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The Nina Simone Database

The Essential
Budget compilation

Metro METRCD010 (2000 UK)

Tracks sorted by number (sort by session or by title)
 1 [3:37] My Baby Just Cares for Me   Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn

 2 [4:01] Mood Indigo   Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, Barney Bigard

 3 [3:08] He's Got the Whole World in His Hand   Traditional

 4 [3:10] Don't Smoke in Bed   Willard Robison

 5 [3:21] Love Me or Leave Me   Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn

 6 [2:28] He Needs Me   Arthur Hamilton

 7 [4:17] Little Girl Blue   Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers

 8 [3:49] Plain Gold Ring   Earl S. Burroughs

 9 [6:55] House of the Rising Sun   Traditional

 10 [4:39] Ain't Got No / I Got Life   Gal MacDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni

 11 [4:54] Gin House Blues   Harry Burke first encore

 12 [2:44] Ain't No Use   Rudy Stevenson

 13 [4:41] Mississippi Goddam   Nina Simone

 14 [3:46] See-Line Woman   George Bass

 15 [4:53] Four Women   Nina Simone

 16 [3:24] I Sing Just to Know That I'm Alive   Nina Simone

 17 [5:07] Fodder in Her Wings   Nina Simone

 18 [4:09] I Loves You Porgy   George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DuBose Heyward

Liner Notes by Lucy O'Brien, January 2000
When Nina Simone played London Royal Festival Hall in July 1999, she walked on stage, waited regally for the wild applause to die down, then took a lump of chewing gum out of her mouth, stuck it on the side of her grand piano, and launched into her set. It is that mixture of insouciance and complete dedication to her artistry that makes Simone such a complex, rewarding performer.

She roams across all of popular song, from showtunes to jazz and blues to dark protest, and delves deep into the reservoir of musical history and memory. For this woman who danced naked in a Liberian disco, and attempted to seduce Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, acquiescence has never come easy. She sings of what it means to be a woman; of loneliness, love, bliss and disappointment. She articulates emotional reality without putting a gloss on it, and that has ensured her appeal across generations.
I first met and interviewed Simone in 1992. She was a worldweary fifty-nine year old diva, sitting in a West End hotel room wearing a curious neglige-cum-evening gown, her hair swept back, her lower lip trembling, her eyes proud. "I hate showbusiness," she said to me, "It's hard. You never know if you're gonna get your money. There's different hotels, different airplanes, bad food. When it's all finished you have people pirating your records and stealing from you. The poor always ask you for money; they think you lead a special Cinderella life. It's all nonsense." Though scornful, her face lit up when she recalled a recent concert, playing The Beatles' Long And Winding Road with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "It brought back a lot of memories and I cried. That was the happiest I'd been in years."

Born Eunice Waymon in 1933, the sixth child of a Methodist preacher's family in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone hopped onto the piano stool at two and a half and like a little-girl Mozart, played her mother's favourite hymn note-perfect. At six she was playing church revivals, in her teens she was sent to an exclusive, mainly white, private school for girls with a top academic record, and her hometown launched a fund to finance her musical training. After a year's scholarship at New York's Juilliard School of Music, it was expected Simone would win a place at the elite Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. "There was a lot of black pride and money invested in me," she said.

Despite her brilliance, the young Eunice was rejected. Even though many claimed it was a racist decision, she felt humiliated. Reluctantly turning her back on the classical world ("How was I going to be the first black concert pianist in my spare time?") she changed her name - a Hispanic boyfriend kept calling her Nina, Spanish for 'little girl', so that stuck, and Simone she adopted after the French actress Simone Signoret. She then began performing popular songs in bars to earn money for further tuition. Early bitter disappointment was to infuse her music, creating a sense of tragedy as stagey as it was magnificent. For her first gig, a down-town dive in Atlantic City full of "drunken Irish bums", she played sitting erect in a chiffon gown, her hair and face meticulously made up. Though she went on to record scores of albums and reach a worldwide audience, she always took her diva role seriously. It's when she is at the piano that she feels truly alive, and each of the songs on this album captures that spirit.

The opening track My Baby Just Cares For Me was recorded almost as an afterthought for her 1958 debut album on the independent jazz label Bethlehem. Though she considers it one of her slighter numbers, when this bright, uptempo tune was used on a Chanel No.5 commercial in 1987 and re-released, it became the biggest hit of Simone's career.

The next seven songs on this compilation come from the same session. A Duke Ellington composition, the jazzy, forthright Mood Indigo has an extended swing intro in the style of Bach, one of Simone's favourite classical composers. Gospel standard He's Got The Whole World In His Hands is thoughtfully performed by Simone with low-key accompaniment, while she brings a bluesy, bitterly-restrained anger to the Willard Robison song Don't Smoke In Bed. This is followed by the declarative pride and baroque flourish of Love Me Or Leave Me, a song from the 1930 Broadway show Whoopee! that was later popularised by Ruth Etting and Doris Day.

On He Needs Me, from the 1955 film Pete Kelly's Blues( for which Peggy Lee gained an Oscar nomination), Simone keeps it low-key, conveying the quiet desperation of unrequited love, while her unique take on the Rodgers & Hart standard Little Girl Blue is oddly interpolated with a nursery-rhyme rendition of Good King Wenceslas. This creates a dramatic, off-kilter effect, an approach that's also used on Plain Gold Ring, which has the spare sadness of an ancient folk ballad.

The next seven songs come from In Concert, an album of live performances in the US, recorded by Simone in her prime. There is a vigorous version of traditional The House Of The Rising Sun; a proud, percussive Ain't Got No/I Got Life; a holy-rollin' Gin House Blues; and the rich, bluesy cry of Ain't No Use. Also included is a driving rendition of Mississippi Goddam, composed by Simone as a civil rights song, following the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963 outside his house in Jackson by a white assassin. This is a classic protest song from her time as an ardent campaigner for the movement in the '60s and '70s. After the rootsy chant of See Line Woman, there is the spine-tingling Four Women, a defiant song about the legacy of slavery. Here we have vintage Simone, staring into the abyss. This is where her genius lies - in her ability to take the listener right through pain, and then transcend it. There is such supreme conviction, such a definitive quality in the way Simone sings "My skin is brown/My hair is tough", as if hers is the last word.

The next two songs are curios from her 1985 album Nina's Back. A long-time staple of her repertoire, I Sing Just To Know That I'm Alive, is updated with smooth, synthesised production, its soukous rhythms a frenetic counterpoint to her soaring voice. Fodder On Her Wings, meanwhile, is wonderfully expansive piece of mystical harpsichord mayhem. This collection concludes with her 1959 classic I Loves You, Porgy, here sung with gentle dignity.

Poised and passionate, haughty and vulnerable, Simone has collapsed the boundaries between classical, jazz and pop, to create a timeless musical legacy.