Nina Simone: Eclectic (And Eccentric)

Nina Simone has never been a large presence in my listening life. A little more than a year ago, I wrote:

“Nina Simone’s eclectic – and from this chair, eccentric – approach to her jazz stylings must have left producers, promotion men and the listening public wondering what the heck she was going to do next. Every time I listen to Simone’s work, I hear something I’ve not expected to hear. That’s fine with me; for the most part, I like listening challenges. But it must have been difficult for those aforementioned producers and promotion men to dent the charts.”

That was the third time I’d mentioned Simone, who was born Eunice Waymon in South Carolina in 1933 and passed on in 2003. In that case, I shared Simone’s 1965 cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” a performance I liked a lot. The earlier two mentions, however, had been in connection with covers versions of tunes I was writing about. In neither case did I go find Simone’s version of those songs.

But I did some poking into Simone’s catalog this morning. I’m still not sure what I think, but a couple of thing jumped out at me.

First of all, here are the covers I didn’t go find from those first mentions: Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from her 1969 Album To Love Somebody and the 5 Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” from 1971’s Here Comes the Sun. I think the Dylan cover works, but “O-o-h Child” is a little bit lacking. I get a sense that Simone’s heightened self-awareness didn’t always mesh well with standard love songs although it seemed to work with Dylan’s cryptic obscurity.

One love song that worked well for Simone was “I Loves You, Porgy,” from the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. Singing as Bess, Simone begs Porgy to protect her when the man named Crown comes to take her away:

I love you, Porgy.
Don’t let him take me,
Don’t let him handle me
And drive me mad
If you can keep me,
I wanna stay here with you forever,
And I’ll be glad.

Yes, I love you, Porgy.
Don’t let him take me.
Don’t let him handle me
With his hot hands.
If you can keep me,
I wants to stay here with you forever.
I’ve got my man.

The performance came from Simone’s 1958 album Little Girl Blue and was released as a single on the Bethlehem label. It went to No. 18 on the pop chart and No. 2 on the R&B chart, by far the most successful single in Simone’s career. Her next best performance on either chart was with 1969’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which went to No. 76 on the pop chart and to No. 8 on the R&B chart.

But Simone’s most astounding performance might have been a composition about racism written in 1963 when the civil rights movement in the American south was reaching its peak. The tune showed up on her 1964 release, Nina Simone in Concert, and we’ll let Ms. Simone have the last word today with “Mississippi Goddam.”

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2 Responses to “Nina Simone: Eclectic (And Eccentric)”

  1. AMD says:

    Spooky: I opened this just as I was listening to Nina Simone’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”!

  2. JohnnyC says:

    I find Nina’s cover of “O-o-h Child” enjoyable…in her style. She was not known for sunny readings of pop songs and this was a listenable exception to the rule.

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