Like so many unique artists, Nina Simone’s work was shamefully underappreciated during her lifetime. Despite her obvious talent, her early albums rarely made much of an impact on the charts, and she was continually overshadowed by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday. Her unusual vocal register and uncompromising live performances also made her a bewildering, divisive character in the eyes of the public. To many, she was an artist who was constantly cycling through “fits of outrage and improvisational genius”.
Today, Nina Simone’s voice is regarded as one of the most evocative sounds in all American music. Her contralto register gives her music a resonant warmth which is as comforting as it is moving. She was able to imbue her songs with such emotion that she could have sung anything and made it sound as though she’d lived a thousand lifetimes. Certainly, the life she did lead was full of euphoric highs and equally devastating lows, and no song captures that more so than her song ‘Don’t Let Me Be Understood’. This recording of Simone’s isolated vocals from that track gives us an opportunity to listen to the subtle nuances and intense virtuosity of Simone’s performance.
Although the song has been covered by a range of artists, including The Animals, Santa Eemeredla and Elvis Costello, ‘Don’t Let Me Be Understood’ was originally written for Nina Simone. The track was one of five songs composers Bennie Benjamin and Sol Marcus wrote for Simone’s 1964 album Broadway-Blues-Ballads, and for many, it carried the subtext of the civil rights movement.
Indeed, since ‘Mississippi Goddam’, Simone had started using her music as a platform to discuss the subject of racial inequality. The singer performed at a number of rallies and marches, including the notorious Selma to Montgomery march. Later in her life, she would become an advocate for black nationalism, favouring the confrontational approach of Malcolm X than the peaceful protests advocated by Martin Luther King.
But, for other’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Understood’ spoke of something more personal. Some argue that the composer’s knowledge of Simone’s marriage to the notoriously abusive Andrew Stroud inspired much of the lyrical content, including lines like: “Sometimes it seems all I have to do is worry, and then you’re bound to see my other side” – a line which conveys the manipulative logic of abusive partners with searing precision.
Like all enduring songs, the meaning behind the lyrics is open to interpretation. What is clear, however, is that it is Nina Simone’s stunning vocal performance in this track that allows the song to take on so many different meanings. Her rapid, trilling vibrato adds a layer of heartache, whilst those notes she belts with all her lung power convey an unwavering resilience. Nina Simone truly was one of America’s greatest gifts to the world.