“I have to constantly re-identify myself to myself, reactivate my own standards, my own convictions about what I’m doing and why.” – Nina Simone
This conscious evolution and reclamation of self are probably what helped Simone stay relevant for decades. Born in a family that struggled with poverty in North Carolina, Simone nurtured the dream of being a classical pianist with aspirations of a better life. After leaving Julliard School of Music in New York, it was made clear to her that her dream was too demanding for a black woman living in a racially segregated country. Though shattered from this cruel revelation, Simone refused to give up music, the only thing that made her feel free. She “re-identified” herself from a pianist to a vocalist and then from an entertainer to a political activist, refusing to be unfairly silenced by a prejudiced society.
Her direct involvement with the Civil Rights Movement was a significant moment in both her career and of the movement itself. “I had spent many years pursuing excellence because that is what classical music is all about… Now it was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important,” declared Simone. However, she didn’t limit her social commentary to the civil rights movement only.
As a woman, she felt compelled to raise her voice against the discriminations and generalisations that victimised women of her community. Considering herself as a natural leader, Simone said, “I was always a politician from the day the civil rights people chose me as their protest singer.”
Simone was a skilled craftsman and brilliant singer, performer and pianist “separately and simultaneously.” From classical, gospel, jazz, blues, R&B, folk to rock ‘n’ roll and pop, everything was her forte. She also succeeded at proving the myth of quantity and quality wrong, by producing more than 40 high-quality albums between 1958 and 1974.
Let’s take a look back at Simone’s outstanding body of work by re-assessing the value of a select few, that are considered to be some of her bests.
The 10 best Nina Simone songs:
‘I Love(s) You Porgy’
The song was originally from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, sung as a duet, penned by Ira Gershwin and music by George Gershwin. In the lyrics, Bess who is a black woman from a poor neighbourhood, asks Porgy to convince her not to go and see her abusive lover Crown. Although a brilliant composition, the song has been rightly accused of linguistic subordination which operates on the gross generalisation of the oppressed community being linguistically deficit.
Nina Simone tasted her first victory with this song. After being rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1951 for racially motivated agendas, Simone was heartbroken and disillusioned. Although she became a favourite at the clubs where she performed, her dream of being a classical pianist chased her. But her 1959 debut album Little Girl Blue changed her fate in a split second. Simone’s is a light jazz version that explores the strengths of her voice in the most elegant ways. However, Simone subverted the language by refusing to make the grammatical error of an additional ‘s’ put consciously in the word ‘Love’ in the original song.
This song marks Simone’s direct involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. One of the few songs written by Simone, it was released in her 1964 album Nina Simone in Concert, a compilation of three concerts that she gave at Carnegie Hall earlier that year. Simone was triggered when she heard about the arrest of the torchbearer of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, while she was walking off the Carnegie stage on 12th April 1963. From that moment onward she steered her music towards politics and made sure to use her position to bring about social change.
The song was composed in honour of another civil rights activist Medgar Evans who was murdered by the white supremacist terrorist hate group, the Ku Klux Klan. The allusion to the racially motivated murder also evoked the recent events of Emmet Till’s death and the bombing at the 16th Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where four black children were killed. Not only did Simone raise her voice through the song but also stood proudly along with the protestors in Selma, Montgomery the following year.
‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’
A jazz standard, it was originally co-written by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn for the 1930 film version of the musical comedy Whoopee! The song became a signature tune of the American singer, actor, comedian Eddie Cantour who lent his voice to the movie track. Almost three decades later, Nina Simone covered the song by rendering a much-stylised version.
Although it featured in her debut album Little Girl Blue, the tremendous success of ‘I Love Porgy’ overshadowed it at that time and to Simone’s utter disappointment remained unrecognised for a long time. It was in 1987 that the song got its due recognition and earned Simone hundreds of dollars. Used in a perfume commercial, it introduced Simone to a new circle of the audience and gifted her the luxury of performing selectively over the next few years. Simone flexed her incredible piano skills in this track making it all the more special. Her emotional delivery juxtaposed with the powerful narrative creates a strange paradox that it nonetheless cherished by the listeners.
‘I Put a Spell On You’
Once again, a brilliant cover song that was originally composed and sung by Jalacy Hawkins aka Screamin’ Jay in 1956. Hawkins intended it to be “a refined love song, a blues ballad” at the beginning but the plans were thrown straight into the dustbin when the producer Arnold Maxin “brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk.” The result was the “weird version” we hear in the records. “I don’t even remember making the record. Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death,” said Hawkins.
Simone’s 1965 version was completely different from Hawkins’. It was polished, smooth and classy, sounding almost like a different song. Simone’s deep vocal scowl is preceded by a swirling bass that makes an instant impression in the minds of the listeners. Simone’s effortless delivery, though a constant in each of her performances, is nonetheless awe-inspiring.
This song is synonymous with Simone’s name. The song was originally written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd in 1964. The song was covered by many artists like Michael Bublé, George Michael, John Coltrane, Eden, Sammy Davis Jr., Sophie B. Hawkins, and Avicii since then. But none of their version could match the legendary status of Simone’s.
Included in the 1965 album I Put A Spell On You, this was another cover song owned by Simone through a powerful delivery. She collaborated with Hal Mooney who arranged the song strategically to expose Simone’s strong vocals. Her voice is almost naked in the intro section, backed up by a minimalistic arrangement. But builds up tension until the brass band breaks in with a bombastic effect. It was yet another song that spread like wildfire through commercials, the 1994 Volkswagen advertisement being one of them. Simone’s arrangement has in turn inspired several artists to cover the song over the years.
Written and composed by Simone herself, the song featured in her 1966 album Wild Is The Wind. As the title suggests, the song is about four women who represent stereotypical African-American females. The first one is ‘Aunt Sarah’ who symbolises African-American enslavement and is described with phrases such as “strong enough to take the pain” and “inflicted again and again”. The next woman is ‘Saffronia’ who is of mixed race and claims that “my skin is yellow” and is torn “between two worlds.” The third woman is referred to as ‘Sweet Thing’ and is a prostitute whose ironic remark “Whose little girl am I?/Anyone who has money to buy” reflects the deep-rooted problems. The fourth and final woman’s name is not revealed until the end when she screams “My name is Peaches!” She represents the hardened generation of women who stood up against all kinds of social evils.
The song balances its heavy lyrics with a simple melody accompanied by piano, flute, bass and electric guitar. The sound gradually builds up to a climax and explodes in the final stanza with the declaration of the name. Simone’s delivery is emotionally driven in this song and accompanied by a frenzied piano channel the turmoil that the women of the community face.
‘Ne me quitte pas, Don’t leave me’
The song belongs to the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel and was released in 1959. A very popular tune, it has been adapted in several languages such as Arabian, Dutch, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish apart from French. Rod McKuen’s English adaptation ‘If You Go Away’ became as popular as the original song.
Simone lived a short while in Paris in the early 1980s, before settling in Aix-en-Provence in 1993. In fact, she moved around a great deal trying to escape the “United Snakes Of America”, as she would call it, for both personal and political reasons. However, Simone’s sang this ballad before she embarked on this gypsy adventure. Maybe she was contemplating her flight to Paris while performing the song, who knows. Her impassioned cover is yet another jewel in her crown.
‘I Ain’t Got No / I’ve Got Life’
It is a medley of two songs ‘I Ain’t Got No’ and ‘I’ve Got Life’ from the musical Hair, that featured in Simone’s album ‘Nuff Said in 1968 and was released as a single. Originally the lyrics of the songs were written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni while Galt MacDermot composed them. Simone consciously paired the two songs and rewrote them into a single piece to suit her purpose. The song’s wild popularity also exposed her to a younger set of audience, keeping her relevant through changing times.
Known as the “new black anthem”, the song shared the significance of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and ‘Four Women’. She begins with the sense of isolation and desolation of ‘Ain’t Got No’ and then transforms into the affirmative proclamations of ‘I’ve Got Life’. The soul-searching line “Who am I?” also alludes to the Black Power Movement. The album was recorded at the Westbury Music Fair just three days after the assassination of Dr King and captures the collective shock that came with the tragic news. This particular song, a joyous anthem, was a standout among the serious content of the album. Its celebration of utopian values of long-promised land is actually a satire.
Originally a country song written and performed by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1968, it was inspired by an encounter with a street performer in the New Orleans jail. Mr Bojangles, a name made up by Walker to conceal the true identity of that person, was arrested by the police like many, following a high-profile murder. Walker met him in 1965 during his short visit to jail due to public intoxication. When the conversation between the jailers within the cell took a serious turn, Mr Bojangles who was called upon to lighten the mood broke into an impromptu tap dance.
Simone covered the song three years after the release of the original. As usual, she replaced the guitar with piano and turned the sad ballad into a commercial hit. Clearly, one of Simone’s greatest strengths apart from singing and writing was re-arranging songs. Her musical intelligence saw potential in songs that were ignored by many as commonplace. Her covers were almost always made from a perspective that was quite opposite to the original. Nonetheless, they always turned out to be greater hits.
‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’
A discussion about Simone’s greatest songs would be incomplete without the inclusion of a gospel. ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ was a gospel-blues that was first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. Johnson performed the song with a slide guitar originally, making the song a favourite among many musicians for generations to come.
Although Simone’s career was officially launched through rock ‘n’ roll music, her roots lay in gospels. She even had to go an extra mile and change her name from Eunice Kathleen Waymon to Nina Simone in order to avoid offending her Methodist minister mother who would have been enraged to learn that her daughter was playing “the devil’s music” in an Atlantic City Bar. “My mother taught me to pray. […] If I die and my soul is lost, it will be my fault” said Simone. Thus, this song reconnects her with her roots. Simone added a groove and swing in her version. Apart from her phenomenal vocals, the way she makes the song her own and tells her story is truly fantastic.