Spotlight on ……
The years in which she recorded for the Colpix label were the years in which Nina Simone first became a star. A performer who always refused to be categorised, she was initially racked among the jazz artists. But, even in the early stages of a career that spanned six decades, her repertoire included gospel, blues, traditional folk and show tunes that dated back to Tin Pan Alley and the big-band era.
A giant of 20th Century song, she was a fiercely independent spirit and an electric live presence. Her unique talent would ultimately lead her from jazz and blues to pop, R&B and a role as an artist closely aligned with black activism and the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
Even as her music became more modern and commercial in the 1970s and 1980s, though, the High Priestess Of Soul never lost sight of the eclectic questing that made her formative years so remarkable.
Born Eunice Wayman in Tryon, North Carolina, in Feb 1933, Nina Simone was the sixth of seven children in a poor family. Like all the great soul-jazz divas, she began singing in church. Perhaps more unusually, however, she also started teaching herself piano at four and had achieved a remarkable dexterity in both that instrument and the organ by the time she reached seven.
So obviously talented was the young prodigy that one of her teachers organised a fund to pay for her education, initially at Asheville High in North Carolina and then at the Juilliard School Of Music in New York.
While a place at Juilliard was a noteworthy achievement for a black woman in 1950s America - opening the young Nina's eyes to Bach, counterpoint and a sense of musical proportion - it also made her realise how hard it would be for her to succeed as a classical player.
With the rest of her family moving from North Carolina to Philadelphia and Nina taking her stage name from her favourite Franco-German actress (and star of Room At The Top) Simone Signoret, the young pianist began playing clubs on the East Coast in the early 1950s.
Considering her phenomenal powers as a jazz, blues and pop vocalist, however, it will come as a surprise to many that Simone fell into singing almost by accident: on taking a piano-playing job at the Midtown Bar & Grill, an Irish hostelry in Atlantic City, she was told that she'd have to sing as well as play or she would lose the gig - and so it came to pass, in the summer of 1954, that one of America's greatest singers got her first break behind the mic.
News of her instrumental prowess and vocal abilities spread quickly along the Eastern seaboard. It led to a record deal with the Bethlehem label - through whom she released her 1958 debut album, Jazz As Played In An Exclusive Side Street Club - and then a longer-term arrangement with Colpix, a division of Columbia Pictures, in 1959.
In all, Nina Simone made nine albums for the Colpix label between 1959 and 1666 - and it is these records, the albums that brought the singer her first commercial successes, that are our concern here.
Some of the tracks selected here are from New York studio sessions (some featuring a jazzy trio, others a larger, more orchestral backing), while the rest are lifted from the countless live appearances (Newport Jazz Festival, Village Gate and Carnegie Hall) made by Simone in the seven years between '59 and '66.
The sheer diversity of the material here reiterates Nina's unwillingness to stay in one place too long. Controlling mood and tempo with her beautifully-paced piano work, she explores a full range of emotions.
The earliest songs here, cut in a New York studio in 1959, offer an instant example of her ability to be playful and flighty one minute and moody and sentimental the next: Stompin' At The Savoy and You've Been Gone Too Long are both lively jazz workouts; Tomorrow (We Will Meet Once More) and Blue Prelude are hauntingly powerful ballads for late-night loners, the latter posing the poignant question 'what is love?' and giving the sad answer 'only a prelude to sorrow'.
Elsewhere, the first CD, which covers the years '59 to '61, includes Chilly Winds Don't Blow (a throwback to the big-band era), Rags And Old Iron (a deep, dirty blues) and the more playful I Love To Love, a number that recalls the rum-ti-tum beat of My Baby Just Cares For Me.
The live material on the first CD is also remarkably varied. Simone's version of Summertime, recorded at the Town Hall in New York City, features classical flourishes while tracks such as Little Liza Jane and In The Evening By The Moonlight, recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island, have a more singalong, down-home timbre.
The second disc here, covering '62 to '66, finds Nina augmenting her piano work with strings and backing vocalists as well as her traditional guitar-bass-and-drums trio. In paying homage to jazz legend Duke Ellington, she strikes a subdued note on Someone To Live For but ensures the mood is bold and brassy on The Gal From Joe's.
And while her Carnegie Hall versions of Will I Find My Love Today and The Other Woman are stylish and elegant, the 'Folksy Nina' numbers from the same 1963 concert find her exploring Leadbelly blues, mournful Spanish flamenco and Jewish klezmer.
After ending her association with Colpix, Simone went on to achieve pop success with hits such as To Love Somebody, a Bee Gees cover, and Ain't Got No, I Got Life. With anthems such as Young, Gifted And Black, she also became a musical figurehead for the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, moving away from the cabaret shows of her early years to play political rallies and soul concerts.
Intense and capricious in concert, and beset by marital problems, the singer took a four-year break from the music business in the 1970s. She left America to live in Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland and Paris before finally settling down in the south of France in the 1980s.
An active campaigner and live performer during the 1980s and 1990s, Simone died from natural causes, aged 70, at her home in Carry-Le-Rouet, near Marseilles, in April 2003. Her music, however, leaves an enduring legacy. In addition to being an obvious inspiration to a new generation of jazz-soul divas (Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, India Arie), Simone's songs have been covered or sampled by the Lighthouse Family and Faithless (who used Tell Me More And More And Then Some on their August 2004 single I Want More) and used extensively on televised adverts for Chanel No. 5, Volkswagen and Coca-Cola.
The foundations of her recording career were laid down in the tracks you hold in your hand, however. Recorded mostly while Simone was still in her twenties, they range from the rich and raw to the soft and supple and showcase a truly great American artist in her prime.
THE NINA SIMONE COLLECTION
A Selection Of Tracks Recorded For The Colpix Label (1959-1964)
- Blue Prelude
- Tomorrow (We Will Meet Once More)
- Stompin’ At The Savoy
- You’ve Been Gone Too Long
- That’s Him Over There
- Chilly Winds Don’t Blow
- Can’t Get Out Out Of This Mood
- Cotton Eye Joe
- Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair
- Exactly Like You
- Trouble In Mind
- Little Liza Jane
- Nina’s Blues
- In The Evening By The Moonlight
- Where Can I Go Without You
- Memphis In June
- Forbidden Fruit
- Rags And Old Iron
- I’ll Look Around
- I Love To Love
- Just In Time
- House Of The Rising Sun
- Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
- Hey Buddy Bolden
- Something To Live For
- You Better Know It
- The Gal From Joe’s
- If You Knew
- Will I Find My Love Today
- The Other Woman/Cotton Eye Joe
- Silver City Bound
- When I Was A Young Girl
- Lass Of The Low Country
- Erets Zavat Chalava
- That’s All
- Spring Is Here
"We have the singing and piano playing of Miss Nina Simone - NINA SIMONE!"