Nina Simone Speaks Like a River
"Anything human can be felt through music, which means that there is no limit to the creating that can be done with music. It's infinite. It's like God, you know?"
~ Nina Simone, DownBeat interview, 1969
With the January 17 unveiling of several titles from her back catalog, re-mastered and re-annotated and supplemented with bonus tracks, plus The Soul of Nina Simone CD / DVD dual disc released this past September, the music industry may be beginning to figure out the business of the uniquely talented Nina Simone.
From humble roots in her 1933 rural birthplace of Tryon, North Carolina, Simone grew to be a Julliard-trained classical pianist. Ultimately faced with the limited professional prospects the times would present to a female, black classical pianist, she learned to accompany her playing with singing. In the 1960s, Simone stood among the first musicians to use their craft to openly address issues of sexual and racial equality. In an 1961 interview with The New York Post, she said, "When I was a child, nobody was ever proud of me, and my people were never proud of themselves - or anything they'd ever done. Well, that's different now, I'm proud of myself and I'm proud of my music.
"Nina Simone emerged from the turbulent '60s as the fiery 'High Priestess of Soul,' writes Laura Shallop in the newly updated version of Silk and Soul, "A triple threat - singer, composer and pianist - she was the embodiment of the combustible diva.
As a composer, pianist and singer, Simone stands in the rare company of other "triple threats of her era: Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder most readily come to mind; Little Richard and Fats Domino, maybe, but that's about it.
(By the way, the state of North Carolina has given us three of most imposing, controversial and enduring personalities in jazz: Simone, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. Is there some magic in that state's rolling hills and fertile fields?)
Simone recorded for RCA Records from 1966 to 1974, releasing nine albums and one of her most successful singles, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black. In 1966, the Congress for Racial Equality declared this song of hopeful encouragement, co-written with keyboard player Weldon Irvine, to be "The Black National Anthem.
It must have seemed perfectly reasonably to market Simone to the rock n' roll / youth market in the 1960s, and she scored a Top 5 pop hit in the UK by double-backing two songs from the popular Broadway musical Hair, highly stylized versions of "Ain't Got No with "I Got Life. Her versions of tunes by Steppenwolf ("The Pusher ) and other rock bands popular with young people were teeth-rattling and apocalyptic.
But Nina Simone did not sing rock and roll. She rendered everything she sang in a blues and gospel voice dark and deep enough to rattle the dead, but she didn't sing rock and roll. Nina Simone and a broad popular following always seemed to warily circle each other, just out of reach. As the decade neared its darkening end days she once said, "It felt like the shutters were coming down on anyone who dared suggest there was something seriously wrong with the state of this country. In the early 1970s, weary of injustice and controversy, she drifted into exile from Barbados to Liberia to Switzerland.
In introducing the performance of "To Be Young, Gifted and Black that closes the new RCA / Legacy compilation Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom & Spirit, Simone explains, "This is our latest song, it's on 45 on RCA Victor. Now, it is not addressed to white people, though it does not put you down in any way. It simply ignores you. For my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get.
Nina Simone died a few months after her 70th birthday in April 2003. But through the RCA / Legacy and Sony / Legacy imprints, you can still discover new and newly re-mastered collections of Nina Simone's songs of inspiration and love.
Nina Simone Sings the Blues
RCA / Legacy
Simone breathed an almost majestic hurt and rage into nearly everything she sang and played - a mystical musical alchemy that turned deep black and blue into brilliant gold - so the blues became the perfect medium for her expression. For this reason, Sings the Blues, her '67 RCA label debut, delivered several classics of, and serves as a great introduction to, the Simone canon.
The opening "Do I Move You? stands among the most powerful blues Simone ever recorded, its sexual tension palpable and throbbing through its slow sizzle and burn. (The remastering furthers the juke-joint feel by leaving the musicians' whoops and hollahs mixed in with the wailing harmonica and guitar.) She also honors Lil Green, the female singer-songwriter with whom Big Bill Broonzy often partnered during the 1930s, through her groaning cover of Green's "In the Dark. Not even Bessie Smith or Dinah Washington, neither woman a trembling hothouse flower, could more powerfully deliver these two blues.