How Nina Simone transformed George Harrison’s song ‘Isn’t It A Pity’
Nina Simone was a talent like no other, she could sing the phonebook and it would somehow be a heartwrenching song of absolute beauty. Her voice is one of the most incredible sounds that has ever graced the earth so when you mix it with George Harrison’s mercurial songwriting then you’ve got an emphatic mix and her cover of the former Beatles guitarist’s track ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ is a true delight.
The track, one of Harrison’s finest efforts, originally featured on his 1970 record All Things Must Pass which confirmed his ability as a spectacular songwriter to anyone who still doubted him. The song was one of the oldest to feature on the album with Harrison writing it all the way back in 1966 but couldn’t quite convince his bandmates to use it in The Beatles with John Lennon knocking it back during the Get Back/Let It Besessions. Harrison even considered giving the track away rather than using it for himself and almost handed it over to Frank Sinatra before having second thoughts. The song would go on to be covered a whole host of times but none were as impressive than Nina Simone’s intense version.
‘Isn’t It A Pity’ was born out of personal turmoil for Harrison and Simone manages to tap into the emotion that was prevalent in the former Beatle when he wrote the song. In fact, Miss Simone does much more than tap into the feeling of heartache, she takes the already emotive track up about ten levels of passion which will move you to your core.
“‘Isn’t It A Pity’ is about whenever a relationship hits a down point,” Harrison once confessed. “Instead of whatever other people do (like breaking each other’s jaws) I wrote a song. It was a chance to realise that if I felt somebody had let me down, then there’s a good chance I was letting someone else down. We all tend to break each other’s hearts, and not giving back – isn’t it a pity,” Harrison added on the track.
“It’s just an observation of how society and myself were or are,” he also said to Billboard about the origin of ‘Isn’t It A Pity’. “We take each other for granted – and forget to give back. That was really all it was about. It’s like love lost and love gained between 16- and 20-year-olds,” he added.
“But I must explain: Once, at the time I was at Warner Bros. and I wrote that song ‘Blood From A Clone’, that was when they were having all these surveys out on the street to find out what was a hit record. And apparently, as I was told, a hit record is something that is about ‘love gained or lost between 14- and 19-year-olds,’ or something really dumb like that. So that’s why I wrote ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll get in on that!’”.
Harrison was reportedly a huge fan of Simone’s version of the track, which she released in 1972 and he even took influence from the cover. In his autobiography, Harrison says he was influenced by Simone’s treatment when he came to record his song ‘The Answer’s at the End’ in 1975 which bears a similar arrangement to her cover of ‘Isn’t It A Pity’.
Simone’s 11-minute cover feels more like theatre than it does music as her voice takes the listener on a rollercoaster of emotions where she makes every word that came from Harrison’s pen years previously come to life. It was this ability to express another’s emotion which elevated Simone to legendary status and it shines on this effort.
The combination of a wordsmith like Harrison and a vocalist like Simone is a combination created for greatness as her cover of ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ is a testament to.