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Credit: Jean-Pierre Leloir

Music

Five earth-shattering Nina Simone performances

@TomTaylorFO

Nina Simone had something that very few artists in history have, she had passion and soul. It is not easy to be a musician or to perform, but there are a cluster of artists out there who have made chords and singing seem like walking and their performance breaks into a sprint that leaves the others well behind, concentrating on their strumming or hitting the right notes, crafting song structures and wondering where a middle eight might go. 

Then there is Nina Simone rattling the rafters on a whim and letting her fingers move by some unspoken force, penning songs with such ease of perfection that they add credence to the Hoagy Carmichael motif of “maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you”. Her soul-bearing bravura will forever be timeless, and we can always bask in the unbridled exultation that it brings. Some solemn days, it might even be too brazen, but for now, we celebrate her absolute brilliance in style. 

Below we have curated five of the most stunning recorded performances that she offered up in her glistening career. From her early days rubbing shoulders in folk circles, to her trailblazing triumphs amid the civil rights movement, and her final thunderous days. No doubt she showed grace every time she played, but the examples below are nothing short of earth-shattering. 

Five of Nina Simone’s finest performances:

‘Love Me or Leave Me’ – The Ed Sullivan Show, 1960

When Simone was growing up she wanted to be a classical pianist but her route was barred by flagrant racism. As her own daughter, Lisa Celeste ‘Simone’ Stroud, would opine: “Can you imagine putting in five hours of practising every day for five to seven years and you get to your audition and they reject you and it’s not because you weren’t good enough but because of how you look?”

Unperturbed by this, she continued her venture into soul. However, her history imbued her sound with a unique feel in two senses. Firstly, her classical piano style is self-evident in an era where things were beginning to gear to a Motown way of thinking. Secondly, the passion she pours into her performance has an air of vindication about it that imbues everything about the song with a stronger spiritual sum than the humble parts that construct it.

‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free’ – New York, 1968

“I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free,” Simone says in the clip below from the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? “And that’s something else.” You get a sense of that fearless freedom in the accompanying performance as she blesses the crowd to a rhapsody of smiling joy soaring above a sea of sagacious societal understanding. 

Beyond the spiritual, her performance is once more simply electric. Purring with absolute ease, the sheer power of her voice is startling. So many so-called ‘big singers’ simply belt it out, but Simone does things so naturistically that everything has an unmistakable sincerity. And how’s about that dancing? As Pete Townshend once said, “Rock ‘n’ roll may not solve your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.” This might not be strictly rock ‘n’ roll, but it sounds a whole lot like it. 

‘My Sweet Lord’ – Emergency Ward, 1972

Taken from Nina Simone’s live album Emergency Ward!, this is the soul singer’s deconstruction and reworking of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’. Simone reappraised the track into a triumphant 18-minute lambasting of the Vietnam War, and it would seem pretty much every other unanswered injustice in the world, as she grabs society by the lapels and rattles it around with reverential poignancy.

Songwriter Nick Cave declared this as the greatest ever protest song, writing: “It is a protest song par excellence that serves as a form of transport, a vehicle that takes us on a complex and nuanced journey into transcendent rage. The song itself becomes a forge of fury, where Nina Simone stands conflicted and defiant and, in the final lines, pulls the heavens crashing down around our ears.”

‘Stars / Feelings’ – Live at Montreux, 1976

One thing is clear when listening to Nina Simone live: she cared not for perfection. An AI computer can generate note-perfect piano recitals, and while it might sound pretentious to a music-phobe nerd to say that it is missing soul, Simone is the undeniable timeless testimony.

There is a soulful sincerity to this performance that could bring a hush to a hurricane and haunt an empty house. Aching and layered, there is depth, intent, and artistry to every note, every word and every nuanced supplication. Simply put, it is one of the finest back-to-back song performances that you’ll ever see. 

‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ – Live at Montreux, 1992

It is the opinion of the aforementioned Nick Cave that Simone was always at her best when she was playing other people’s songs, and it would seem that whenever she tackled the old Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn standard throughout her career, she felt liberated to do what she wanted with it. On this night at the Montreux, she wanted to go completely classical with it as though Chopin was suddenly also a crooner.

Thunderous without flinching, that same seamless unbridle power pours out from Simone’s singing and fingers once more. In her older years, she only grew in ferocity and that much is apparent here. And with it, there is a true sense of a culmination, some sort of journey that arcs back through eternities coming just about the fore, cresting the vast surface of her azure blues expanse. 

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