Scoring a Love Affair With Nina Simone

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Nina Simone’s voice was notable for its range of expression: It could be jubilant, reverent, haunting, despairing, angry, fierce, scathing, gentle, sensual, bawdy and even more. She punctuated and teased it out with masterful piano arrangements, but the riches were always in that voice. Whether singing standards associated with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald or the signature tunes of George Harrison, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, Simone made each indelibly her own. With the controversial biopic Nina, starring Zoe Saldana, potentially forthcoming this year, what better time to get reacquainted with the real deal?

A longed-for career as a classical pianist eluded Simone; instead she plumbed gospel, Broadway, jazz, soul, pop, folk and rock. Her subjects ranged from racism, crime, sin, death and the blues to black pride, feminism, freedom, redemption and love. On this last topic she was a virtuoso, passionately narrating love’s beginnings, ups and downs, and endings.

She left dozens of examples, and narrowing those down for this playlist meant rejecting many worthy contenders, including “I Got It Bad, and That Ain’t Good,” “Since I Fell for You,” “To Love Somebody,” “The Other Woman,” “Since My Love Is Gone,” “The End of the Line,” “Forget,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “My Man Is Gone Now,” “Spring Is Here” and “For a While.” Every fan has special favorites, but here are some of mine—all involving the many forms of our central human concern, as expressed by the inimitable Nina Simone.

Declarations

Simone delivered messages of love in a variety of styles. Her poignant rendition of the Gershwins’ “I Loves You, Porgy” is a masterpiece of emotion and understatement, while a plaintive howl conveys love’s “awful ache” in her cover of Billie Holiday’s “Tell Me More and More and Then Some.” In the rollicking recording of “Love Me or Leave Me” on her 1966 album Let It All Out, Simone romps through an exuberant piano interlude, an ode to her favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Longing

In these three songs made for dancing close and slow, Simone gives a suggestive twist to mundane household tasks (“I want a little steam on my clothes”), and she campaigns for romancing in the dark and in the light: “In the Dark,” “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “Turn Me On.”

Lust

The eight-minute song “Jelly Roll” is about as smooth and swinging as they come, and there’s no mistaking Simone’s meaning. She’s not singing about pastries when she exults, “I could go for a ride on your sweet jelly roll, but I wouldn’t give nothing for my juicy, juicy soul.” Runners-up: “Chauffeur,” “Do I Move You?”

Bed of Roses

Simone admitted to having a tumultuous personal life, and songs about relationships going well are relatively few in her catalog. Her hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me” is given a bizarre (creepy, even) treatment in Aardman Animation’s 1987 music video. Hear also: “Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You,” “You Better Know It.”

On the Rocks

“Be My Husband” is the bleakest of marriage proposals, made to a man who treats the singer “so doggone mean.” Discussing relationships in an interview, Simone stated that she would not do housework, yet here she sings, “If you want me to, I’ll cook and sew”—a clear sign this entreaty is made under duress. Also try: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “I Put a Spell on You.”

Cheating

Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring” and “Don’t Explain” are stripped-down and grief stricken, while “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” is brassy and sassy.

The End

“Do What You Gotta Do” and “Ne Me Quitte Pas” are both beautiful, but let’s close with Simone’s wrenching cover of “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes).” Be sure to stick around for her phrasing on the final lines: “I get along without you very well, ’course I do, ’cept perhaps in spring. But then I should never ever think of spring, for that would surely break my heart in two.”

Photo courtesy of STEVE WOOD/Rex USA/Everett

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