One of the most powerful jazz singers of all time, the music of Nina Simone has embedded itself into not just jazz history, but the wider world too.
We take a look at some of the songs performed by the American singer–pianist, from best-selling classics such as My Baby Just Cares For Me to lesser known gems.
As with many classical prodigies, the talents of Nina Simone (or Eunice Kathleen Waymon, as she was born), were revealed from an early age.
She began playing the piano aged three, gave recitals in her early teens and went on to study with renowned classical music teachers.
Shortly after taking a gig as a pianist at a bar in the early ’50s, Simone’s soulful voice was heard by the owner and the rest, as they say, is [jazz] history.
Her synthesis of classical, blues and jazz gave her an edge and she quickly became popular along the East Coast.
Recording contracts, live performances at prestigious venues and chart success soon followed.
Critics inevitably found it difficult to pigeonhole her on account of her singular mixture of musical styles, but this did not hinder her quickly becoming a household name.
In the mid-sixties, the tone of her material was increasingly influenced by race relations in the United States, and she was an active participant in civil rights meetings.
Themes explored in this time would continue to appear in Nina Simone’s songs until the end of her career.
Later life saw Simone become a progressively more erratic performer, prone to tantrums on stage and last-minute cancellations.
She spent a quasi-nomadic existence mainly in Europe, but in the late ’80s experienced a resurgence of interest after one of her songs was used in an advert.
Nina Simone has made an indelible mark on twentieth-century music, and her idiosyncratic renditions gave prominence to countless songs. We’ve selected ten which tell the story of her life, music and legacy.
I Loves You, Porgy (released 1959)
Album: Little Girl Blue
Inspired by her hero Billie Holiday, Nina Simone’s rendering of this Gershwin classic catapulted her to fame by topping the charts.
The release came at a time when the public discourse was focusing progressively on the role of America’s black population in society.
Simone’s contribution to this dialogue was this rare example of a song almost exclusively sung by black women.
After a Debussy-esque flourish on the piano, Simone’s voice is sensitive and melancholic.
Tastefully accompanied by Jimmy Bond on bass and Tootie Heath on drums, the storytelling is subtle yet direct.
My Baby Just Cares for Me (released 1959)
Album: Little Girl Blue
Recorded in the same session as I Loves You, Porgy, this track was relatively obscure until it was used in a perfume commercial in the ’80s.
This spotlight brought her a new audience (and a big income boost) in the twilight of her career.
Besides Simone’s amazing vocals, her bluesy piano solo on this number deserves mention. A perfect infusion of jazz, classical, gospel and blues styles.
Phrases are harmonised and played off one another in counterpoint, and different registers of the piano are used in the way a composer might.
Mississippi Goddam (released 1964)
Album: Nina Simone in Concert
This song was written by Nina Simone in response to racially motived murders and domestic terrorism at the time.
First performed live, Simone would go on to sing it at civil rights rallies and, more controversially at the time, on television.
The lyrics are full of anger and outrage, jarringly juxtaposed by a jaunty two-step style in the music.
The profanity ‘Goddam’ (it was a more innocent time, folks!) led to the distribution of a censored version and was used as an excuse by many Southern DJs to refuse to play it.
I Put a Spell on You (released 1965)
Album: I Put a Spell on You
Another chart success, this recording has Nina Simone singing and playing with a rhythm section cushioned by strings and brass.
Like many other studio orchestrations for pop singers at the time, the focus is clearly on the voice – the light piano additions, which we can assume are hers, are relegated to the background, her singing dominating the mix.
On this track, Simone’s voice is bitter and taunting, a slightly histrionic saxophone solo interjecting as the song builds momentum.
The sentiment is vitriolic and possessive, reflected in her biting tone and sharp phrasing.
Feeling Good (released 1965)
Album: I Put a Spell on You
Indebted yet again to the advertising industry, Nina Simone’s Feeling Good received wider recognition in the ’90s than it did upon its release.
The song has since been revived by pop singers, sampled in other songs and used in films, but it is the version by Simone which remains the most iconic.
In contrast to the orchestral arrangement of the album’s title track, this piece borrows more from the big band tradition.
Although the emphasis is still very much on the voice, more room is given to the interplay of drums and brass, with the strings taking more of a back seat.
Sinnerman (released 1965)
Album: Pastel Blues
Nina Simone grew up in a religious household in Tryon, North Carolina, where she will have almost certainly come into contact with this spiritual. The song tells the story of a sinner who seeks to avoid judgement on the Day of Reckoning.
Despite the length of this version exceeding ten minutes, it has endured on account of Simone’s skill as a musical storyteller. Since its release, it has been reworked by hip hop artists and used for television and films.
Strange Fruit (released 1965)
Whilst originally recorded by the great Billie Holiday, Nina Simone’s 1965 rendition of Strange Fruit (almost 30 years later) is another powerful version of the powerful protest song inspired by the American civil rights movement.
She once commented that it was “about the ugliest song I have ever heard… ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.”
This version was later sampled by Kanye West on the track ‘Blood on the Leaves’ which appeared on his album Yeezus.
Four Women (released 1966)
Album: Wild Is The Wind
Another racially themed song penned by the singer, this track chronicles four African-American women and, as the wordplay in the title suggests, is a dedication to the plight of women in modern society.
The characters represent women in different walks of life with the common trait of descending from an enslaved people.
The song builds in intensity as Simone seems to become more tormented by the hopelessness of each life, climaxing by almost shouting the last line of the lyrics.
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (released 1967)
Album: Silk & Soul
The recording of this song was the consequence of several of Nina Simone’s distinguishing features.
Written and performed by jazz pianist Billy Taylor, the melody and harmony are in the gospel style.
It became a signature tune of the civil rights movement in the ’60s, and it functioned both as a protest song and an investigation of identity and independence.
Nina Simone’s version is fearless and optimistic, yet tender and bittersweet.
After a piano intro, Simone is gradually joined by the rest of the rhythm section and horns in a rising crescendo as her voice grows more emphatic.
Ain’t Got No, I Got Life (released 1968)
Album: ’Nuff Said!
This song from the musical Hair was given two lives: the album version includes overdubs and multi-tracking of the vocals, whereas the single features a horn section and a bubbling backbeat that wouldn’t be out of place on a Stax Records production.
It is, in fact, a conflation of two songs from the musical, and the overall narrative is a life-affirming transformation of ‘Ain’t Got No’ into ‘I Got Life’.
Another chartbuster on its release, it reaped rewards further down the line when used in adverts in the noughties.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black (released 1970)
Album: Black Gold
Nina Simone composed songs which tended to explore racial discrimination, and our last example is no exception.
This composition is a homage to playwright friend Lorraine Hansberry, the first female African American to have a play on Broadway.
Live in New York City, Simone precedes the performance with a spoken dedication to Hansberry.
The melody starts and stops, surprising us into attention, and Simone delivers a kind of sermon over a humming choir. Full of asymmetrical phrases and exciting drum fills, there is even a false ending to energise the audience.
Songs like this elevate Nina Simone from mere popular musician to zeitgeist artist. Her cultural significance as an activist as well as consummate musician is well documented, and her unique blend of genres and approaches places her firmly above her peers.
After her death in 2003, Simone continued to reach new audiences and her interpretations are often the definitive and best-known.
This list is only the beginning, so we encourage the reader to have a deep dive into her catalogue! You can of course find her on her our list of the best female jazz singers of all time too.
If you haven’t already, don’t forget to check out the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone, which chronicles her life and career.
2 thoughts on “Nina Simone | Her Life In 11 Legendary Song Performances”
Great list and informative context, Matt. However, why is Little Girl Blue” missing? Rob
Too many great songs to list, but I would have to include the most heartbreaking love song ever – Don’t Smoke in Bed.