Tuesday, July 7, 2009

July 7: Nina Simone, "Nina Simone Sings The Blues"

Artist: Nina Simone
Album: Nina Simone Sings The Blues
Year: 1967
Label: RCA

There are a handful of artists whose names should be familiar even to the most casual music fan. Amongst those names should undoubtedly be that of one of the most dynamic and captivating singers in music history, Nina Simone. Serving as an influence for nearly every performer who came after her, and even impacting many of her peers, Simone is truly a music icon in every sense of the word. Well known for her somewhat volatile attitude, Simone made albums how SHE wanted them to sound, and this led to some of her most innovative and enduring recordings. Truth be told, there are few artists who have a more diverse, more impressive catalog than Simone, and this fact makes it rather difficult to figure out where to "start" with her music, or even to pick her finest album. However, her first recording after switching to RCA Records, 1967's, Nina Simone Sings The Blues, is one of the most prolific and unique items in her catalog, and it may very well be her finest recorded moment.

Overall, Nina Simone Sings The Blues is a great departure from the sound for which she had become so well known. On her previous releases, she had been backed by a more orchestral sound, yet on this album, it is just her, a pair of guitarists, and a harmonica player. This, in many ways, allows Nina to take a more prominent role, and the mood of the album is quite different from its predecessors. The song selection on Nina Simone Sings The Blues is also a great departure from what had become her "M.O." Simone's friend, Langston Hughes, penned her the civil rights anthem, "Backlash Blues," and Nina's raw, soulful voice is nothing short of perfect on the song. Nina also pays tribute to one of her main influences, Bessie Smith, as she covers "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl," though she does change the lyrics. There is also a version of "House Of The Rising Sun" on Nina Simone Sings The Blues. Though she had released a recording of it on her amazing Nina At The Village Gate album in 1962, the song had become a hit for The Animals, and the more up-tempo version found on this recording is a stark contrast to her previous release of the song. However, the more traditional sounds of Simone are also present, as she sings amazingly soulful songs like "Real Real" as well as "My Man's Gone Now" from Porgy and Bess. Though the sound and song selection are quite a shift from he previous releases, the soul and power behind the voice of Nina Simone remain a constant point of cohesion throughout everything she has ever recorded.

Backing Nina Simone is no easy task, as it is clear that the musicians themselves are often as in awe of her sound as the listener. The dual guitars, handled by Eric Gale and Rudy Stevenson, are mellow and soft, yet they bring every bit of soul and blues that one could want. Eric Gale, who started his career playing with artists like Jimmy Smith and King Curtis, would go on to play with the likes of Joe Cocker, Billy Joel, and Aretha Franklin following his work with Nina Simone. Stevenson, who spent nearly his entire career backing Simone, plays a fantastic foil in style to the playing of Gale, and the duo are absolutely stellar throughout the entire record. Drummer Bernard Purdie is also one of the most influential drummers in history, impacting everything from acid jazz to hip hop music. Working with everyone from James Brown to The Rolling Stone to Miles Davis, Purdie also takes musician credit on the soundtrack to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Though he was perhaps best known for his tenor sax playing, Buddy Lucas also handles harmonica duties on Nina Simone Sings The Blues. Having honed his skills with Big Joe Turner and Albert Ayler, Lucas' playing is absolutely phenomenal, and his harmonica work is truly the key to the albums' authentic feel. Bass player, Bob Bushnell, has one of the most impressive listings of musical credits around, and his work with Louis Armstrong and Van Morrison, along with his regular work on Simone's records make him a true music legend. Rounding out the backing band is organ and keyboard player, Ernie Hayes, and he usually is far in the back on the mix, creating soft, subtle sounds to fill and complete the mood on a few songs. With a very small studio set-up, the combination of Nina's vocals and the brilliant, yet simple music, makes Nina Simone Sings The Blues a wonderfully intimate musical experience.

Powerful, soulful, honest, and often breathtaking are just a few ways in which one can describe the singing of Nina Simone. Her strong, slightly gruff, baritone voice remains one of the most outright stunning and awe inspiring voices the world has ever heard. Whether she is singing leisurely, yet seductively, as on the stunning rendition of "My Man's Gone Now," or pushing the boundaries with her slow and provocative, "Do I Move You?" Simone is truly in top form throughout the entire album. The combination of "Do I Move You" and "Blue For Mama" serve as ideal bookends for the album, and their shared slow, yet alluring mood are simply perfect. Simone pushes further into risqué territory with the sexually fused, rocking blues of "Buck," which was written by her then husband, Andy Stroud. Easily one of the most amazing moments on Nina Simone Sings The Blue comes on the song "In The Dark." Simone, who also plays piano throughout the entire record, truly eclipses the band on this song, and it often seems as if the other musicians are just sort of "hanging out" in the studio while she plays. The song is slow and sultry, and it is also here that the harmonica of Lucas truly shines, becoming almost an echo for Simone's phenomenal vocals. Once again though, the standards of the Simone live set are present in the form of the aforementioned "My Man's Gone Now," as well as fantastic recordings of "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl" and "Backlash Blues." It is very much the combination of her standard songs and new tunes that expand the limits of her sound that make Nina Simone Sings The Blues such a phenomenal recording.

There are few who will argue the place of Nina Simone, high atop the list of the greatest vocalists in the history of recorded music. Recording countless albums over her thirty year career, she remained one of the most unique and astounding talents that the world had ever heard. Combining folk, gospel, jazz, blues, and soul like no other ever, the music of Nina Simone never fails to be anything short of powerful and moving, giving her the well deserved nickname of "High Priestess Of Soul." Having been cited as an influence on everyone from Lauryn Hill, David Bowie, and Alicia Keys to having songs covered by artists ranging from Jeff Buckley to Marylin Manson, there are truly very few artists who can claim as wide reaching an influence as Nina Simone. Taking her first record on her new label as an ideal time to experiment with a new sound and style, Simone surrounded herself with some of the finest musicians around, and delivered another stellar musical collection with Nina Simone Sings The Blues. Though it at times may not seem like a "standard" blues album, it is within the singing on Nina Simone that the blues truly live, and it is in this spirit that the album remains a quintessential blues recording. Though she has had more commercially successful records, it is very difficult to argue that Nina Simone's 1967 release, Nina Simone Sings The Blues, is one of, if not the finest, of all of her studio recordings; and it is therefore an unquestionable "must have" for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Do I Move You?," "In The Dark," and "My Man's Gone Now."

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