It looks like Nina Simone is the next legendary African-American musician slated to be treated to a bio-pic. Mary J. Blige, the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” will play the role of the “High Priestess of Soul,” hopefully delivering a powerful performance that will illuminate new facets of Blige’s artistry -- much like how Ray! did for Jamie Foxx -- while simultaneously revealing a complex American icon who constantly fought against personal and political injustices throughout her career.
A year before her death in May 2003, a renaissance of interest in Simone’s music ignited. On the first volume of Verve/Remixed, deep house producers, Masters at Work and Joe Claussell reinvented her as a dancefloor diva with their remarkable makeovers of “See-Line Woman” and “Feeling Good,” respectively.
Those remixes exploded onto the dancefloor and became the template for succeeding Verve/Remixed singles. Soon after, Ropeadope Records paid tribute to her with one of its stylish T-shirts. A month after her death, Verve released Four Women: The Nina Simone Philips Collection, a four-disc boxed-set compilation of her seven albums for Philips Records, between 1964 and 1966.
The renaissance continues with SONY/Legacy’s recent reissues of Nina Simone Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul, and the solid compilation Forever Young, Gifted & Black – all three drawing upon her RCA LPs from the late ’60s that found Simone delving deeper into blues and R&B.
Master at reinvention
Simone was a master at reinvention. She was as comfortable giving a classical piano recital and singing jazz and French chansons as she was belting out gutbucket blues or waxing poignant commentaries about the social-ills of her time. Still, for all her expansive musicality, she wasn’t some anonymous sounding Karma chameleon. She had one of the most distinctive voices of the 20th century – one that can’t really be described as lovely, but one nevertheless that demanded immediate attention with its grainy, almost androgynous timbre. Her quivering alto conveyed a spectrum of emotions, ranging from near-paralyzing pain and flaring rage to carnal lust and personal hope. She was also an exceptional pianist, capable of playing European classical music, American show tunes, barrelhouse blues and pop with equal acumen.
The complexities of Simone’s music was made evident when her RCA debut, "Nina Simone Sings the Blues," dropped in April 1967. It was in stark contrast to her final Philips LP, "High Priestess of Soul," which incidentally came out first two weeks prior. Although, High Priestess of Soul showed her awareness of the jazz-soul revolution that was taking place with fine rendition of Oscar Brown and Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” it was also distinguished by lush big band and string orchestrations that sounded polite compared to the raw intensity of Nina Simone Sings the Blues.
If Simone sounded like she was dipping her toe in blues and R&B on "High Priestess of Soul," she sounded like she was plunging headstrong into those genres on "Nina Simone Sings the Blues." Stripped-down in instrumentation, highlighted by Eric Gale’s swaggering blues guitar, drummer Bernard Purdie’s deep pockets of funk and Buddy Lucas’ stinging harmonica and sultry tenor saxophone accompaniments, the LP evokes a late-night, jam session at some juke-joint. Its looseness was all the more ironic, considering that Simone didn’t suffer foolishness from disrespectful audiences; she was known for abruptly interrupting a concert and walking offstage, because of loquacious patrons.
Stuffiness is far from the vibe on "Nina Simone Sings the Blues" as she lets it all hang out on her bittersweet take of “Since I Fell For You” on which she enlivens the lyrics with bleeding angst and on the salty if suggestive “Do I Move You?” Despite how well the album holds together in terms of sonic temperament, it still portrays a good range of themes within the blues context. Simone is just as trilling sexual come-ons like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” and “In the Dark” as she's on “Backlash Blues” a poignant message song, co-written by Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes. For a glimpse of Simone at her rawest, this is ideal choice.
Fiery social commentaries
"Silk & Soul" shows her refining the rough edges that made Nina Simone the Blues such a wicked delight. Released right after the former during the same year, Silk & Soul is comparatively more R&B than blues, brimming with brighter, more danceable rhythms and to a certain degree more pop-laden ballads. The lead song, “It Be’s That Way Sometimes”(written by her brother, Sam Waymon) is simply a gem, as a stunning rhythm bed of thick rhythm guitars, rugged drums and charging horns cushion her swaggering phrasing. The song almost suggests the Memphis soul of Stax Records and provides a promising start.
Unfortunately, "Silk & Soul" doesn’t exactly keep the infectious Southern soul vibe of “It Be’s That Way Sometimes.” Instead, it’s a more varied offering with Simone delivering candle-flickering renditions of “The Look of Love” a swooning version of J.D. Loudermilk’s classic “Turn Me On” It’ll be wrong to call Silk & Soul a failure; it’s just that it lacks the consistency and aural urgency of its predecessor.
There’s much to savor in Silk & Soul, especially when Simone’s addresses social issues. On the dreamy “Turning Point,” against the backdrop of theatrical strings and a harpsichord she unravels a somber tale of innocence lost as a little first learns of racism. She counters that with a fine rendition of Dr. Billy Taylor’s uplifting anthem, “I Wish I Knew How it Feel to Be Free” and the defiant message song “Go to Hell.”
For a concentrated listening to Simone’s fiery social commentaries, Forever Young Gifted & Black makes for a magnificent listening. It kicks off with the seminal “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a song latter covered by Aretha Franklin. Simone doesn’t demonstrate the vocal range and versatility of the Queen of Soul, but her version is nevertheless soul-stirring, asserting an optimism and battle-cry right in the face of adversity.
The disc also contains a rollicking live performance of her signature tune, “Mississippi Goddam,” which comes right after an unedited live version of “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” both recorded in a 1968 concert, three after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Simmering with anger, regret and hope, the 13-minute performance moves a glacial pace and builds to a glorious climax, then capped off to song insightful remarks about other Black American heroes who had departed at that time (Otis Redding, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and John Coltrane). It’s one of the most revealing performances ever in Simone’s five-decade career, and a moment that will hopefully be aptly captured on the upcoming film. Indeed, Mary J. has her work cut out.