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DAVID WAS reporting:

Nina Simone was a unique voice in American popular music, with a background in classical piano and a penchant for addressing social ills head-on.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Musician and writer David Was on a new retrospective of the work of Nina Simone, who died two years ago.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. NINA SIMONE: (Singing) And I'm feelin' blue.

WAS: It's impossible to imagine the emergence of current artists like Macy Gray or Lauryn Hill without Nina Simone. She was hip-hop 20 years before the beats arrived. In the 1960s, no black woman was any more `gangsta' than Nina Simone.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel.

WAS: "The Soul of Nina Simone" on RCA/Legacy is notable for its video segments, especially a pair of songs she performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1960. With a uniformly white audience in attendance, Ms. Simone sang unsmiling and diffident versions of "Love Me or Leave Me" and "I Loves You, Porgy," which she scored a rare top-40 hit with in 1959.

(Soundbite of "I Loves You, Porgy")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Yes, I loves you, Porgy.

WAS: Her recording career was spotty but certainly prolific. In the '60s, she recorded everything from Israeli folk songs to spirituals to covers of Ellington and Jacques Brel. Eventually she would move to France and Barbados, Liberia and Switzerland. She divorced her husband and manager, Andy Stroud, in the 1970s and started to suffer financial problems that would follow her until her death in 2003.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Just a beat of my poor heart in the dark.

WAS: I found out about her money woes directly in 1982 when I was jazz critic at the LA Herald Examiner and got a phone call from a Beverly Hills bank at the behest of Ms. Simone, who was trying to cash a check of dubious provenance and was using me as a character witness. I had written a review of her performance at the Roxy the night before, where she'd spent 20 minutes ranting about getting ripped off over the years, as the audience fidgeted uncomfortably hoping she would sing again. I called her `imperious and regal' in the paper, trying to euphemize what could have been more aptly described as `emotionally overwrought' or `out-and-out unbalanced.'

In the next few days we held several long midnight conversation, in which she tried to convince me to ask my readers to each send her a dollar so she could buy a new piano. Alas, I told her, my editors would probably not go for such a scheme.

(Soundbite of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" music)

WAS: Thankfully in the late 1980s, a British TV spot featured her version of "My Baby Just Cares for Me," and she scored a top-five chart hit after 35 years of constant touring and recording.

(Soundbite of "My Baby Just Cares for Me")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) My baby just cares for me.

WAS: Nina Simone may have been embittered by racism and social injustice, but that gave shape to her persona as a kind of female black Bob Dylan, albeit with a bit more swing than twang and an unmistakable passion and intensity that remain unrivaled to this day.

(Soundbite of "My Baby Just Cares for Me")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) I don't play this. Liz Taylor is not his style, and even Lana Turner's smile is something he can't see. My baby don't care who knows it. My baby just cares for me.

BRAND: The recording is "The Soul of Nina Simone." Our reviewer? David Was.

(Soundbite of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" music)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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