We review four Nina Simone albums
The Postal Service remixed her; Norah Jones eulogized her in these pages. They’re among the many discriminating music geeks who’ve recognized that Nina Simone’s death three years ago robbed the world of one of the titans of 20th-century American music — a fierce, imposing woman who blended cabaret with gospel, R&B with classical, funk with folk.
At least one good thing has emerged from her passing, though: the restoration of her vast body of work. By 2003, some of Simone’s finest albums were out of print; myriad mediocre compilations cluttered the bins. That began to change with Verve’s 2003 box Four Women, which recovered seven of her genre-defying ’60s albums. (Each of them, from 1964’s In Concert to 1967’s High Priestess of Soul, will be available individually Feb. 14.) Soon after came BMG’s perfect-for-the-uninitiated double disc Anthology, the first to span her 40-plus-year career.
One period, Simone’s bewitching 1967-74 tenure with RCA, found the classically trained pianist and once-refined vocalist mixing wah-wah funk and brassy soul into her repertoire. Last fall, RCA/Legacy commenced its own reissue program with The Soul of Nina Simone, an odd-lot DualDisc compilation most notable for its rare video footage. Now come resurrections of two original LPs from that time. With its blues-guitar vamps, harmonica wails, and Willie Dixon remake, 1967’s Sings the Blues lives up to its title. Yet for Simone, ”blues” was never a simple word. She rocks out a cover of ”The House of the Rising Sun,” whips up righteous indignation toward the establishment in ”Backlash Blues,” and slips in a Gershwin-Heyward cover (”My Man’s Gone Now”) that reminds you she started out, in the mid- ’50s, singing standards.
The even better?must-own, in fact — Silk & Soul (from the same year) captures Simone’s many moods as well as any album does. One moment she’s chastising those ”living high and mighty off the fat of the land” (”Go to Hell”) or offering up a searing depiction of prejudice (”Turning Point,” which makes amazing use of her knack for the dramatic pause), each with that earthy, masculine voice that sounded like dusk descending. Yet her romantic optimism also shines through in a husky take on ”Cherish” that’s less gooey and more desperate than the Association’s original. Her brother Sam Waymon’s ”It Be’s That Way Sometimes” finds her equally at home with chitlin-circuit soul.
Simone’s story reflected the saga of the ’60s, in particular the way the African-American community was transformed during the civil rights era. Growing out her Afro and writing her own songs of personal and political frustration, Simone became a visible symbol for the changes in the black community. Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit compiles many of her socially conscious songs. A rowdier alternate take of the Hair anthem ”Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” captures her zeal, and a resigned, newly restored version of her fuming ”Mississippi Goddam,” recorded in concert three days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, says everything about an era’s deflated hopes. Yet the focus on protest tunes makes the album feel more limited than a typical Simone disc.
Hip-O’s single CD Definitive Collection is, in essence, a boiled-down version of the earlier Anthology. It’s worth investigating if you’re looking to save a few dollars — but keep in mind that somewhat lesser renditions of two of her signature early hits (”I Loves You, Porgy” and ”My Baby Just Cares for Me”) were actually recorded in later years. Given her lifelong battles with record companies, Simone surely wouldn’t have been pleased with such a switcheroo, but Definitive is still an improvement over so many of the collections that came before. Sings the Blues: A- Silk & Soul: A Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit: B+ The Definitive Collection: B+