Last year, the Legacy imprint of Sony/BMG as part of its DualDisc program issued The Soul of Nina Simone. On the audio side, it pretty much sidestepped Simone's political, contentious side -- not that that's entirely possible; this is a woman who makes Randy Newman's mopey "Think It's Going to Rain Today" almost seethe with righteous rage.
Within its stated boundaries, it's a pretty good selection of 15 songs. In the wake of the reissue of Sings the Blues, the decision to pick four items from it and three from the already available Nina Simone and Piano! seems a bit unbalanced for a label that had her from 1967 to 1974. But there's some compensation in the generous decision to broaden the program's scope by licensing 1965 and 1987 items from albums on Philips and Verve, respectively (the former, her version of "Feeling Good" with its striking a capella opening, became a hit in England thanks to commercial placement) and the inclusion of previously unreleased live versions of a Porgy and Bess medley "Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab"/"I Loves You Porgy" from the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival and of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" from the Westbury Music Fair in 1968. Other special delights not duplicated on the releases reviewed below include her gorgeous piano arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)," a brilliantly tender cover of Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," and a surprisingly edgy, ambivalent reading of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody."
Flip over the disc to the DVD side and this becomes a must-have collection. I'm rarely in favor of DualDisc: I don't care about 5.1 DVD audio mixes and think they should just be available separately for those who do want them, instead of driving up the cost of what I can use; aside from the DVD audio, few releases make interesting use of the DVD side. Here, however, we get a treasure trove of concert video. Two standards from a 1960 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show: "Love Me or Leave Me," with Simone's piano arrangement interpolating some Bach (she studied at Juilliard for a year), and "I Loves You Porgy," making for an interesting comparison to the looser Newport version. There are two scruffier covers -- including "House of the Rising Sun" -- from 1968, and four passionate performances (three fiery originals -- here's her political side in full flower) from the 1969 Harlem Festival, the "Black Woodstock." This is Simone at the height of her powers before an audience she could relate to, and vice versa. Don't miss it.
The apolitical stance of the CD side of The Soul of Nina Simone is balanced by the fully political bent of the new compilation Forever Young, Gifted and Black. Legacy has made this more than just another compilation in several ways. Poet Nikki Giovanni was commissioned to pen a tribute in her inimitable plain-speaking style, and it's a powerful piece. To get the kids interested, Alicia Keys wrote a page of the booklet. And, always important to an artist's fans,
The title song is Simone's best-known composition, thanks to Aretha Franklin's version. The studio version opens this disc, while a concert version closes it. Five of the eleven tracks here come from concert recordings, with the 1968 Westbury Music Fair recordings drawn from 'Nuff Said occasionally given to us in previously unreleased unedited form. That concert dates from just three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)" was written by Nina's bassist, Gene Taylor, in tribute; this was its first performance. It's not a platform for Simone's anger, but instead is a stirring 13-minute meditation on King's philosophy that notes "hate was not his way" and (complete with a lengthy spoken interlude finally left intact -- she sounds like she's about to cry) views with trepidation the future without his steadying influence. It's followed, however, by Simone's most notoriously confrontational songs, "Mississippi Goddam," also live and finally unedited with a spoken intro and interlude, and the studio production "Revolution." Aside from "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," from 1967, everything here dates from 1968-69, when the U.S. was boiling with conflict over race issues and opposition to the Vietnam War. Simone drew on other people's reactions as well, as shown in her versions of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (given a gospel feel) and Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)," the latter in a drastically stripped down alternate take. We also get an alternate of the Hair! song "Ain't Got No/I Got Life" in a highly personal revision including not only an added horn section and a much faster tempo, but also some lyrics Simone changed (we are also told that the version that originally appeared on 'Nuff Said was actually a studio recording with applause added later). The material on this disc still packs quite a punch.
Nina Simone Sings the Blues was her first album on RCA, in 1967. It was intended to provide an earthy counterpoint to the slick production of her most recent Philips album, which it did with both repertoire and personnel. It's not, despite the title, a collection of blues material, though there are many tracks that fit that description, but the small band of studio aces behind her and her regular guitarist Rudy Stevenson -- guitarist Eric Gale, organist Ernest Hayes, bassist Bob Bushnell, drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, and Buddy Lucas doubling on harmonica and tenor sax -- keeps things pungently basic regardless of genre. And Simone's mercurial pianism is an integral part of the sound. Aside from "Backlash Blues," with lyrics by Langston Hughes, and to a lesser degree "Blues for Mama," co-written with fellow traveler Abbey Lincoln (one could also note the gender and race issues attached to prostitution, the theme of "House of the Rising Sun," here remade as an uptempo romp), the focus of the material is personal rather than political, but it's important to perceive Simone as a complete person, not just a two-dimensional icon, so the sensual side heard here fills in the picture. Not everything works. Stevenson's "Day and Night" is too poppy to fit the mood, although it's not a bad little tune; "Buck," by Simone's producer and husband at the time, is just bad, but at least it's short. Everything else, however, is either wonderful or at least interesting. Simone's originals "Do I Move You?" and "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl" are sly and slinky. "In the Dark" is an old lowdown blues at its most urgently sexy; "Real Real" is a stirring gospel adaptation. "My Man's Gone Now" (from Porgy and Bess) is heart-rendingly disconsolate in a spare arrangement that highlights Simone's wailing, sobbing vocal, while another classic, "Since I Fell for You," offers a blueswoman's wistful yet somehow seductive resignation. Bonus tracks are an alternate "Do I Move You?" and the 1969 single "Whatever I Am (You Made Me)," apt on this earlier album because it's a Willie Dixon song.
Later in '67 came Silk & Soul, which as its title suggests played up Nina's soul aspects. Much the same crew of musicians was called on, but with a few more ornate arrangements so that horns or strings adorn some tracks. The political high point is "I Wish I Know How It Would Feel to Be Free," a wonderful piece of gospel-inspired music that went on to be one of her trademark songs, while "Turning Point," the story of a white child's introduction to racial prejudice, features ironically genteel harpsichord and strings. The seemingly obligatory repertoire stumble is the soft-rock nugget "Cherish" (a hit for The Association), a poor fit for Simone; as she tries desperately to make it more than it is, it just sounds worse than it is. But her hubby's contribution this time out, "Love O' Love," is simple enough lyrically that there's nothing to wince at, and Nina thrillingly goes all solo gospel on it. She finds layers of depth in the Bacharach-David chestnut "The Look of Love" that often go unheard.
The other tracks, including the bonus material, find her belting out soul with complete assurance. The original album closed with her one original here, "Consummation," an elaborate orchestral production that self-consciously says "big statement" but pulls it off with majesty and dignity. That's a move that typifies Simone's greatness. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He was a buyer at Sound Fix, a record store in Williamsburg.