Nina Simone

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on this day in 1933; the sixth of eight children, she grew up in poverty in Tryon, North Carolina. A child prodigy, her mother’s wish for her talented daughter was that she should be the world’s finest, as well as the first black, classical pianist – always likely to be an insurmountable challenge for a poor girl from the segregated Southern states.

Simone blamed racism for her failed admission to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, and later for her decision to leave the United States, citing the heavy price she had paid for fighting the establishment as well as disappointment with what she considered the failure of the Civil Rights movement. She is claimed to have favoured, indeed advocated, violent revolution such was her fury at the time it was taking for change to come, writing in less than an hour ‘Mississippi Goddam’, her enraged reaction to the September 1963 Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which claimed the lives of four young girls during Sunday services, as well as the murder of Mississippi Civil Rights activist and World War II veteran, Medgar Evers, in June of the same year.

By 1963, Simone had started to tour Europe, where she would soon became more popular than in her native America. She would have just one Top 20 hit in the US: her first single, ‘I Loves You, Porgy’.

Her music was an often volatile fusion of gospel, blues, jazz and folk, although she bitterly resented the ‘jazz’ label for its stereotypical undertones and begrudged categorisation in general. She helped define the Civil Rights movement, which she belatedly, somewhat reluctantly, became involved in with her raspy voice, so rich in tone, increasingly singing of bigotry and injustice. Her regal presence and diva antics earned her the nickname ‘The High Priestess of Soul’. There was scandal, involving unpaid taxes and the use of firearms, and only after her death did it become known that she had suffered from bipolar disorder for some four decades.

She died in 2003, at home in France, aged 70.

As we’ve nattered quite a lot lately about Bob Dylan covers (sorry about that), it may not surprise you that Nina Simone recorded several of his songs, including ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ and ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’.

In fact, she has covered many of my favourite songs, George Harrison’s ‘Isn’t It a Pity’ being one of them (she also did a delightful gospel version of ‘My Sweet Lord’). Others of note include the excellently-titled ‘Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter’, originally by Ike and Tina Turner; Mama Cass Elliot’s ‘New World Coming’; the Chuck Berry number, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ (also covered by Paul McCartney on Run Devil Run, of course, with a little help from our David); and then there’s this one, which fans of Leonard Cohen will know well: ‘Suzanne’.

Everyone’s had a go at it, it seems, but I can’t pretend to enjoy her interpretation of ‘My Way’. Still, it’s worth a listen not least for the bongos. A lyric that suited her feisty attitude and honours her bravery in the face of so much adversity, certainly. (Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded Simone’s signature tune, ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, too. But you really mustn’t get me started on Sinatra.) Her classical instrumental rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic from Carousel, more than makes up for the relentless ‘My Way’ bongos, though. Rousing, stirring, simply stunning.

Her songs have also been covered by others. For example, ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, a hit record for The Animals a year after the 1964 original; Muse accomplished ‘Feeling Good’ (and it’s played on Planet Rock every-bloody-day, why is that?); Janis Joplin did an amazing ‘Little Girl Blue’ (which I realise was not written by Simone; it’s another from the Great American Songbook, which is most definitely a topic for another day, this time from Rodgers and Hart and the musical Jumbo, yet she would record it and name her 1958 debut album after it.

Anyway, enough trivia. Which covers, either way, do you like best?

I hope you can play some of her songs today as she was quite brilliant.

49 comments

  1. Andrew

    But you really mustn’t get me started on Sinatra.

    Why FEd? Trying to figure out if you loved Sinatra or despised him.

    Thanks.
    Andrew

  2. tim_c

    Interesting topic Fed.

    Like a lot of people I guess my knowledge of Nina’s work is limited to the collections that get re-issued from time to time. My copy has a live version of Mississippi Goddam that she introduces in a most doleful voice as “I mean every word of it” … and “this is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.”

    She had a terrific voice for imparting both the soulfulness of the African American tradition but more often also the sorrow and bitterness of that peculiar phenomena of Southern racism.

    It is quite extraordinary how such attitudes existed, and indeed continue to exist in the face of such manifest intelligence and grace … absolute bone-headed ignorance.

    One song you didn’t mention but that was a landmark of its kind was “Strange Fruit” which is really very moving.

    Anyone not familiar with her stuff (surely not amongst the intelligent and knowledgeable Gilmourettes and Gilmourites) should head straight to iTunes, Amazon, YouTube or for those over 40, a record shop!

    • FEd

      The quote from Mpho Motshegwe gave me chills. I’m glad that poachers are being shot. Good on South Africa’s military and those park rangers in anti-poaching units for ridding the world of twenty-six poachers last year. May they have continued success.

      Injecting the rhino’s horns with a harmless parasiticide – that is, harmless to the rhino, harmful to the human who foolishly thinks it contains any medicinal value – is an excellent idea.

  3. Pavlov

    There are just too many to list and comment on but a few that have ‘caught’ my attention over the years:

    – Taking Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again, Naturally and transforming it into a personal statement of what she was going through at the time

    – Wild is the Wind (Johnny Mathis recorded it first and David Bowie also did a cover which I liked)

    – Look What They’ve Done to My Song

    – Go to Hell

    – Her cover of Here Comes the Sun is not one of my favourites but has its merits

    – To Love Somebody (I do prefer the Bee Gees’ original though) 😉

    – I adore her My Baby Just Cares for Me

    and then there’s this

    In my opinion everyone ought to have a copy of Nina Simone – Live At Montreux 1976 a snippet to share – here

    • FEd

      She’d have made such a scary school teacher, wouldn’t she? The way she stops singing to command an audience member to sit down reminds me of my old French teacher. Poor Nina would never have finished a song with all the cameras and mobile phones being waved around at concerts these days.

      She always seemed so sad, so irritated by everything. You wonder if performing music gave her any satisfaction at all. I know she’s said it was a burden she carried all her life, and you get the feeling from watching her that it all really was more of a chore than a pleasure. I think that’s really sad.

    • Tim-C

      Thanks for sharing that link P.

      I’m sitting with a tear on my cheek. That’s a very complicated performance to watch …. Angry, disaffected, sad, beautiful …. But one thing is for sure …. It was personal and REAL and we don’t see a lot of that. I would like to see the rest of that show.

      On a lighter note, as she berated the audience I couldn’t help wonder if Roger couldn’t have got her to do backing vocals on some Floyd tours …. Now what on earth would her “Great Gig” have been like?

    • Michèle

      Oh but your scary old French teacher was very efficient, n’est-ce pas? You are now nearly fluent in French. Hats off to her! (assuming she was a she.)

      Oh but didn’t she “command” her students to regularly practise their French to improve it? She must be spinning in her grave these days…(if she is dead, that is… :! ) – 😛

      • FEd

        I hope she’s not dead.

        She was a very good teacher and used to complain often, to everyone’s amusement, that the English Channel is as much French as English.

    • Pavlov

      I so agree with you FEd. Although I probably would’ve responded quite well to having a school teacher like that! To have such a gift be a curse (as it so often the case with the greats who feel so deeply and passionately … Edith Piaf comes to mind) must be true hell.

  4. suzysmith

    Beautiful song by Ms. Nina Simone. Amazing how there is/are so many emotional/touching/moving songs and brilliant artists that keep them coming on. Definitely a gift to be able to have that ability and to touch the masses.

    Of course, David Gilmour is one of the best!

    • NewYorkDan

      Thanks to everyone for your kind words and well-wishes.

      Our baby is a very happy child, lots of smiles and giggles. Always sleeps through the night and wakes with a smile. She is very advanced for a 3 month-old. She focuses on you and seems to understand most of what you say. She likes to suckle on fingers. And she loves music! She seems to dance to music.

      We are so fortunate to have found this little girl, Madison, our dream come true!

  5. NewYorkDan

    My comment has nothing to do with the topic, but it’s wonderful news!

    After years of being on a list to adopt a child, my wife and I have finally found a child to bring into our lives! 3 month-old Madison was born to a family that is unable to raise her. We learned about her one week ago (Valentine’s Day) and agreed to take her in. We took her home two days ago and she is in my lap right now, my daughter napping as I type. This is the best blessing I have ever received, this beautiful child who needs a home and who is loved here. I have never felt this much joy before. I am a daddy now!!

    • FEd

      Many congratulations, Dan. That’s wonderful news and what a lovely thing to do. Best wishes to you all.

    • Groovy Juve - Mississippi, US

      Many congratulations!!! There is nothing to compare with parenthood!

    • JulieD

      Good on you, Dan. You have gone sky high in my estimation. She will give you many years of happiness. Nothing beats a wanted child. Do what my parents did and tell her that you adopted as soon as she understands. It is the best thing my parents ever did and because of it there are no hang ups.

    • NewYorkDan

      Most people have nine months or so to prepare their homes and their minds for a new child. We had five days. As overjoyed as we are, we also have not had time to breathe. But, that said, the outpouring of support and love from our community has been unbelievable. On Sunday when we announced our news in church, the entire congregation stood and clapped their hands for us. People have been dropping by to bring us baby clothes, toys, car seats, a high chair… The only thing we have had to buy ourselves was the crib. Yesterday one friend even brought dinner to us!! This show of love and support has really helped me in those moments where I begin to think how I’ve never spent any amount of time with children this young, that somehow I don’t know what I am doing. Because this child is not just coming into our family, but is also coming into the loving community that we are part of. In the space of five days they helped us be ready, and in the three days since Madison has arrived they have continued to be there. This baby is in the best hands.

      • FEd

        On Sunday when we announced our news in church, the entire congregation stood and clapped their hands for us. People have been dropping by to bring us baby clothes, toys, car seats, a high chair… The only thing we have had to buy ourselves was the crib. Yesterday one friend even brought dinner to us!!

        Dan, if this were Twitter, I’d definitely have ‘favorited’ that.

        All the best to you. I’m proud of you, mate.

    • NewYorkDan

      Oh, and thanks for that tip, JulieD. We haven’t had a chance to think about the best way to handle the question we’re going to get in about five years: “Mommy, daddy, you two are pale and I am dark. What gives?” I think you’re saying that the best answer would be, “Well, your birth family could not care for you. But WE really wanted you, and we worked very hard to bring you into our family, and we love you more than anything else on Earth.”

    • Pavlov

      If there were a ‘tears of joy’ emoticon, I’d display it here. Oh Dan, Madison and family … I give you a rose … @>–,–‘– … a yellow one to convey warmth, gladness and affection.

    • KenF

      Dan,

      I’m full of admiration for you. You are embarking on a lifetime commitment that will fill you, your dear wife and Madison’s lives with Love, Pride and Joy.

      Best wishes to you all.

      ‘With friends surrounded…’

  6. Michèle

    Well, Muse’s ‘Feeling Good’ has been voted the best cover song of all time in 2010 (NME). :/ I like it. Anyway, I don’t think that Nina Simone was the first to sing it.

    I don’t know much about her, but I heard that she took her stage name from French actress Simone Signoret.

    I quite like her cover of the wonderful Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, a touching interpretation, a beautiful voice, a charming accent.

    Can’t beat the original, though (IMHO) – especially for those who understand the lyrics. Poignant.

  7. Gabrielle, Washington State

    Thanks for bringing the music and story of Nina Simone to The Blog’s readers, some of whom had probably not heard her music before.

    I heard Nina Simone’s recordings of both Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and The House of the Rising Sun before I got my first album by The Animals in ’64/’65. (The Animals made a huge impact on music, too. Without Chas Chandler would Jimi Hendrix ever have made the trip to England, etc.? A story for another day …)

    Nina Simone also recorded fantastic versions of I Put A Spell On You, Summertime and this, which was later to be recorded by Jeff Buckley.

    I must agree with you, FEd, on what sounds to me like bongos being played by The Chipmunks on My Way. Yikes! 😀 I did, however, really like her cover of Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman.

    Another beautiful voice that takes me back in time is that of the fabulous Miriam Makeba who’s life story is as intriguing as her music, too. Her birthday is March 4 and is shared by my grandson who will be 5 years old.

    Someone else has a birthday coming up on March 6 ~ will you be doing anything special for that date, FEd? 😉

    Peace ‘n’ love,
    Gabrielle

    • Gabrielle, Washington State

      Nearly forgot about this one. This song has the bongos going but in this case they make perfect sense. I believe that this was written by Tina Turner’s sister, Alline Bullock. It’s a good one, I think!

    • FEd

      Someone else has a birthday coming up on March 6 ~ will you be doing anything special for that date, FEd? 😉

      Just the usual for David’s birthday, I’m afraid: allowing space for birthday messages.

    • Pavlov

      ♥ ‘Mama Africa’ … but then I’m ever so slightly biased with her having been a fellow compatriot. 😉

    • Gabrielle, Washington State

      Indeed, Mama Africa. Being exiled from her home country allowed her voice to transcend geographic boundaries. Interesting how government attempts to silence people can actually provide them a larger platform from which to speak to a global audience. 😉

  8. frank par

    And we can’t forget about Etta James and all her renditions of I’d Rather Be Blind.

    Rest in Peace.

    • FEd

      No indeed. What an extraordinary voice. If there is a heaven, they must put on some fantastic shows up there.

  9. Groovy Juve - Mississippi, US

    We like Ain’t Got No… I’ve Got Life. I’m a 55 year old Caucasian and my room mate is a 27 year old African American. He lost his mother at a young age and I have filled the gap as best I can. My son and he went to college together and are best friends. We do get some strange looks when we’re out together, but even in Mississippi, we are pretty much left to ourselves.

    I believe that it’s up to individuals to change attitudes. I was raised in a racist family and I always knew it was wrong. I did my best to raise my son with a different attitude and have succeeded. He is going to pass on the same values to his children. Anything worth having takes time and effort, even attitudes, but each individual has to do his or her part.

    Just gotta keep on truckin’!!!

  10. Thomas O'Connell

    This Lady is great singer that is in heaven singing with the angels for she was a wonderful lady.

    Have a nice weekend FEd,
    Thomas

  11. frank par

    This is for NY Dan, way to go. My grandaughter is also named Madison and she is a very good dancer.

    Take Care!!!

  12. Andrew

    Sorry to be off topic but does this happen in other parts of the world?

    On my way to work this morning I actually saw a number of folks lined up in front of two Footlocker stores in NY. I do remember standing in line to try to get concert tickets but we are talking shoes here. I can’t believe people have such a passion to stand on a line all night in order to get a pair of sneakers. Have we really gotten this vain? Really?

    Thanks.
    Andrew

  13. Michèle

    I think that now it’s perfect time to listen to the beautiful instrumental ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by Nina Simone (I didn’t know that she was such a great piano player, quel talent), in honour of a certain team who won today their eighth League Cup. Happy FEd, I guess. 🙂 Quel suspense. Well done, you Mighty Reds, even though, as their Captain said, it’s always cruel when it goes to penalties.

    • FEd

      An absolutely beautiful piece of music played brilliantly, I only hope she could take comfort during her darker moments from the words.

  14. Damian Cunningham

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Nina did a cover of a Bob Dylan song.

    Kind regards
    Damian

  15. Damian Cunningham

    Thankyou Fed for sharing the clip of Nina with me. I don’t think that kind of talent exists anymore, or it is just not getting through.

    Kind regards
    Damian