Saturday, 20 July 2013

Nina Simone – The First Decade on Vinyl

Nina Simone is born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in February 21st 1933 and died at April 21st in 2003 in France. She was an american singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist widely associated with jazz music. Simone aspired to become a classical pianist while working in a broad range of styles including classicaljazzbluesfolkR&Bgospel, and pop.

Her musical style arose from a fusion of gospel and blues songs with classical music, in particular with influences from her first inspiration, Johann Sebastian Bach. 
She injected as much of her classical background into her music as possible to give it more depth and quality and accompanied with her expressive jazz-like singing in her characteristic contralto. Her intuitive grasp on the audience–performer relationship was gained from a unique background of playing piano accompaniment for church revivals and sermons regularly from the early age of six years old.
To fund her private lessons, Simone performed at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, whose owner insisted that she sing as well as play the piano. In 1954 she adopted the stage name Nina Simone. "Nina" (from niña, meaning 'little girl' in Spanish) was a nickname a boyfriend had given to her, and "Simone" was taken from the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she had seen in the movie Casque d'or. Simone's mixture of jazz, blues, and classical music in her performances at the bar earned her a small, but loyal, fan base.

In 1958 she befriended and married Don Ross, a beatnik who worked as a fairground barker, but quickly regretted their marriage. Playing in small clubs in the same year she recorded George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy", which she learned from a Billie Holiday album and performed as a favor to a friend. It became her only Billboard top 20 success in the United States, and her debut album Little Girl Blue soon followed on Bethlehem Records. Simone lost more than $1 million in royalties (notably for the 1980s re-release of "My Baby Just Cares for Me") and never benefited financially from the album's sales because she had sold her rights outright for $3,000.

Early vinyl records almost  in chronological order. In the background the first three releases with Bethehem Records, the mono version of "Little Girl Blue" at right, the stereo version in the middle and a sampler with other female singers under Bethlehem contract at left.
In the foreground several first releases of the Colpix era in stereo as well in mono.

Despite this terrible facts the album is by far the best album of all her career. It explodes from energy, intensity and musical input. I think she did know very well about the importance of that first recording. If there is one Nina Simone record to own, that it is this one. It is as well a very good recording in terms of fidelity. This is said about both versions, the stereo and the mono version, even if I do like the mono record better that the stereo one.

Nina Simones first recording "Little Girl Blue", released by Bethlehem Records in 1958

After the success of Little Girl Blue, Simone signed a contract with Colpix Records (a subsidary of Columbia records), and recorded a string of studio and live albums. Colpix relinquished all creative control to her, including the choice of material that would be recorded, in exchange for her signing the contract with them. At this point, Simone only performed music to make money to continue her classical music studies, and was indifferent about having a recording contract. She kept this attitude toward the record industry for most of her career. 
The half of the colpix albums are recorded live at different public concert houses. So these early recordings give a very well insight into the atmosphere of the concerts and Nina Simones presence at stage. Here mostly a unique opportunity is given to get part of a extremely intimate moment of performance, as to listen to a very present singer in the other event. Even if the recorded fidelity of the most of the colpix albums is not very good, I like these recordings together with following phillips and rca recordings as her major work. I believe that colpix did not use not own recording equipment like other companies in these days (famous Mercury living presence), instead they seem to have used the inhouse installed equipment of the concert halls.

A typical Colpix record of that time with golden label. The company changed in the early 1960ties several times the color of the labes.

In 1964, she changed record distributors, from the American Colpix to the Dutch Philips, which also meant a change in the contents of her recordings. Simone had always included songs in her repertoire that drew upon her African-American origins (such as "Brown Baby" and "Zungo" on Nina at the Village Gate in 1962). On her debut album for Philips, Nina Simone in Concert (live recording, 1964), however, Simone for the first time openly addressed the racial inequality that was prevalent in the United States with the song "Mississippi Goddam", her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black children. 

A typical Philips deep groove first release with rainbow stripe. This records are generally a lot better recorded than the earlier Colpix records.

From then on, a civil rights message was standard in Simone's recording repertoire, becoming a part of her live performances. Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as at the Selma to Montgomery marches. Simone advocated violent revolution during the civil rights period, rather than Martin Luther King's non-violent approach, and she hoped that African Americans could, by armed combat, form a separate state. Nevertheless, she wrote in her autobiography that she and her family regarded all races as equal.

Some of the Philips first releases and two early RCA releases in front.

She covered Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit", a song about the lynching of black men in the South, on Pastel Blues (1965). She also sang the William Waring Cuney poem "Images" on Let It All Out (1966), about the absence of pride she saw among African-American women. Simone wrote "Four Women", a song about four different stereotypes of African-American women, and included the recording on her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind.
Simone moved from Philips to RCA Victor during 1967. She sang "Backlash Blues", written by her friend Langston Hughes on her first RCA album, Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967). On Silk & Soul (1967), she recorded Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" and "Turning Point". The album 'Nuff Said! (1968) contains live recordings from the Westbury Music Fair, April 7, 1968, three days after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.. She dedicated the whole performance to him and sang "Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)", a song written by her bass player, Gene Taylor, directly after the news of King's death had reached them. In the summer of 1969 she performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in Harlem's Mount Morris Park.

I did take care about her first decade of album releases between 1958 and 1968. From everything I know, I think it was her most productive time in her live. She continued on with record releases, but she never could build on the same level of intensity comparing her first years. 
Nina Simone died in 2003 in Carry-le-Roue in southern France. She was one of the absolute most  soulfull and remarkable singers in the 20th century despite of genre and as well a brilliant piano player. A real solitaire.

Read on soon about other lady singers, Volker

For further informations on records from Nina Simone visit her illustrated discography:

Simone & Cleary 2003, Nina Simones personal web page and wikipedia

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