Saturday, November 25, 2017

What Happened, Miss Simone? The Case of Nina Simone

Little Girl Blue Everybody loves Nina Simone, a world-class classical pianist who turned into a jazz-folk legend with her own innovative style of performing. Her talent or significance is not really in question here. The predominant question is, does she belong in a Hall of Fame dedicated to rock & roll, when she has very little to do with the genre? Yes, she covered “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” but Frank Sinatra covered “Something,” and I don’t see Ol’ Blue Eyes on the ballot.

After her early lifetime was consumed with classical piano, Miss Simone only turned to singing when the Atlantic City nightclub she was playing in promised her more money if she vocalized as well.  That was also when she adopted her stage name. Did you know that Nina Simone had an actual hit single? In 1957, her version of "I Loves You, Porgy" (off her debut album, Little Girl Blue) went to Number 18 on the Billboard pop charts - and Number Two on the R&B charts. 

I suppose this can push her case in either direction:  Having a Top Twenty hit in the first flower of the rock & roll era establishes her as at least a pop act, if not a rock & roll act. On the other hand, Porgy and Bess is nobody's idea of a rock opera.

Trouble in Mind She did become a civil rights folk hero in 1964 with her song "Mississippi Goddam," the blasphemy being very carefully chosen in response to the murder of Medgar Evers.  It obviously never became a hit, but it did become one of her signature songs, and she sang it in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 in front of 10,000 people who had marched there from Selma. Miss Simone later claimed that the record industry sabotaged her sales because of that controversial song, but that ship had already sailed. Since "I Love You, Porgy," she hadn't had a single reach higher than Number 92 on the charts.

Incidentally, one of the greatest songs in the modern pop canon is “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” written and originally recorded by Jonathan King. Many artists have covered it, from Marlene Dietrich to the Flaming Lips. I was very excited to see that Miss Simone had also done it – but she sings it in a weird atonal, off-key voice. Given that it’s Miss Simone, I’m sure there’s a purpose to this, but I can’t imagine what it is. If anyone knows, please contact the author c/o this blog.

I Put a Spell on You None of that isn't to say that she wasn't great. She was a hugely compelling performer incorporating a wide range of styles, to the point that it was fairly impossible to define what genre she inhabited, and she wrote a lot of her own material as well. Her fierce courage and sense of self-worth would influence many generations of African-American artists, and a whole lot of white ones too.

Nina Simone has gotten a lot of deserved attention lately, nearly 15 years after her death, from the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? and the fictionalized feature Nina, among other events. It's well earned, as she was an important and admirable artist. But she wasn't rock & roll. I'd love to vote for Loretta Lynn, too, but she's not rock & roll either. I vote no for Nina Simone.

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