“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.” — Nina Simone
One of the most incendiary artists of her generation, Nina Simone, like many acclaimed singers of her time, was one artist who was more than capable of providing an extraordinary cover. Throughout her time, whether they be traditional folk songs, soul standards or pop tunes, Nina Simone has always made covers of other people’s songs her own.
It certainly speaks of just how gifted Simone was as a vocalist but it’s not just the command of the songs that we’re interested in but the songs she selected themselves. Across nine of our favourite Nina Simone covers we see a singer not only utterly in tune with what is going on around but an artist who understands, above all else, the power of music’s ability to change the world. Naturally, as Simone often does, she imbues these recordings with a colossal wave of confidence and talent.
Simone covered some of the music world’s greatest stars when she released her covers album in 1974. The singer’s thirteenth studio record was an impressive one as she entirely conquers every track on the record, transcending them from their pop tune status into something legendary.
“What I was interested in was conveying an emotional message, which means using everything you’ve got inside you sometimes to barely make a note, or if you have to strain to sing, you sing,” she once said and it is a sentiment which rings true when Simone takes on a new number.
We’ve grabbed some of our favourites from there and from across Simone’s incredible career and, in the words of the icon herself: “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”
Nina Simone’s 9 best covers:
‘Here Comes The Sun’ – The Beatles
The track was written by Harrison during a break from a tough session with The Beatles, “‘Here Comes the Sun’ was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘sign that.’ Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it.”
Adding: “So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun.’”
It is this sentiment that has always confirmed the song as one of Harrison’s finest, as able to capture the golden-hued sounds of a perfect sunset as any song. Simone does her best to channel the moment into her performance. But, like with everything Nina Simone does, she can’t help but put her spin on it.
‘I Shall be Released’ – Bob Dylan
Another track from Simone’s 1969 To Love Somebody, the cover of Dylan’s song ‘I Shall Be Released’ is perhaps the definitive version of the track. And that’s saying something. The song has been taken on by many of Dylan’s folk contemporaries and many artists since.
Nobody has come close to hitting the same highs as Nina Simone does on her rendition of the track. Lulled into a false sense of security with Simone’s jazz piano tones, she soon let’s rip with her imposing vocals.
While Simone is comfortable whenever she’s at the piano, on this performance she gives a particularly natural performance.
‘Suzanne’ – Leonard Cohen
Originally sung by Judy Collins before Leonard Cohen could add his own grumbling vocal to proceedings, one of our favourite moments comes from Nina Simone’s emboldened performance back in 1969. It’s easy to see Cohen approving of this one as Nina Simone delivers one of the most incredible covers you’ll ever hear.
With her effervescent personality, Simone delivers a rounded performance that not only hints at the insecurities in the song but lets her open up emotionally across the track. A highly underrated cover that adds grandeur to the ethereal figure of ‘Suzanne’ and humour to her adorer.
‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ – Pete Seeger
Peter Seeger’s classic ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ was made famous by The Byrds and became one of the band’s lasting anthems. Shared in 1969 as part of a Double A-side with ‘Suzanne’, the track feels like the sun peeking over the equinox as spring lands and the new year brings hope and promise.
It’s not necessarily a sentiment that is wholeheartedly attached to Simone but the singer does her finest work on the cover and brings it to the fore. It’s a powerful and potent cover and rings out across the airwaves with the kind of ease that highlights that vibrant talent at the other end of the recording.
As ever, Simone adds new weight to the song.
‘Isn’t It A Pity’ – George Harrison
As well as picking up Harrison’s contribution to The Beatles in ‘Here Comes The Sun’ as one of her covers, Simone also selected one of his solo numbers too as part of her covers album. She picks a good one too, expertly moving the song from a laconic spiritual number to something more akin to a soothing pop prayer.
The original release was yet more confirmation that Harrison was one of the most underrated songwriters of his day. Underrated by everyone but Simone it would seem as she picks up the soulful inflexions of the track and accentuates them to an ethereal almost biblical standing.
While Harrison’s song was all about lament, Simone’s version is a plea for more compassion.
‘My Way’ – Frank Sinatra
There’s always a chance when singing such a huge culturally significant song as ‘My Way’, that the singer could lose their way and end up performing a pathetic pastiche of Sinatra’s bombastic original. Luckily, there’s not a single sign of that coming true on this cover.
Naturally, Nina Simone approaches the song in her distinct and unique style, providing the proof of the song’s lyrics, that no matter the situation or her surroundings, Nina Simone just about did everything her own way. And she was damn proud of it too.
Below, is easily one of the best renditions of ‘My Way’ you’ll ever hear.
‘Ne Me Quittes Pas’ – Jacques Brel
One of the most fearsome and intelligent singers in the game, Simone showed that she recognised the soul in everything when she covered Jacques Brel’s French classic ‘Ne Me Quittes Pas’. While singing the song in English would have still been a serious endorsement, her cover using the original French is unbelievably good.
It showed off that Simone was able to see the power of music in everything and was able to transcend even more barriers than one had originally expected. This time chalking off the idea of a language barrier from stopping her from delivering a beautiful performance.
‘To Love Somebody’ – Bee Gees
To Love Somebody was a serious album for Simone. It once again announced her as a vocalist unlike any other. As well as using the title of the Bee Gees classic ‘To Love Somebody’ Simone also provided a quite fabulous cover of the track as well as another Bee Gees nod.
The 1969 album has since become a serious part of any serious collectors record shelves and could quite possibly be one of the best covers albums ever recorded. While the album is full to the brim with special renditions of classic pop music, there’s something a little more touching about this one.
We think it’s because, unlike many other of Simone’s songs, she shows off a heavy sense of vulnerability.
‘Just Like A Woman’ – Bob Dylan
Nina Simone was never afraid to show her love for a singer or an artist. Her presence was so giant that it didn’t feel threatened by the talent that surrounded her. It means that more often than not, when Simone finds an artist she likes, she will provide several covers of their songs. The same can be said for the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, for whom Simone held a deep affection.
While her cover of ‘I Shall Be Released’ is a barnstormer, there’s something perhaps a little more pertinent on this cover of ‘Just Like A Woman’. The track itself is more akin to Simone’s style and she delivers in bucketloads on this rendition from her 1974 covers album.
It’s just about as perfect a cover as you’re ever likely to find from one of the best to ever do it.