Nina Simone: where to start in her back catalogue

Our writers help you explore the work of great musicians. Next up: the deft genius who raged searingly at injustice

The album to start with

Nina Simone in Concert (1964)
Nina Simone is in the unusual position of being a towering genius who never recorded an undeniable, canonical masterpiece. If you choose your 10 favourite songs, there’s a good chance that they’ll be from 10 different albums, which makes one of the many excellent compilations the natural gateway into a vast body of work that encompasses jazz, blues, folk, soul, pop, rock, show tunes, polyrhythms and songs that don’t even have genres.

That said, In Concert, recorded at three Carnegie Hall shows during March and April 1964, represents her great leap forward as both a performer and activist: her escape from the “nothing world” of pop. She performs three songs from her jazzy 1959 debut Little Girl Blue with a newfound depth, drawn from painful personal experience and her recent political awakening at the hands of new friends in the civil rights movement, notably Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin. It’s this nightcrawling version of Jack Hammer’s Plain Gold Ring that explains why Nick Cave later covered it, while Don’t Smoke in Bed is so stark that you can hear audience members shifting in their seats.

Unlike most live albums, In Concert leaves the audience in the mix throughout and illustrates how deftly Simone could snap between tension and release. Summoning the vengeful ghost of Brecht and Weill’s Pirate Jenny into the age of Medgar Evers and George Wallace, she stuns the room into a silence punctuated only by nervous coughs. During Go Limp, a kind of protester’s sex comedy written by CND campaigner Alex “The Joy of Sex” Comfort, the spectators chortle at the jokes, join in the goofy chorus and keep Simone airborne when she forgets the lyrics. The laughter carries into her own Mississippi Goddam – written in a frenzy hours after the 1963 Alabama church bombing – until the show-tune irony is burned away by a mounting rage that consumes the hall and you can hear in real time the realisation that they are listening to a protest song like none they’ve ever heard, owing more to cabaret than folk, and more to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King. Simone is fully aware of the power she wields: “Betcha thought I was kidding, didn’t you?” The final standing ovation is an explosion of awe and relief. Oh, to have been in that room.

The three to check out next

Wild Is the Wind (1966)

Starting with I Put a Spell on You in 1965, you can’t go wrong with Simone’s final five albums for Philips Records. Despite being largely pieced together from leftover sessions by producer Hal Mooney, Wild Is the Wind is the strongest illustration of her uncanny ability to find the song within a song, revealing the secret tunnels and caverns that previous singers didn’t know existed and future interpreters couldn’t ignore. When Jeff Buckley covered the gloomy torch song Lilac Wine, he was really covering Simone’s version, which also happens to be one of Thom Yorke’s Desert Island Discs. Likewise, it was Simone who showed David Bowie that Johnny Mathis’s Wild is the Wind could be a shattering tour de force. Simone’s own Four Women, a quadripartite study of black womanhood so unflinching in its pain and outrage that some black radio stations banned it, epitomises her talent for inhabiting characters with her voice. It is practically a seance: each mistreated woman is sketched in just a few short lines but she lives and breathes and cries out for justice.

Nina Simone and Piano! (1969)

One of Simone’s 1969 albums for RCA was To Love Somebody, a pop-minded collection of handsomely arranged covers of Dylan, Cohen and the Bee Gees. The other was its polar opposite: Simone alone with the instrument she learned as a child. Her most intimate and auteurish album (she handled the occasional embellishments and overdubs as well) weaves diverse material into a coherent suite of songs haunted by loneliness, depression and mortality. She makes Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going to Rain Today bleaker still (“I hope it’s gonna rain today”), delivers Jacques Brel’s The Desperate Ones in a fraught whisper, rewrites the blues standard Nobody’s Fault But Mine and even renders Jonathan King’s mawkish Everyone’s Gone to the Moon unnervingly strange. Never has an exclamation mark been more inappropriate. This is a companion for the wee small hours.

Emergency Ward! (1972)

Around this time, Maya Angelou called Simone “an extremist, extremely realised”. Her last heavyweight artistic statement began at a show near Fort Dix, New Jersey, for Jane Fonda’s anti-war Free the Army tour in November 1971. George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord is a warm breeze but she whips it into a gospel hurricane and merges it with the Last Poets’ David Nelson’s biting poem Today Is a Killer, so that hope battles with despair on a cosmic scale. Running to almost 19 minutes, the medley is the most staggering spiritual crisis you will ever hear, whipped towards a chilling climax that brings the two strands together: “Today, who are you Lord? You are a killer!” Not yet done with Harrison, she spins Isn’t It a Pity out over 11 stark, disillusioned minutes, like a last call for humanity. “The times are desperate and America is one big emergency ward with everybody in the hospital,” Simone explained, not long before leaving “the United Snakes of America” for good.

One for the heads

Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter, 1974

What might Simone have achieved in the 1970s had she not been derailed by deteriorating mental health, tax problems and self-imposed exile? Her fascination with West African polyrhythms was cut short but this radical interpretation of a Tina Turner song gives you a taste. Barely more than a sly, taunting vocal and feverish percussion, it signposts a road not taken.

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.

Further reading

A Raised Voice by Claudia Roth Pierpont
Prompted by the controversial biopic Nina, this superb 2014 New Yorker article focuses on Simone’s role in the civil rights movement and the roots of her rage. “As the 60s progressed, the feelings she displayed – pain, lacerating anger, the desire to burn down whole cities in revenge – made her seem at times emotionally disturbed and at other times simply the most honest black woman in America.”

What Happened, Miss Simone?
Fortuitously released during the rise of Black Lives Matter, Liz Garbus’ taut 2015 Netflix documentary puts Simone’s radicalism into context. The talking heads are so-so but the archive footage is unmissable.

Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas
Simone’s slim 1991 memoir I Put a Spell on You left out a great deal. The best of the biographies fills in the gaps. Cohodas is particularly good at explaining what plagued Simone during her turbulent final decades, when her foes often included her own audiences.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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