Nina Simone's legacy won't sit still. Each time you listen to the singer's voice, you come away with a completely different impression. Just when you conclude she was a jazz singer, you decide she actually was a blues belter. Wait, she was really a folk singer. No, a reggae pioneer. And a chanteuse. Stop—a gospel singer, that's what she was. Actually, strike that—she was a soul singer. As RCA/Legacy's new career-spanning box brilliantly demonstrates, Simone was a master of all these genres and more.
Available starting September 30, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story ($49.98) offers up nearly four hours of astonishing music on three CDs and a DVD. Rather than package this box as an obese greatest hits package, producer Richard Seidel judiciously and tastefully assembled a sophisticated compilation that shows off Simone's eclectic styles and iconoclastic power. You hear Simone bring standards to their knees, extract the earthiness of show tunes, teach pop songs a lesson and provide rock staples with more depth and meaning than their originals.
Most important, you hear what a dynamic protofeminist and civil rights muse Simone was, artistically taking up the flag of both causes early and leading a Joan of Arc charge. In Simone, jazz artists such as Max Roach, Miles Davis and others saw exactly where she was going and joined the good fight. Even when executed straight, many of Simone's songs had mighty political and social connotations. With this box, Simone has finally triumphed as a jazz artist—if jazz means musical freedom and an emotional awakening.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in 1933, in dirt-poor Tryon, North Carolina. Eunice played piano in the church where her mother was the minister. Eunice's playing was so heart-felt that the local community set up a fund to pay for her studies at New York's Juilliard School of Music. Eunice studied as a classical pianist there with dreams of becoming a composer. To help save money, she played piano in an Atlantic City bar, where the owner insisted she also sing to pull in business. But when Philadelphia's Curtis Institute rejected her application to study composition, Eunice decided to make a career out of playing and singing. [Pictured above: Tryon, N.C., circa 1940]
Changing her name to Nina ("little one") Simone (from the French actress Simone Signoret), she came to the attention of Bethlehem Records in 1957 and recorded her first album, Little Girl Blue. It featured I Loves You, Porgy, which became a huge hit. She also recorded My Baby Just Cares for Me with a Louis Prima beat. Instantly too big for the label, Simone agreed to sign with Colpix Records, provided she could pick her own material. Colpix gave her the nod, and Simone recorded nine albums for the label between 1959 and 1964.
On her next label, Philips, Simone recorded music with more deliberate and political subtexts. Dates for Mercury and a five-year relationship with RCA followed. In 1970, Simone moved to Barbados, recording for CTI in Brussels in 1978, a string of smaller labels in the 1980s and then a final album for Elektra in 1993. That year she moved to southern France and retired from recording. In 2003, Simone died of breast cancer.
What makes To Be Free so significant is that it's certain to change whatever impression you had of Simone. Many jazz fans have bypassed Simone, finding her too far from the bop, too coarse for pop and seemingly limited as an improviser in the swing tradition. Rock and folk fans usually embrace her under the false pretense that she's a pure jazz artist, which she's not. As a result, Simone for years remained misunderstood and outside of categorization. Listening to To Be Free, you are forced to give up preconceived notions of what Simone was or wasn't and accept her for what she definitely was: dynamic and different.
The passion and honesty that Simone brings to each track on this box is courageous. Blessed with a lusty lower registered similar to Sarah Vaughan's and the short-fuse temperament of Dinah Washington, Simone doesn't deconstruct songs, as Betty Carter did. Instead, she transforms them into new ones. Some wind up sounding like lullabies. Others like rallying cries. What many newcomers to Simone may be surprised to learn is that she accompanied herself on piano on most of her recordings.
The first recording on the set, Mood Indigo, is cleverly taken at Take the A Train's pace. Her rendition of I Loves You Porgy is without peer. You Can Have Him and Wild Is the Wind are commanding ballads that pull you in and sweep you away.
Simone's level of intimacy and authenticity also is unparalleled. But she also had the performance chops of a Broadway lead or opera diva. Kurt Weill's Pirate Jenny has never been more wicked and the gritty rumination of Feeling Good is about as blue as the blues can get. Perhaps my favorite track on the box (and I use that word carefully with a set like this one) is Sunday in Savannah, recorded live in April 1968 at the Westbury Music Fair in Westbury, N.Y. It's a pastoral spiritual with a soulful sadness that builds carefully with full-strength gospel intonation. You'll be moved.
All the majors are here (including My Baby Just Cares for Me, See-Line Woman, I Put a Spell on You and I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free). But so are the offbeat tracks you may be unfamiliar with. These include In the Morning, Do What You Gotta Do, The Other Woman and Baltimore (a reggae wonder from 1978).
The pop-rock covers also testify to how lackluster the originals were and how lusty they could be in the right hands. Here we have Simone singing Bob Dylan's The Times They Are a Changing, Turn Turn Turn and Just Like a Woman; Here Comes the Sun, the Animals' Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood and George Harrison's lifted My Sweet Lord. And wait till you hear what Simone does with the Bee Gees' To Love Somebody.
Simone understood exactly where the pain was hiding in a set of lyrics and how to slowly extract its stinger. If Rod McKuen's A Single Woman doesn't choke you up (from Simone's last session with strings), you ain't tickin'.
As boxes go, this collection is essential and rivals Billie Holiday's Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (Columbia Legacy). Just goes to show what a compilation is capable of when placed in the hands of a producer who cares and takes the time to assemble a package that has a musical point of view.
The set also goes far to explain Nina Simone musically as no past collection of the singer has been able to do. You'll hear Simone single-handedly spark the volatile 1960s and try in vain to keep its soul intact. Sadly, rock lacked much of Simone's truth and quickly became vapid. Soul fared a bit better, but much of it, too, became mawkish. So from time to time, Simone had to return to the studio and teach both genres and the musicians how it's done.
Tomorrow, I'll turn to the DVD that's part of this box and review the new Nina Simone: Live in '65 and '68 video that's part of the soon-to-be-released third series of Jazz Icons DVDs. For now, here's Sunday in Savannah: