Nina Simone is being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April. Hardly a rock ‘n roller, Simone’s influence stretches across multiple genres and awareness of her work is probably as strong today as it ever was given some recent highly acclaimed documentaries. For this occasion, and to mark the 6oth anniversary of her first album recording, Little Girl Blue, Omnivore Records is issuing Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles, comprised of selections from the original Bethlehem album and three singles that were left off the original. As with any Omnivore release, the liner notes are especially rich and revealing. These come courtesy of jazz historian Ashley Kahn, author of the books Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme. His notes include an insightful interview from the drummer of Simone’s initial sessions, Al “Tootie” Heath.
An appreciation for the uniquely talented Simone, is enhanced by gleaning a few anecdotes from her back story. Nina Simone was only 25 years old in 1958 when she entered Beltone Studios in midtown Manhattan for a one-day recording session for her debut album. The 14 songs she recorded that day reveal just how developed Simone’s sound — her powerhouse vocals, her classically-trained meshed with jazz piano-playing, her inventive, genre-blind arrangements, and her dynamic personality — already was.
If you’re at all familiar with Simone, three adjectives come to mind immediately – defiant, independent, and fearless, or – perhaps her tagline “young, gifted and black.” Bethlehem was a small and financially faltering jazz label, which approached Simone this way for her recording debut. Nina says this about Syd Nathan of the label, “Nathan …turned up at my house. He had a bunch of songs with him he expected me to play and a list of musicians he wanted me to use as my studio band…he started gulping like a fish when I told him I wasn’t interested in playing any of his songs and that if I was going to make an album I’d choose the material myself and pick the musicians I wanted to support me.” Later that same afternoon, Nathan found himself reluctantly agreeing to her terms.
Understand too that Nina Simone is a stage name (she was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933) that came about because she was never allowed to pursue her dream. She was a child prodigy who wanted, more than anything, to be a concert pianist. She was a young black girl with white aspirations. She attended Julliard in New York but was turned down for a scholarship at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute for Music. This left scars for the rest of her life and she garnered a tremendous amount of resolve born out of bitterness.
Heath describes the recording session this way as half of the tracks featured Simone alone and the other half with Heath’s drums and Jimmy Bond’s bass. “The tunes she did herself, she sat there accompanied herself and that was it: almost all were first takes. I remember after rehearsing everything it was one of those sessions where you go right down the list, one song after another.”
You get a sense of Simone’s unique stylings immediately upon listening. She prefaces Rodgers & Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” with a bit of “Good King Wenceslas” and drops a Bach-like interlude into the hot jazz “Love Me or Leave Me.” It’s a collection of jazz tunes and Broadway tunes that she was familiar with, having played them in clubs. The instrumental, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” best showcases Simone’s intricate piano playing.
The nature of the material is certainly topically innocent compared to her later career material like “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “Mississippi Goddam” but similar stylistically. It was still complex but had a purity of youth that separates it from her more well-known songs. Yet, the first track, the Gershwin’s “Porgy (I Love You, Porgy)” as well as the last track ‘My Baby Cares for Me” did exceedingly well on the charts. These sessions initiated Simone’s storied career, one that seems as relevant today as ever.