Singer Nina Simone made quite a fuss over Baltimore (CTI). Recorded in Brussels in January 1978 while Simone was living in Paris, the album was produced by Creed Taylor and has always been a favorite of mine. The soulful, socially conscious singer was given an unusual contemporary background by arranger Dave Matthews. The result was a new lift and feel for the singer—a change-up that warmed her blunt, deep style.
On the title song, Simone is backed by a Jamaican rock-steady beat. Her version of Rich Girl may be the best cover of the Daryl Hall and John Oates song. And certainly the string arrangement on That's All I Want From You is glorious, as is the Jamaican-influenced Balm In Gilead and gospel closer If You Pray Right.
In I Put a Spell on You—Simone's autobiography—she wrote that she didn't particularly enjoy recording Baltimore. And for years, many people have assumed that Simone was unhappy with the results. The truth was a little more complicated.
In 1977, producer Creed Taylor flew from New York to London to see Simone perform. Taken by her show, Creed proposed an album and Simone agreed. The album would be her first since 1974. But when the sessions began, something was amiss. [Photo of Creed Taylor, above right, with Quincy Jones, by Chuck Stewart]
According to Nadine Cohodas's Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, when recording began on January 17, "the compelling performer [Creed] had seen in London had all but vanished." "Nina didn't want to record," [arranger Dave] Matthews remembered in Cohodas's book. "She wanted to hang out. The vibe was very, very uptight. It was tense."
During my 19-part interview series with Creed in 2009, I asked him about the session and the roots of the tension:
JazzWax: What was it like producing Nina Simone's Baltimore in 1978?
Creed Taylor: A pleasure and a pain.
CT: In this particular case, I flew over with the rhythm section to Brussels to record with Nina there. She was living in Paris at the time because whenever she'd open her door here, the IRS would come in and clean out everything she had.
JW: Where did you stay?
CT: We all stayed at the Brussels Hilton. Every day we took a 20-mile drive to the studio, which was in a converted barn in the countryside. And each day we crossed the Waterloo Bridge [laughs], so help me [laughs].
JW: When did things get tough?
CT: One day Nina’s check didn’t arrive on time in the U.S., and she attempted to throw the TV out the window of the hotel. Nina was a little mercurial.
JW: A CTI check?
JW: Did she actually pick up the TV?
CT: Oh yeah. She caused a little damage in the room, which I covered, of course. She was a manic-depressive, which wasn’t a rare thing. At one point during the recording sessions, Nina again became really difficult. So I took her for a walk in this terrace garden right outside the studio.
JW: What did you say?
CT: I said, “Hey Nina, you might not be feeling well but so far you’ve made me dislike what I do more than anything in the world, and what I do is record artists. I don’t like to record when you behave this way.”
JW: What happened?
CT: She came back into the studio and settled down.
JW: Wow, that must have been about as hot as you’ve ever gotten.
CT: I had to do that. I wasn't dealing with a normal situation.
JW: What does being difficult in the studio mean?
CT: She wasn’t cooperating with the guys. She didn't want one musician or another to play in a particular place. She was slowing things down for seemingly no reason.
JW: Ultimately, were you pleased with what was recorded?
CT: Oh yes. As far as I'm concerned, she’s untouchable as Nina Simone, the artist.
JW: When you had gone for a walk with Nina, were you ever afraid she would take a swing at you?
CT: Oh, no. Nothing like that. Nina knew how I felt about her. The beauty of Nina's voice is that you believe what she sang and that she was dead serious about it. That's the kind of person she was.
Nina Simone died in 2003, and today marks what would have been her 80th birthday. Baltimore remains a beautiful album, and I think Simone might have agreed if she could listen to it today.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Nina Simone's Baltimore (CTI) here as a download or here on the Japanese King label. One of the best retrospective boxes is To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story (Legacy), a three-CD set here. Or for a more comprehensive listen, Nina Simone: The Complete RCA Album Collection (RCA) here.
JazzWax notes: To keep up with Nina Simone birthday commentary on Twitter, search for and follow #HappyBdayNina. All photos above (except Creed Taylor and Quincy Jones) are from the Sony Archives.
JazzWax clip: Here's Nina Simone singing the album's title track...