November 2018

Nina’s Best

A Baker’s Dozen of Great Performances by Nina Simone

An utterly individual singer and pianist, Nina Simone (1933-2003) epitomized struggle across her career – as an African-American for Civil Rights and as a woman for autonomy in the entertainment industry, as well as a long personal fight for respect and equilibrium. A New York Times review of a 1992 concert at Carnegie Hall put it this way: “Whether she was singing love songs or protest songs, Ms. Simone performed as though her soul was living out each injustice and heartache.” Simone was raised in North Carolina by minister parents, starting on piano at age 3 and first playing publicly in church. She began classical studies, but her application to the Curtis Institute was denied – which she attributed to racial prejudice. Simone began playing a jazzy mix of blues and ballads in nightclubs, eventually earning renown for her intense style. She reanimated age-old folk tunes – such as “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” – as distinctively as she interpreted Gershwin songs. She could be playful as a singer and pianist, as in “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and heavily dramatic, like in her version of the Billie Holiday protest song “Strange Fruit.” Simone penned such potent originals as “Do I Move You?” and co-wrote the galvanizing Civil Rights number “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” along with making such songs as “Wild Is the Wind” and “Lilac Wine” seem as if they were her own.

Bradley Bambarger