After spending a summer in 1950 at Juilliard School of Music, Nina Simone applied to the prestigious Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia. Simone would be denied entry; a total of three students out of 73 had been accepted that year. Simone had aspirations of becoming a concert pianist and studying under Vladimir Sokoloff, who happened to be a professor at Curtis.
Throughout her subsequent years, Simone carried a heavy burden in her heart; she believed that a big reason why she was rejected was because of racial discrimination. This would eventually culminate in her becoming more involved in the civil rights movement during the 1960s; she performed an original at her momentous concert at Carnegie Hall – the song was called ‘Mississippi Goddam’. The song was about racism in the deep south, penned about when the KKK burned down a church in Alabama that killed four young children. This was only six months before her landmark Carnegie hall performance.
Before becoming an acclaimed jazz singer and pianist, Simone found work as a show tune pianist and singer at a nightclub in Atlantic City. It was here where she developed her stage name, Nina Simone. The singer was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 31st in 1933, and died in 2003.
She changed her name because she knew her mother would disapprove of her playing ‘the devil’s music’. It was also around this time when she began fusing her early influences of classical music with jazz and blues, creating an interesting amalgamation, garnering her a small but loyal fan base.
Nina Simone first recorded ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ written by George Gershwin, which she learned from a Billie Holiday album. This recording would be her only top 20 song and was released on her debut, Little Girl Blue, through Bethlehem Records. Not thinking much about the possible success of this release, she sold her rights to the song for a one-time fee of $3,000, which would sorly cost her millions in royalties throughout the years.
Following the success of her debut record, Little Girl Blue, she signed to Colpix Records. She would predominately record jazz renditions of pop songs to pay the bills to continue her studies of classical music. She was always slightly indifferent to her record contract. This attitude would prove to be somewhat positive; she always approached her material with a coolness that was never forced in any way.
In honour of Simone’s life, we took a look at her entire catalogue of over 50 records, and chose the 10 best. You’ll find that list below
Nina Simone’s 10 best albums
Wild is the Wind (1966)
Her 1966 record is a compilation of leftover unreleased material from her previous sessions with the Dutch record label Phillips Records. The single for the record ‘Four Women’ gained attention, ironically so, when it was banned by the jazz station, WLIB. Simone herself penned this one; the lyrics are subversive and visceral.
Lyrically, it is a vivid description of four women as being objectified. The four African-American women in the song represent the stereotypes that black women are often subjected to. David Bowie would cover the title track a decade later on his Station to Station album.
The High Priestess of Soul (1967)
Nina Simone’s best albums were made and released during the ’60s, and no Nina Simone list is complete without this gem. It is named after a much-dreaded moniker prescribed to the jazz singer, although according to her daughter, it is a title that she doesn’t necessarily hate but is just weary of.
This is the epitome of pop-soul, and, believe it or not, it bears some sonic origins (specifically the opening track, ‘Don’t You Pay Them No Mind’), to a lot of modern-day pop-soul. It provides some insight into just how much of an influence the great jazz-soul singer was.
I Put a Spell on You (1965)
Named after Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ title track, this song, as well as the quintessential jazz-soul song ‘Feeling Good’, are two of her most famous performances in the studio. It managed to climb to number nine on the UK albums chart. While the record has a very tangible pop feel to it, it is also heavily inundated with some lounge jazz.
While it is fairly easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer size of Nina Simone’s catalogue and where to dive in exactly, I Put a Spell on You is one of her classics and a great accessible place to start.
Little Girl Blue (1959)
Simone’s debut, released through Bethlehem Records, is one of the late performers’ most jazz-oriented records. During this time, she was preoccupied with wanting to become a concert pianist in a classical setting. So when she recorded this record with somewhat of an indifferent demeanour, she ended up selling the rights to it for a measly $3,000.
The record, however, would go on to be a big hit, especially her rendition of ‘I Loves You, Porgy’, and she lost out on millions in royalties. Perhaps this aforementioned sense of indifference is part of what made Simone such a brilliant performer; there is a sense of ease and calm. There is no strain, often riding the wave of lower dynamics, making her performance feel effortless.
Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967)
Looking for something a little different from Simone? Nina Simone Sings the Blues is a great record. Her serious foray into the blues, and she blows it out of the water.
This is a different side to Simone, as she was incredibly diverse with multiple musical identities, which never got in the way of her providing a convincing rendition of whichever genre she chose to perform in.
For me, the record is livelier and more upbeat, with a little more grit to it. This was her first release for RCA records. Her friend and poet, Langston Hughs wrote the lyrics to ‘Backlash Blues’, which was a reprise to her civil rights themed songs from a few years prior; it is a commentary on racism.
Silk and Soul (1967)
Silk and Soul is the follow-up to Nina Simone Sings the Blues. It is slightly more contained but no less brilliant. Her track, ‘Go to Hell’, written by Morris Baily Jr., got her Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance but lost it to Aretha Franklin.
This period of her career is often overshadowed by the likes of Franklin and Diana Ross. However, Simone was never afraid to include a track or two poignantly attacking the origins of racism, harking back to the civil rights movement, which was still fresh in the air at the time. ‘I Wish I Knew How To Be Free’ is a song that fits this category.
Here Comes The Sun (1971)
This is the thirteenth record from the jazz-soul singer. Adapting to the times, this record was her foray and nod to the explosion of rock and pop music. It features her renditions of the Beatles’ title track; other artists she covers include Bob Dylan, Stan Vincent, Chip Taylor, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others.
Another aspect of Simone’s ability was the way she could take a song and completely dismantle it. There is no better example than this, and the way she recontextualises a collection of pop songs and turns them into jazz numbers is unparalleled.
Live at Carnegie Hall (1964)
This is a live recording of her performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1964. It was only six months after a tragic event saw the KKK burn down a church in Alabama, taking the lives of four black kids. Playing to a predominately white crowd, the last track of her setlist was her original song, ‘Mississippi Goddam’. She had stated that this was her first civil rights song.
The performance of this track, in particular, was a pivotal moment in Nina Simone’s career, as it demanded more respect and seriousness for Simone; she wasn’t just a show tune and ‘entertainment’ singer.
Pastel Blues (1965)
This record is often up there on any Nina Simone list. It is considered one of her greatest records. If anything, it is a very well rounded record of hers; it features her jazz stylings, blues crooning and soulful piano playing, with more emphasis than usual placed on the latter.
It also showcases her original roots in gospel and sees her take on American roots and slavery music. Her ten minute ‘Sinnerman’ is a traditional African American spiritual song.
After taking a bit of a break since her previous record in 1974, Baltimore was a comeback of sorts, as many had speculated at the time that it was her last record ever. This one is starkly different from any of the other ones on this list. The record is heavily influenced by reggae.
Randy Newman wrote the title track, and the song, as well as the rest of the record, gained more notoriety and fame during the 2015 riots in Baltimore. Even despite this, Simone would still maintain after the fact, her dissatisfaction with the record, stating, “the material was not my personal choice, and I had no say whatsoever in the selection of songs. It was all done before I could make any decisions.” Either way, it still deserves to be on this list.