Nina Simone Sings The Blues (Expanded CD Reissue)

Nina Simone

RCA/Legacy, 2006

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


After listening to thousands upon thousands of albums across five decades littered with new musical discoveries, I was last month years old the very first time I heard Nina Simone.

Yeah, I know. Everyone has gaps in their particular listening history; Nina Simone just happened to be the most glaring one in mine.

So what you’re going to get here is the written equivalent of one of those YouTube reaction videos where the classical composer who never listened to rock music growing up suddenly hears “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Close To The Edge” for the first time and goes completely nuts over it. Over the past half century I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve reacted to a “new” artist the way I reacted to Nina Simone Sings The Blues. I was grinning ear to ear within 30 seconds, talking back to her within 60 (“Yeah! Go for it!”) and cussing up a storm inside of 90.

I mean, DAMN.

A classically trained pianist who briefly attended Julliard, Simone established herself beginning in 1954 as performer playing a compelling mix of jazz, blues and classical nightly at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Her 1959 debut album Little Girl Blue featured her one charting hit, a cover of the Gershwin song “I Loves You, Porgy” from Porgy & Bess. After recording a multitude of albums for Colpix Records and Philips Records, in 1967 she moved to RCA, debuting with the stylistically focused Nina Simone Sings The Blues.

The thing about Nina Simone is, she doesn’t just sing a song. She performs. She wraps her entire self around a lyric and squeezes every last drop of emotion out of it—and yet she never oversings. She is one of the most authentic and dynamic musical performers ever to take the stage. And, by the way: she’s sexy as hell.

The question asked by this album’s sultry, forceful opening track—“Do I Move You?”—is not asked lightly. When Simone continues “The answer better be—” and her male background chorus responds “YEAH, YEAH,” it’s clear they are both excited and a little frightened by her intensity, the heady mix of vulnerability and absolute command she conveys. Penned by Simone herself, if this song does not get your engine running, you must be out of gas.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Day And Night,” written by Simone’s guitarist Rudy Stevenson, was intended as the album’s single and has almost a pop lilt layered on top of its blues base, a nice bounce that suggests the playfulness of “Do I Move You?” without the menace. The traditional blues “In The Dark” is a steamy, captivating seduction song that Simone nails and then promptly counters with something completely different. Her composition “Real Real” has the feel of an early ’60s rhythm and blues number while featuring a vibrato that softens an otherwise forceful lead vocal.

From there, Simone returns to a favorite source with her reading of “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy & Bess, and what a reading it is. Her cry a minute into the song feels like she has taken the entire weight of the African American experience on her shoulders and let it out in a single wordless syllable. It’s a performance that is simultaneously stunning, riveting, harrowing and magnificent. Demonstrating just how connected she had become with the civil rights movement, Simone next co-writes the explicitly political and bracingly direct “Backlash Blues” with none other than Langston Hughes, giving it a brassy, unyielding reading designed to set any audience back on its heels. Just wow.

And then it’s back to romance. Simone’s “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl” might be the least subtle metaphor of the decade, but all that’s left to say when she performs it is “Yes, ma’am.” Similar themes prevail on the seductive “Buck,” an r&b tune composed by Simone’s husband, and then the languorous Buddy Johnson blues standard “Since I Fell For You” delivers pain and ecstasy in equal measures as she sings “I get the blues ’bout every night since I fell for you.”

The most surprising track here is a cover of “House Of The Rising Sun” that amps up the backbeat and fills the song with a thrumming energy, before Simone closes things out with her own “Blues For Mama,” an old-school blues with harmonica and a lyric about those cheatin’ men.

The 2006 expanded CD reissue of Sings The Blues adds two tracks. An alternate version of “Do I Move You?” can’t improve on the original, but that was a tall order. This take emphasizes the impeccable groove laid down by the band—Simone on piano and Stevenson on guitar with Eric Gale (guitar), Ernie Hayes (organ), Bob Bushnell (bass), Bernard Purdie (drums) and Buddy Lucas (harmonica and sax). The CD edition closes out with a 1969 single cover of Willie Dixon’s “Whatever I Am (You Made Me)” that makes for a solid coda.

The blues might be the perfect medium to highlight Nina Simone’s unique, spectacular mixture of ferocity and tenderness. On this album she comes across as a wounded spirit who can still soar, and who will never give up. The part that feels like pure magic is the way she pours emotion into these songs without ever sounding like she’s straining; she just sounds like she’s letting out what’s on the inside, as naturally as breathing.

Nina Simone Sings The Blues is simply one of the greatest vocal performances I’ve ever heard, not to mention an excellent starting point for anyone interested in exploring her catalog. I fixed my mistake; now it’s your turn.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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