NINA SIMONE: ‘To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story’ (Label: Sony BMG)

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NINA SIMONE: 'To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story'

What’s in a name? Well, if you’re trying to break into show business where appearances are everything, then I guess a name can make or break you. Sometimes it’s the difference between anonymity and achieving superstardom. Would Cary Grant, for example, have been a household name if he’d stuck with Archibald Leach? Or Cliff Richard if he’d not morphed from plain old Harry Webb? And would Marilyn Monroe have become an iconic movie star if she’d stayed true to her birth name, Norma Jeane Mortenson? This preamble leads us to Eunice Waymon, the original name of singer Nina Simone. You can see why the singer from Tyron, North Carolina, adopted a stage name that was far removed from the one she was baptised with – Eunice Waymon isn’t the kind of moniker that trips off the tongue or lodges in the memory. However, the name Nina Simone seemed to possess an indefinable aura of glamour and mystery. Interestingly, though, Simone claimed she didn’t change her name to help propel her career – apparently, she adopted Nina Simone because she didn’t want her mother (who was a Methodist minster) to know she was singing and playing secular music. But it was by playing the Devil’s tunes that Simone rose to fame in 1959 for Syd Nathan’s Bethlehem jazz label, where she scored her first US hit, ‘I Loves You Porgy,’ which peaked at #2 in Billboard’s R&B charts. A year later, in 1960, she experienced her second hit, ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out,’ this time for the Colpix label. In the mid-’60s, Simone joined Philips for a fertile stint and then later RCA, where she stayed until the early ’70s. Her popularity waned somewhat in the 1970s, though the chanteuse recorded a highly-regarded one-off album (‘Baltimore’) for Creed Taylor’s CTI label in 1978. A few albums for small labels followed in the 1980s, until she recorded what turned out to be her swansong, the recently reissued ‘A Single Woman’ for Elektra in 1992. The fascinating creative arc of Simone’s career – characterised by a meteoric ascent to fame riding on the Civil Rights bandwagon and a slow, sometimes painful, decline – is vividly depicted by the 51 chronologically-sequenced tracks on this new 3-CD box set, which despite being issued by Sony BMG (who own all Simone’s RCA output) represents most of the singer’s other label affiliations as well. What results is a well-rounded sonic portrait of a singer who was often categorised as a jazz artist but who, in fact, was really a musical maverick whose allusive style was a curious yet transcendent blend of gospel, folk, jazz, blues and pop. Technically, Simone’s dark-hued contralto voice – even when she was at her very best – was not a pitch-perfect instrument: she possessed a wide vibrato that at times sounded akin to a lamb’s bleat and some of her pitching, especially when it came to long, sustained notes, was wobbly and off-key. Certainly, with those deficiencies she’d struggle to make the finals of a contemporary talent show like the ‘X Factor’ where technical ability is prized over powers of emotional projection. But what compensated for her tonal weaknesses was the strength and depth of feeling she injected into her performances. Simone’s voice – especially during her legendary live performances – communicated something ineffable from the depths of her being, which was able to touch her listeners, strike a chord and forge a common bond of humanity. On stage, she was a great communicator and storyteller, there’s no doubt of that – and that’s why there’s a raft (24 in all) of riveting in-concert performances on this collection. Indeed, Simone, whose personality was volatile at the best of times, could be electrifying when she was in front of an audience – unpredictable too (especially if you were a white American attending her concerts in the Civil Rights era during the mid-’60s). Perhaps it was a sense of edginess that made her music so fascinating, even if some of her performances were not always aesthetically perfect to the ear. All the late singer’s key songs can be found on this collection – including ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me,’ ‘See-Line Woman,’ ‘I Put A Spell On You,’ ‘Feeling Good,’ ‘To Be Young, Gifted & Black,’ ‘Four Women,’ ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and the recently reactivated ‘Ain’t Got No – I Got Life.’ Most of the previously unissued cuts are taken from live performances, though there is a solitary studio cut, the self-penned and newly-discovered ‘Tanywey’ (an outtake from the 1971 RCA album, ‘Here Comes The Sun’). In addition to the 3 CDs you’ll find a DVD, featuring a 25-minute documentary that includes live footage of the so-called ‘High Priestess Of Soul’ performing numbers like ‘Pirate Jenny,’ ‘Backlash Blues,’ ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ and other signature songs. A photo-packed booklet with accompanying liner notes completes what is undoubtedly one of the most satisfying Nina Simone retrospectives yet.
(CW) 4/5