February Feature • Nina Simone


In 1999, VH1 debuted a five-hour television special, "The 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll".  An interesting facet of this survey was the latitude contemporary artists took in crediting women outside the genre for their impact and influence - Billie Holiday #6, Ella Fitzgerald #13, Bessie Smith #26. However, there was one most egregious and incongruous oversight - no mention of Eunice Kathleen Waymon, aka Nina Simone, The High Priestess of Soul, musical voice of the civil rights movement, piano virtuoso, and singer-songwriter of over 40 albums.  In some ways, this trivial lapse mirrors a pattern that the iconic female tenor faced her entire life, beloved by critics and fans but never fully embraced by pop culture.  For those unfamiliar with the music, life and times of Nina Simone, let the following resources be your guide.  For long-time fans, revisit the classics and feel free to suggest additions to the collection!
Jim Holmes – IMC

"Nina Simone and her song, spoke of the loneliness of trust betrayed, the bitterness of heartbreak, the anguish of racial prejudice and the beauty of the melody when the human heart speaks lovingly of love".  - Maya Angelou

What Happened, Miss Simone? - ML420.S5635 W53 2016 DVD
Netflix produced this 2015 Academy nominated documentary giving viewers a comprehensive look at the life and times of Nina Simone, featuring several interviews with family and friends over three decades of footage.  At times brutally honest, the film also seeks to vindicate the darker side of an artist tortured by mental illness and exploitation.  It succeeds in celebrating and illuminating the multi-talented Simone, whose personality and talent shine brightly throughout.

Jazz Icons: Nina Simone Live in '65 &'66 - M1366.S56 2008 DVD
If you've never seen a live performance of Nina Simone, start with these hip sets recorded in Holland for the VARA television program and in England for the ITN show. These videos illustrate her versatility as musician and entertainer - Nina works the crowd with her economical comic charm and a casual virtuosity. Ironically, she detested being referred to as a "jazz" musician, due to the implicit boundaries and profiling - but the label seems to have stuck.

Live at Montreux - M1630.18.S5572 N55 2005 DVD
"I'm a pianist, the singing was just an accident" a common refrain Nina Simone would use to explain her guarded, sometimes reluctant position as musical spokesperson. This videorecording, taken primarily from the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, is a testament of her piano playing, as she takes the stage with the simple accompaniment of a drummer.  Of particular note, check out the musical interlude during "Feelings".

Little Girl Blue– M1366.N566 L58 2006 CD
Nina Simone's debut album released in 1957.  Her cover of Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" would be her only U.S. Billboard Top 40 hit. "My Baby Just Cares for Me" became a hit for her 30 years later when it appeared in a Chanel ad. 

Nina's Choice - M1366.N566 N56 1999 CD
Released in 1963, this was one of many compilation albums over the years. What truly sets this collection apart is the fidelity - some of the best concert recordings of the era.  American folk classic "Little Liza Jane", recorded at the Newport Folk Fest in 1960, highlights an album chock-full of memorable sing-a-longs and exquisite piano acumen.

Nina Simone in Concert – Alexander St. Press (online database)
Comprised of three different Carnegie Hall concerts from 1964, this album marks Simone's musical turn towards civil rights, including a repurposed "Pirate Jenny" from "The Three Penny Opera".  The album centerpiece is a haunting 6 ½ minute "Plain Gold Ring" - four notes on the bass repeated in a hypnotic chant, rising and falling with a beguiling scat/beat vocal. 

Nina Simone's Finest Hour - M1366.S566 N56 2000 CD
Verve records compilation release of live recordings between 1964-1966.  Sultry versions of Willard Robison's "Don't Smoke in Bed" and Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" rescue this retread release.

I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone - ML420.S5635 A3 2003
The great thing about this book - it reads exactly like the concert banter and interviews, a visceral narration in that unmistakable voice.  Follow the emotional rollercoaster through Depression-era childhood to civil rights iconoclast, a self-imposed exile to Africa and Europe, and reemergence as American cultural icon.

Princess Noire : The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone - ML420.S5635 C65 2010
Author Nadine Cohodas focuses this biography largely on Nina Simone the performer, her epic rise to fame, and the turbulent years following.  Over time, as glory fades, a litany of concert trials and tribulations mount, in which the singer is portrayed as overworked, increasingly susceptible to her own fits of rage, and ultimately succumbing to mental illness.

Words and Songs of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone : sound motion, blues spirit, and African memory - ML3479 .B73 2007
From the publisher – "This book explores the relationship between three African American women's dance-art-music sensibilities within the context of a Pan African aesthetic. Its purpose is three-fold: to show commonalities between Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone's lives and original compositions; to codify, examine and evaluate their selected song performances in accordance with the Pan African aesthetic 'Nzuritheory/model;' and to illuminate the vast sources of transformational values that aesthetic analysis of African American song performance can foster."

Nina Simone – The Piano Songbook (musical scores) - M60.S60 P53 2007
One of the best things about Nina Simone is that she sang in a register very reachable even for the multi-octave challenged.  The difficulty in emulating Simone lies with her penchant for improvisation, lots of improvisation.  This two volume set of scores supplies you with the lyrics and should get you in the accompaniment ballpark.  Also included, guitar charts!

The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing - DS87.5 .J6813 2011 
From the publisher – "Raised on Charles Baudelaire, A ClockworkOrange, and fine Bordeaux in 1970s Lebanon, Darina Al-Joundi was encouraged by her unconventional father to defy all taboos... On his deathbed, her father's last wish is for his favorite song, "Sinnerman" by Nina Simone, to be played at his funeral instead of the traditional suras of the Koran. When she does just that, the results are catastrophic."

“Sinnerman” Strong Songs Podcast – Portland session musician Kirk Hamilton hosts a bi-weekly show featuring an extensive analysis of iconic songs across genres.  From the website - “Yes, it's time for Strong Songs' first-ever analysis of a live recording, as Kirk digs in to legendary pianist/vocalist Nina Simone's 1965 interpretation of the traditional spiritual song Sinnerman. It's time for some syncopated piano, popless grooves, band crash-landings, hand-clap breakdowns, hip hop samples, and one spectacular vocal cadenza”.

Official website -
Relaunched Mother's Day 2011 by her daughter - the website includes videos, photos, news, a blog, bio & discography, and an online music stream.

Stream some Simone here
Reed College has access to several Nina Simone songs streaming through a variety of databases. 

Read some Simone here
An assortment of JSTOR periodicals and eBooks.  Alumni can access JSTOR using their kerberos login.

nina simone