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The High Priestess Of Soul: Nina Simone In 5 Songs

Nina Simone's voice may have had a limited range, but its unique power and melancholy made for a legendary effect when paired with her genre-crossing piano. i

Nina Simone's voice may have had a limited range, but its unique power and melancholy made for a legendary effect when paired with her genre-crossing piano. Getty Images hide caption

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Nina Simone's voice may have had a limited range, but its unique power and melancholy made for a legendary effect when paired with her genre-crossing piano.

Nina Simone's voice may have had a limited range, but its unique power and melancholy made for a legendary effect when paired with her genre-crossing piano.

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There are certain figures in jazz history whose iconic status can be telegraphed by a single name: Miles. Billie. Bix. Coltrane. Though there is a deity-like ring to the stand-alone moniker, there's also a suggestion of the intense connection that these artists inspired in fans, and a notion that their messages remain relevant today.

The pianist and singer Nina Simone, subject of the new Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, a tribute album titled Nina Revisited, and a forthcoming biopic called simply Nina, seems to be ascending to that place of pop-culture reverence. In a time when issues of race and gender are reverberating with a newfound volatility reminiscent of the 1960s — the decade in which Simone forged her reputation as a politically provocative entertainer — "Nina's" concerts and recordings feel like urgent bulletins from a brooding heart and a troubled land.

Sometimes referred to as "the civil rights diva" and "the High Priestess of Soul," Simone was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C. in 1933. Her prodigious talent was cultivated early on, and she grew up practicing to become a classical pianist, even spending a summer at the Julliard School in New York City. After being turned down by Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute (a rejection that Simone believed was racially motivated), she began to play in bars, adding vocals to her act at the behest of a club owner.

Though her singing range was limited, she had a sultry sadness and a seductive quality that was spiritual as well as sensual. She could summon a deeply nuanced array of emotions, from explosive swells of anger and passion to a melancholic purr of heartbreak. Her wide-reaching repertoire, incorporating jazz, blues, folk, pop, show tunes, gospel, and R&B (as well as occasional flourishes drawn from her classical training) served as a precedent for modern singers such as Cassandra Wilson who have expanded the boundaries of the jazz-vocal canon. She was also a dynamic, visually striking and unpredictable performer who, much like Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, kept audiences on their toes and was unafraid to confront unruly fans. Her rendition of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," which became one of her signature songs, could serve as a testament to the mesmerizing effect she tended to create on-stage.

Here are five recordings to serve as an introduction to an artist who brings to mind the writer Andre Gide's quote—"Please do not understand me too quickly":

The High Priestess of Soul: Nina Simone In Five Songs

Cover for Little Girl Blue
10I Loves You, Porgy
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    Song
    I Loves You, Porgy
    Album
    Little Girl Blue
    Artist
    Nina Simone
    Label
    Bethlehem Music Company, Inc.
    Released
    1957

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I Loves You, Porgy

  • from Little Girl Blue
  • by Nina Simone

Though she's often remembered today for her fearless and authoritative delivery, Simone was a master at conveying vulnerability, tenderness, longing and loss in her renditions of ballads — an ability that she would develop further in later recordings of songs such as "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and "Lilac Wine." This early recording of a Gershwin standard became a hit that helped launch her career. At the time this song was still very much associated with Billie Holiday, an artist to whom Simone was not always happy to be compared. Much as Holiday came to be a cultural emblem of the 1930s and '40s, however, Simone has emerged as a similar signifier for her own era.

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Song
Little Girl Blue
Album
Little Girl Blue
Artist
Nina Simone
Label
Bethlehem Music Company, Inc.
Released
1957

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Cover for The Essential Nina Simone
06See-Line Woman
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    Song
    See-Line Woman
    Album
    The Essential Nina Simone
    Artist
    Nina Simone
    Label
    BMG
    Released
    2011

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See-Line Woman

  • from The Essential Nina Simone
  • by Nina Simone

With its skipping calypso rhythm and fluttering flute, backing a lyric that depicted a spellbinding femme fatale, "See Line Woman" was a perfect vehicle for Simone's incantatory powers. According to Simone biographer Nadine Cohodas, the song was "an old island folk tune" adapted by poet Langston Hughes' secretary. Hughes, who had forged a friendship of mutual artistic admiration with Simone, suggested that she record it. (The two would also collaborate on "Backlash Blues," a biting riposte to white resentment of the protest movement.) "See-Line Woman," also provides an example of Simone's potent character and narrative studies, showcased most prominently in her composition "Four Women." That's another reason the song has been sampled or covered by contemporary artists such as Kanye West, Massive Attack and Feist.

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Song
The Essential Nina Simone
Album
The Essential Nina Simone
Artist
Nina Simone
Label
BMG
Released
2011

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Cover for Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972
30To Be Young, Gifted and Black
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    Song
    To Be Young, Gifted and Black
    Album
    Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972
    Artist
    Nina Simone
    Label
    RCA Records
    Released
    1998

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To Be Young, Gifted and Black

  • from Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972
  • by Nina Simone

"To really understand the '60s, you had to hear Nina," Abbey Lincoln once said. Recordings like Simone's own "Mississippi Goddam," her anthemic rendering of "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," and her stirring performance of "Sunday In Savannah" just three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. capture the singer's confrontation with the civil-rights upheaval of her times. Simone's growing racial and political consciousness was spurred on by her friendship with Lorraine Hansberry, author of the breakthrough racially-themed 1959 play A Raisin In The Sun. Hansberry's death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 34 in 1964 devastated Simone, and several years later she and sideman Weldon Irvine wrote "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," taking the title from a play Hansberry had been working on when she died. Grounded in a good-vibe black-pride sentiment, with an emphatic choral backdrop, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" became a hit and was also covered by Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. "There's a world waiting for you," Simone sang, addressing black youth on the cusp of the 1970s with an optimism that was giving way to her increasing personal despair about racism in America.

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Song
Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972
Album
Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972
Artist
Nina Simone
Label
RCA Records
Released
1998

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Cover for Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972
37Here Comes the Sun
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    Song
    Here Comes the Sun
    Album
    Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972
    Artist
    Nina Simone
    Label
    RCA Records
    Released
    1998

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Here Comes the Sun

  • from Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972
  • by Nina Simone

Simone's late-1960s/early-'70s stay on RCA yielded an expansive and fascinating wealth of music as she embraced the work of contemporary songwriters such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Bee Gees, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb and Leonard Cohen. (She did some remarkable work with blues and standards as well on the albums Nina Simone and Piano and Nina Simone Sings The Blues.) At the same time, her mental health was deteriorating, exacerbated by career pressures, a disintegrating marriage and disillusionment with the progress of the civil-rights movement. The sweet, wearied reassurance of "Here Comes The Sun" evokes the long-awaited lift of depression and confusion, states to which Simone was sadly no stranger in her later years.

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Song
Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972
Album
Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972
Artist
Nina Simone
Label
RCA Records
Released
1998

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Cover for Baltimore
02Everything Must Change
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    Song
    Everything Must Change
    Album
    Baltimore
    Artist
    Nina Simone
    Label
    Sony BMG Music (Canada)
    Released
    1978

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Everything Must Change

  • from Baltimore
  • by Nina Simone

Simone spent much of the 1970s in self-imposed exile, living in Barbados, Africa and Europe. She struggled with unresolved tax and financial problems, as well as continuing psychological issues; for the rest of her life her concert performances would be erratic. After her RCA contract lapsed in the early 1970s she went several years without recording, until CTI producer Creed Taylor persuaded her to return to the studio. Though Simone later professed unhappiness with the resulting album Baltimore, its eclectic mix of material, ranging from Hall and Oates' "Rich Girl" and Randy Newman's title track to the traditional "Balm In Gilead" makes for a fitting coda to Simone's classic RCA period. "Everything Must Change" came from Quincy Jones' 1974 album Body Heat and had already been recorded by artists such as George Benson and Randy Crawford, but Simone puts it across with heartfelt, somber dignity, underlined with a hint of resistant grief; the song's refrain is delivered as a sorrowful acknowledgement, and then, in its concluding word, as an imperative.

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Song
Baltimore
Album
Baltimore
Artist
Nina Simone
Label
Sony BMG Music (Canada)
Released
1978

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Simone lived another 25 years, long enough to write an autobiography. She rarely recorded but still performed, in sometimes enchanting, sometimes infuriating form; audiences now came to witness the legend that had already begun. "When I die," she once said, "I want to have left some particular mark of my own. I'm carving my own little niche in the world now." As time passes, that niche seems more and more inclusive.

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