This second of two Nina Simone compilations issued in 2005 (and third in two years), For Lovers focuses on Simone's crucial tenure on the Verve imprint. It's not a thorough examination of her career by any stretch, but it does feature what many consider to be ideal performances of two of her most well-known songs: "I Loves You, Porgy" and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair." Fans of Simone's work will already have many of these recordings courtesy of other records, but casual listeners wanting to hear the softer side of this revolutionary jazz chanteuse will find this an excellent place to start, and will want to dig deeper into her rich back catalog.
All Music Guide
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Surely Nina Simone - yet another brilliant, self-invented American performing-arts genius - knew the score. Simone knew what she wanted to play and how. She knew and understood the powerful instrument that was her voice. Consider the sound of her, its physicality and its bodily effect. Given the era in which her career flowered, she knew what she was up against.
By the mid-twentieth century, to be young, gifted, and black in the United States - a settler nation whose population is descended from indentured servants, slaves, immigrants, migrant workers, refugees, and convicts - meant you had to be smart to survive. Not only were you up against deep-seated social prejudice, you had to keep a sharp eye out for witch hunters. Mahatma Gandhi had shown the world that love might be mankind's strongest persuader. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who admired Gandhi, was repackaging the message for his bitterly divided nation.
The sixth of eight children, the little girl who was to make herself into Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933. By her fifth year she was recognized as a prodigy. Imagine a poor Southern black girl who loved Simone Signoret enough to eventually make the French actress's given name her professional surname. By then her musical studies had carried her to Philadelphia and on to Juilliard. From there, working first as a piano accompanist and teacher, then reluctantly as a singer, Simone stepped out, or rather sashayed and strutted out, upon a very complex world stage.
Partly jazz, partly folk, partly symphonic, partly off-Broadway hip, Nina Simone's flexible style of playing and singing seemed right and ripe for the times. By the mid-1950s the idea of an artistic underground was taking root in the popular mind. At the very time that rock was rolling in, the established music scene was opening to experiment. The stage was set for Nina Simone's "I Loves You, Porgy" - which she recorded more than once in live and studio settings - to bubble up and scale the pop charts. The record became a drop-dead best-selling single and propelled Simone to stardom. Listeners who fell in love with her voice and piano on the basis of "Porgy" alone couldn't possibly guess the breadth and stretch of her reportorial canvas.
It was Simone's performance of this two-minded plea that set it free. No longer was it leg-ironed to the ill-starred relationship of two Carolinian lovers from Catfish Row as characterized by the Gershwins and DuBose Hey ward in their 1934 opera, Porgy and Bess. Simone universalized the song.
Poised on a keen, warm cutting edge where folk, popular, and art song meld, who but Nina Simone could blend Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "Little Girl Blue" with "Good King Wenceslas," the traditional Central European-based Christmas carol? How can Simone's tasteful piano and earthy voice not conjure up the grand heartbreak of romantic self-pity crisscrossed with the crises of Christmas?
"High Priestess of Soul," a sobriquet coined to honor her, displeased Simone enormously. She considered it confining and racist. How could fans, devotees, and well-wishers overlook the extent of her repertoire, which entertained African chants, French bal-lads, off-Broadway fare, and the songs of Rod McKuen, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Jacques Brel, as well as plenty of social protest?
Nina Simone played a mean harpsichord, too, and she could yank you into blues so funky you needed to open a window to clear your head and make sure this was the same woman you heard knocking out some Bach and baroque a track or two back. "I Love My Baby," penned by her first husband, Gary Stroud, proves it.
In slow motion - and often in league with barely audible angels and gremlins of silence, pure or raw -Nina Simone hijacked familiar pop songs, then commandeered them, dispatched them, and set them down wherever she pleased.
"The ones who know about Nina Simone know about her with a passion," says the Trinidad-born novelist and short-story writer Brenda Flanagan, who worked as nanny for Simone's four-year-old daughter, Lisa. "It was because of Nina that I got the green card to be here. She was a diva in many, many ways, and even called herself that. She had this commanding aura about her and a seriousness about her craft. She was just extraordinary."
In 2003 Nina Simone, who had been ill for some time, died at her villa in the south of France, a country that revered and loved her for her artistry. I Put a Spell on You, her troubling autobiography, speaks at length of the pain she endured for having been born black in the United States. Music enabled her to transform much of her anger and personal suffering into love. Under the spell of her best recorded performances, you feel something very powerful that very well could be love. But Simone's rendering of love - be it an emotion or a state of mind - is rarely tender, passive, or sweet. Rather, it is always powerful, immeasurable, and alive.
-Al Young (October 2004)