. Thank you – a learning experience.

  3. David Lewis
    Nov 23, 2017

    She’s a great pianist – possibly the greatest of the 20th century, though I wouldn’t place the house on that. Nonetheless, an enjoyable and educational post.

  4. Dave Stephens
    Nov 23, 2017

    Ian, thank you for a superb Topper. I’ve been meaning to make time to listen to Nina’s music for years but have never succeeded. Your essay gives me an an excellent starter pack if that’s not a rude way of putting it. Thanks also to Andrew for highlighting that particular cover. It’s one of the few pieces of Nina’s music that I do know, and love.

  5. Ian
    Nov 24, 2017

    Thanks for reading, song suggestions & your comments guys. It has been really fun piece to write.

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