With two brand new reissues and one new compilation, Nina Simone is presented as both pop star and preacher.
Though Nina Simone’s tenure with RCA Records during the late '60s and early '70s was among her most prolific, it was also her most inconsistent. While Legacy’s release of The Soul of Nina Simone highlighted the strengths of her nine record output with the label, these recent re-issues also display how reined in Simone could be when bound by conventional genre structures. Perhaps in a bid to make her relevant in an era in which rock 'n’ roll was a formidable force, a good portion of her RCA albums find Simone playing to rather standard arrangements and backing.
The freshly reissued Nina Simone Sings the Blues, her debut for RCA, is given fine treatment with two additional cuts from album sessions, as well as extensive liner notes including a reproduction of the original text from the 1966 LP. A&R executive Danny Davis brought together the finest session players in New York for the album of blues standards, but that was precisely the problem. The band’s forté clearly isn’t the blues, and their approximations of Chicago blues are disappointingly clichéd, right down to each honk of the harmonica. However, Simone is rarely cowed by substandard accompaniment and frequently on this album, she rises above the material.
The set kicks off with a great Simone-penned cut, "Do I Move You". Punctuated by some infectious hooting and hollering from the backing vocalists, the track is a wonderfully boozy slice of blues that gets the album rolling in the right direction. "In the Dark" continues with more woozy romance, where Simone’s fantastic reading cuts through an otherwise perfunctory performance by her band. On the middle stretch of the disc, Simone finally cuts loose a bit, with performances that break free from their moorings. On the Gershwin standard "My Man’s Gone Now" Simone slowly winds her way through the track. With stripped down instrumentation -- just piano and bass -- Simone exposes the raw emotion held within Gershwin’s tune. Co-written with Langston Hughes, "Backlash Blues" finds Simone in protest mode, delivering a subtly scathing attack on those who exploit the disenfranchised. It’s a great track, but as we’ll discover later on Forever Young Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit, this recording just barely touches upon the power this song contains. But what will put this album into most people’s record collection, is Simone’s fantastic and popular "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl". Oozing sexuality and longing, it’s no surprise that the song has endured so well. These last three tracks -- the highlights of the album -- succeed largely because the session players are noticeably dialed down or absent altogether. Indeed, when they reappear in full form to help close out the album, the songs are good, but not memorable. Even "House of the Rising Sun", which borders on a ragtime treatment, has been recorded elsewhere by Simone to a much better effect.
If Simone managed to find her away around the competent arrangements on her debut for RCA, Silk & Soul is one of the few times she can’t escape her surroundings. Once again, Danny Davis is producing, and this time around he dresses up Simone’s songs with strings, horns, and reeds. As the title suggests, the album is an attempt to present Simone in much more comforting surroundings, perhaps to appeal to a broader, more mainstream audience. The effect on Simone’s songs is completely stifling, coating the essence of these songs in a gooey sheen. As on Nina Simone Sings the Blues, the session players offer only the most rudimentary backing. The difference is that this time around the handful of additional players has swelled to nearly orchestra size, making the banality of her surroundings all the more apparent.
The opening drowsy strains of "It Be’s That Way Sometime" sets the tone for the rest of the disc. Warm, charming, and inviting to be sure, but also instantly forgettable. Even Simone can’t keep her head above water on the sickeningly velvet-lined Burt Bacharach number, "The Look of Love". But it’s not until "Go to Hell" that it becomes evident how damaging Davis’ production really is. The song, a fiery and unforgiving song of faith, sounds downright bizarre in this "smooth" atmosphere. Even the lyrically powerful "Turning Point", sung from the perspective of young white girl describing a black girl in her class, is disorienting in its baroque harpsichord delivery.
However, Simone, even when down, is never completely out, and on Silk & Soul she does manage to eke out a couple of performances that cut through the album’s thick gauze of sound. "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free", another patented song in her repertoire of emancipation anthems, and the sublimely erotic "Turn Me On", find Simone at her strongest, and not coincidentally, the supporting players take a backseat on these tunes. Instead of bombarding the listener with the musical theme right away, the band rightly moves with Simone on these tracks, providing subtle accompaniment and excellent dynamics. It’s too bad that the rest of the tracks don’t show a similar restraint.
While it’s certainly easy to blame Davis for Silk & Soul’s shortcomings, it must be said that Simone’s song selection isn’t particularly strong on this record either. The disc leans too heavily on sentimental tunes and tracks like "Love 'O Love", "Some Say", and "Cherish" are frankly uninteresting. While she is usually adept at choosing songs that she can play with lyrically, and into which she can invest her own passionate performances, on Silk & Soul Simone feels somewhat distant, as if she knew she was above most of this material. Regardless, RCA’s treatment of the record is to be admired as, like Nina Simone Sings the Blues, this edition contains both the original and new liner notes, as well as two additional tracks (including her wonderful take on the Aretha Franklin co-authored "Save Me").
While Silk & Soul was an obvious effort to tone down Simone, as Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Spirit and Freedom proves, the High Priestess Of Soul was all the more compelling when allowed to let loose. This outstanding compilation brings together eleven songs from her RCA years that focus on the civil rights issues that were always close to Simone’s heart. On this disc, we see song selections that are much stronger and which resonate with much deeper interpretations. "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)" is presented in an alternate version to the album track from To Love Somebody. This version, recorded three months prior, is rightly focused on Simone, her voice and her piano (instead of the five piece band she’d later re-record the song with). The result is exquisitely raw and beautiful, lifting the song into quiet poetry, with a hope for a brighter future. But the most stunning reworking comes with her take on Bob Dylan’s timeless "The Times They Are A-Changin’". She takes Dylan’s song to the chapel, and turns it into a supremely moving gospel number, slowing down the verses and delivering them with deliberate and reverential care. The song rises and falls, sweeping gorgeously in and out of each chorus with waves of devastating, organ-fueled power.
But the true highlight of this disc, and its most revealing, are its inclusion of five live tracks. While Simone’s passions were certainly deeply personal, they are never exposed as directly as they are here. "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)", presented for the first time unedited in its nearly thirteen-minute running time, was recorded just three days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. In this fresh version, Simone uses her stage at the Westbury Music Fair both to pay tribute to the slain icon as well as work out her own feelings. There is a tremendous two-minute section toward the end of the track in which Simone takes a break from the song and addresses the crowd directly. "….Lorraine Handsberry left us….Langston Hughes left us….Coltrane left us….Otis Redding left us….I could go on….do you realize how many we’ve lost?" she says in her off-the-cuff speech, and it’s a stunning reminder of how turbulent the '60s were for black people. How much was lost, how much was gained and how much more work there was to do. While this information has all been relegated to text books, to be brought back to those days after King’s assassination is haunting and Simone’s speech is a reminder of how frightening and emotionally devastating it must have been in those days after King’s death when the movement seemed lost forever.
But Simone’s most powerful civil rights-era work wasn’t focused on loss, but on empowerment. Her terrific run at Backlash Blues, also from the same concert, rings out with more fiery fury than its studio recorded counterpart. The song is radically reworked here, with the shuffling arrangement of the original tossed out and replaced with a more pronounced and straightforward blues stomp. The song’s ending here is much more effective as well, with Simone replacing the uncertainty of the song’s original final lines ("Mr. Backlash Mr. Backlash what do you think I have to lose / I’m a gonna leave you with the backlash blues / You’ll the one that’ll have the blues not me / Just wait and see") and its throwaway fadeout ending with this triumphant, thunderous, and final call to arms: "So Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash hear me now / I’m warning you yeah, somehow someway / I’m gonna leave you with the blues". The difference, augmented by the crowd’s unabashed enthusiasm, is staggering.
And, listening to Simone’s nine-minute live take of "Young, Gifted and Black", it’s clear these songs were written to be performed in front of audiences where they can transform from a message into something more akin to gospel. Joined here by the Swordsmen, who provide some beautiful backing vocal work, the song isn’t so much played as it is unraveled. Its middle section gives way to some astonishing improvisation by Simone, who uses the opportunity to again work out her demons, calling out to her people, to God, her parents, to anyone who’s listening, to plead for a community that is united instead of divided. Here, Simone reinterprets her own song, seeming to say that even though being young, gifted, and black is "where it’s at", it needs to be nurtured by a strong and supportive community. This is as much a sermon as a song, but it’s presented with an undeniable honesty and quivering vulnerability. It’s admirable and exceedingly rare for an artist to put themselves out there like this, but when you have a chance to hear something this special, it’s simply electrifying.
Unfortunately, while RCA/Legacy did a bang-up job pulling these tracks together, they completely failed with the liner notes. Where the other two discs were blessed with valuable new insights, for some puzzling reason, RCA/Legacy commissioned Alicia Keys to pen the notes for this disc. I have no idea why they would choose her, except for the most superficial reasons -- because she is black and plays the piano. As such, her contribution is little more than wide-eyed gushing at Simone’s talent and genius that offers nothing in the way of analysis. Especially given that the booklet contains some beautiful photography from the 1963 March on Washington, it’s a shame that someone with actual knowledge and credentials couldn’t put these songs into the greater context of the shifting tides of the era and Simone’s career.
That aside, RCA’s reissues certainly speak to the fact of Simone’s stylistic leap-frogging during these years. But they also reveal a talent who drew on a large musical pool for inspiration. While these experiments didn’t always work out, there was never any doubt as to her passion as even with the slightest of material, Simone gave it her all. But perhaps most of all, she believed in herself and the potential of black people everywhere. Even at the height of her fame, she called out to her people -- and to people of color everywhere -- and told them there was still a reason to fight, and that she would be right there with them, until the very last note was played.