Graded on a Curve:
Nina Simone,
Wild Is the Wind

Nina Simone was truly one of a kind. A proud black woman unafraid to sing out about racial inequality—she would later say she wrote her defiant 1964 song “Mississippi Goddamn,” about the ugly events then occurring throughout the South, “in a rush of fury, hatred and determination”—Simone (who was later diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder) was notoriously irascible, tempestuous, and unpredictable.

Just how unpredictable? Well, she liked her guns, and once attempted to shoot a record executive whom she accused of stealing royalties. She also pulled a gun on a store clerk who refused to allow her to return a pair of shoes. (Suggestion to shoe clerks—give the woman her damn shoes!) And in 1995 she actually succeeded in shooting a neighbor’s child with an air gun, unhappy because she found his laughter distracting. On the political front she went from preaching nonviolence to subscribing to the notion of violent revolution, and ultimately left the United States in protest against the Vietnam War to live out the remainder of her life in Barbados, Liberia, and various European countries, most notably France.

But all of that—with the exception of her fiery political beliefs and adamant commitment to civil rights, of course—is ultimately irrelevant, because in the end Simone will be judged a singer and songwriter of prodigious talent. From her beginnings as a lounge singer in Atlantic City in the mid-fifties Eunice Kathleen Waymon—who took the stage name Nina Simone because she didn’t want her family to know she was playing the Devil’s Music—developed a style of jazz singing all her own, and while her recorded output slowed after 1970 or so she continued to produce albums until 1993. (She died in 2003 in southern France.)

How best to describe her singing? Haunting is the first word to come to mind, although on 1966’s Wild Is the Wind—which was composed of songs left over from previous recording sessions for the Phillips label—she demonstrates conclusively that she’s anything but a one-trick pony. Just listen to the raucous opening track “I Love Your Lovin’ Ways,” a mighty R&B track on which Simone cuts loose on the vocals while also playing some bona fide gutbucket piano. And then listen to the remarkable “Four Women,” a stripped down jazz tune that celebrates the many varieties of proud black womanhood. Bassist Lisle Atkinson and drummer Bobby Hamilton provide minimal accompaniment on the track, while Simone pours a world of unmitigated anger into such lines as “My skin is brown/My manner is tough/I’ll kill the first mother I see/My life has been rough” and “I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves.” And she goes from defiant—she practically shrieks the final lines of “Four Women”—to flat-out brassy on the horn-driven “Break Down and Let It Out,” with its over the top arrangement by Horace Ott.

That said, haunting is definitely the word I’d use to describe the 1964 live take of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” It has a folk feel and features just Simone on vocals and piano, along with a subtle bass drone. Simone lets her voice wander into the higher registers and from there she covers some truly mournful territory. This is the sound of longing, people, and it hurts. And Simone goes where very few other vocalists could on the sublime and utterly transcendent 1964 live take of “Wild Is the Wind,” which David Bowie would later cover on his 1976 LP Station to Station. Her piano playing has classical overtones; her vocals are the stuff of a sad dream that awakens you in the middle of the night, your face wet with tears. “If I Should Lose You” also features some almost neo-classical piano, but overall it boasts a moody jazz vibe.

Simone’s cover of Van “The Hustle” McCoy’s “Either Way I Lose” has a lush Motown vibe—the backdrop could almost have been stolen from Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”—and Simone’s phrasing is as idiosyncratic as it is captivating. Meanwhile, her cover of James Shelton’s “Lilac Wine”—which Jeff Buckley would go on to cover on his 1994 album Grace—builds and builds on piano, going from a simple folk melody to a far more complex and delicate thing. Meanwhile, the way she sings the opening lines of the refined neo-Motown number “That’s All I Ask”—the twist she puts on the last word of the line “Don’t try to blow the sun out for me, baby” is revelatory—will tell you everything you need to know about Simone the vocalist. And the same goes for the way she repeats the word “nobody.”

Nina Simone’s journey through the Civil Rights era is quintessentially American in the best possible sense. She refused to remain silent in the face of the Bull Connors of the world, followed a twisting road of ever-increasing radicalization in the face of the brutal assassination of Martin Luther King, and in the end adjudged that she did so at the cost of her career. In that sense it is impossible to separate the singer from activist and martyr, in the same way you can’t separate Muhammad Ali the boxer from Muhammad Ali the conscientious objector and martyr. But what we’re left with in the end is her music, and as anyone who has ever listened to “Mississippi Goddamn” or “Wild Is the Wind” knows, there will never be another quite like her. The latter song in particular never fails to give me shivers. And I don’t know what higher praise you can pay an artist.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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