Some folks say Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker and Whitney Houston are the queens of soul. Nina Simone is as impassioned as all those names but perhaps her legacy is often forgotten. You can list Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, and Lauryn Hill to the list of those she’s inspired, whether her influence is acknowledged or not. And regardless of those I didn’t name, she has become heavily sampled and covered due to her massive catalogue, canorous emotion and dynamic music.
40+ albums. 15 Grammy nods. (No wins; it was the 50’s and 60’s). Nina originally started off as a classical pianist but found more success in other genres such as jazz, soul, folk, R&B, and gospel. Regardless of genre or sound, Nina’s music is drenched in passion. Her voice wasn’t anything sweet or spectacular but the power that belted behind her voice is what helped her stand out. In combination with her unique voice, she had exceptional piano and writing skills. This further elevated her stature into greatness.
Nina Simone isn’t for everyone, however. Think about it: Artists can get emotional, and the negative feed back they get, i.e. Kanye’s tantrums at award shows, Kelis in general, Tom Cruise + couch incident, or Howard Dean’s “BYAAH!!!” that ended his career. Fans can be scared of emotion.
Nina’s emotion made me dig some of her music. Similar to Billie Holliday, her jazzy and soulful sound is perfect for rainy days. Her gospel, funk, and uptempo music bends your ear more towards the sounds that made her a legend. Songs like “Sinnerman” and “I Put A Spell On You” display Nina’s sound that remains everlasting. In “Sinnerman,” now an American standard, Nina sings with a fearsome heart beseeching Him for forgiveness and strength. Nina’s voice can’t harbor all the credit for the track though. Her jubliant piano pounding and accompanied band play with equal enthusiasm. One can hear the heat generating in the room while listening to this 10+ minutes track. Only thing missing is the sermon and benediction. The same goes for “I Put A Spell On You.” The saxophone’s wines and Nina’s scats add a spooky undertone to this song of fatal attraction.
Like most jazz music before 1980, it’s entertainment value is overshadowed by the educational purposes contained within. But a large majority of her music is sample-worthy, not just “Sinnerman.” Grab one or all of her albums to taste some immense music history or find some good samples, as I did. I recommend Pastel Blues. Her take on “Strange Fruit” sends chills down your spine as she illustrates this sad-song of lynching’s past. Or, take a listen to the acapella “Be My Husband” and “Trouble In Mind.” But if you’re into the sampling & just encountering Nina, try The Essential or The Anthology, as they have the entire hits bundled into one. Enjoy.
Pastel Blues (1965)
Forever Young, Gifted & Black
I Put A Spell On You (1965)
Nina Simone Sings Ellington (1962)
The Essential Collection (2006)
Forbidden Fruit (1960)
The Amazing ¦ (1959)
Nina Simone: Remixed & Reimagined (2006)