She’s one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century and her songs have been used in everything from rap samples, house classics and the Müller adverts. She was born in 1933 in North Carolina to a Methodist minister and a handy-man. Whilst she was an immensely talented youngster, her family did not have much money to pay for her lessons so a fund was set up by local people to pay for her tuition. She was a talented singer, pianist and songwriter, as well as a prolific Civil Rights activist. She died in 2003 in France after a battle with breast cancer. Basically I’m a big fan and I think you should be too. So consider this my blaggers guide to Nina Simone’s career.
She signed to a small jazz record label called Bethlehem and in 1957 released her debut album, ‘Little Girl Blue’. This was the first of some 40 albums that she went on to release and is incredibly jazzy. Her influences during this time include Billy Holiday and Duke Ellington, who’s ‘Mood Indigo’ features on the album alongside ‘Love Me Or Leave Me’, ‘African Mailman’ and one of her most famous songs, ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’. She was only with the label for this one release before her popularity meant she was signed by a bigger label.
In 1959 Nina Simone signed to Colpix, who gave her complete creative control. In 1959 she put out ‘The Amazing Nina Simone’. Another jazzy album, it has five or six excellent songs, but really wants to be listened to as a whole. My favourite song though is one that stands out because it is not jazzy. It’s the swing styled ‘Chilly Winds Don’t Blow’. Its sound reminds me of Sam Cooke and her voice on it is exceptional. As well as ‘The Amazing Nina Simone’, she released one other studio album and six live albums, including one recorded at Carnegie Hall. In 1964 she left Colpix and moved to Philips.
The move to Philips in 1964 coincided with her singing more about the Civil Rights Movement. Obvious examples of this shift can be seen in ‘Old Jim Crow’ and ‘Mississipi Goddamn’. Her live albums are as much an audience with Nina as they are concerts. She engages with her audiences, discussing the issues that she was concerned about. While at Philips she released some of her most famous songs: ‘Sinnerman’, ‘I Put A Spell On You’ and ‘Feeling Good’. She saw considerable success on the black music charts and released more live albums. In these releases we get to hear her piano playing ability too, which was honed at Juilliard School Of Music in New York. This song is a perfect example of her charisma and her magnificent stage presence.
When Nina went to RCA in 1967 she wrote more songs that have since become classics. ‘Ain’t Got No/I Got Life’, ‘To Be Young, Gifted And Black’ (covered by Aretha Franklin), a cover of The Beatle’s ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and my favourite song of hers, ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’. After five more studio albums and several live albums, Nina left RCA and the US in 1970 and did not record again until until 1978’s ‘Baltimore’, which was not a commercial success but did get good reviews.
The list of musicians she directly influenced is vast. Rappers NaS, Kanye West, Talib Kweli and Timbaland have all sampled her songs, while musicians as varied as Muse, The Animals, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Marilyn Mason, Cat Power, Jeff Buckley Elton John and David Bowie have all been influence by her or covered her songs. Obviously, I’m a big fan too. Let me know what you think about the songs I’ve put up and see if they introduce you to a side of her that the adverts and pop references never quite let you in on.