Nina Simone was born February 21st, 1933. That’s 80 years ago. But what’s more notable to me is it’s one day after my birthday, the 20th. Though, granted, I wasn’t born in 1933!. I’d forgotten about this bond until I saw a photo array in Time celebrating Ms. Simone’s 80th. (She died in 2003…) . And I got to to thinking why I love her so. It’s not just because our birthdays are so close together…though that doesn’t hurt.
I first heard Nina Simone when I bought some discount cassette tape at an outlet mall and played it in my car on the way home. I had gotten it for some other song– it was one of those cheapo compilations one step up from bootleg– but I was immediately hooked on Nina’s jaunty version of “Trouble In Mind” — her gravelly voice and bouncy piano. Such a merry tune.
Later, I would hear her bluesy interpretation of it, complete with lyric about putting her distressed head on the rail road track – and admire the spectrum she covered. The bluer version seemed to ring more true, but I like how she could put on a happy face if she wanted to. She’s Nina Simone, she can do whatever she likes . It seems now almost subversive. Like as she was singing this happy song, she was actually planning rebellion or world takeover.
And from that song, I got hooked on others, read her autobiography, had my eyes opened to the breadth and depth of her career and her impact. The High Priestess of Soul. Haunted, haunting, undaunted, vulnerable, brilliant, tough, ethereal. She earned the title.
So, as a last ditch effort to commemorate Black History month and as a belated “Happy Birthday”, I present this list of ten reason why I love Nina Simone.
1. She owned whatever she played. Nina’s musical catalog is filled with covers of original songs, jazz , showtunes, pop songs – you name it. But with her distinctive arrangements, her voice and piano playing and with the weight of her personality behind each song- each is uniquely and unmistakably “by Nina Simone”. She leaves a distinct mark on anything she performs.
2. I love what I don’t even love. There are plenty of Simone songs I don’ exactly love. But they are so her that I still find them compelling. They seem all connected to her larger body of work and her forceful, confident (and then some) musical genius. There don’t seem to be any B-side throwaways. There’s something quirky (for lack of a better word) in everything she does.
3. She was uncompromising Nina Simone was a much loved artist – still is, obviously. But she was also somewhat feared. She would chastise her band in a live set (check out “I Shall Be Released”) , she would stop playing if the audience was being loud. She was a diva and a genius, and the two seemed to feed into each other. Her forcefulness let her stick to what her genius knew was the right way to play, and her genius made her so good who was going to tell her no? This toughness holds true for her life offstage, too. Fed up with American racism, she became an ex-patriot so she could live with the dignity she knew she deserved.
4. Her original works. Admittedly I don’t spend a lot of time listening to “Young, Gifted and Black” or “Mississippi Goddamn” – but these are works encompassing not only the composer Simone’s talents, but also, moments in history. And they tie into her role as a civil rights advocate and person of unrelenting insistence on being treated with respect. You don’t get that in music a lot these days.
5. Her piano playing. Nina Simone was a child prodigy in music. She dreamt of being a classical pianist. But things happened and put her on a different course. The classical training, though, is very evident in a lot of her songs. I point you in the direction of “Love Me Or Leave Me” , for one. I can’t really think of Nina Simone as just a vocalist. Her music, to me, is so tied to her piano playing. It’s like an extension of her.
6. Her Voice You hear Nina Simone for the first time, and you wonder “Who was that?”. Soulful, yes. Bluesy, yes? But a comparison between her and, say, Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald is moot– other than she, too, has a one-of-a-kind voice. Simone works her wonders with a distinct vibrato, a gravelly tone, amazing expressiveness, and versatility. She isn’t a power-belter, but she gets power across whenever she wants to – along with a hundred other things.
7. She defies categorizing The title High Priestess of Soul seems to work for Nina Simone, because she has that other worldliness about her. But it isn’t accurate to call her a soul singer, a jazz singer, a r&b singer, a pop singer, a caberet singer. She is all of those, and probably then some. Nina Simone didn’t seem to ever find a song she couldn’t tackle. Are all of them hits or even that pleasing to the ear? No. But there are few genres where you can’t find something she did and did well.
Some favorite Nina Simone songs: “Love Me Or Leave Me”, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, “Like A Woman”, “Trouble In Mind” (several versions), “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, “My Way”, “I Shall Be Released”, “Work Song”; “Children, Go Where I Send You”, “Forbidden Fruit,” “Strange Fruit,” “Ooh, Child”, “Little Girl Blue”…..