Nina Simone

Sharps and Flats is a daily music review.

By Steven Stolder
Published December 19, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

raw displays of sadness or anger can be disconcerting. But if those emotions on their own may prompt some to lean back on their heels, the combination of the two makes many turn tail and flee. Maybe that's why Nina Simone's only top-20 hit was an unlikely 1959 cover of George Gershwin's "(I Loves You) Porgy." Simone has a cult following, but the melancholia and rage that blend in her voice aren't exactly a ticket to mass appeal.

Since her 1957 recording debut, the seething soulstress has left her distinctive mark on pop standards, Simone-izing everything from "I Put a Spell on You" to "Falling in Love Again" to "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." Name another singer capable of effortlessly appropriating the trademarked tunes of Screaming Jay Hawkins, Marlene Dietrich and Bob Dylan.

Rhino's new two-disc collection, "Nina Simone: Anthology, The Colpix Years" chronicles a particularly prolific five-year period for the woman christened Eunice Waymon. Culled from 10 albums cut between 1959 and 1963, "The Colpix Years" is Simone on high simmer. As the '60s progressed, the headstrong North Carolinian boiled over in civil rights-inspired screeds like "Mississippi Goddam" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," but here she's nearer the supper club than the barricades. Simone's disgust with racism eventually prompted her to leave the country in 1969, but she continues to record; her latest work, "A Single Woman," came out three years ago on Elektra.

While with Colpix (the long-defunct recording arm of Columbia Pictures), Simone's selections ranged from sophisticated standards like Duke Ellington's "Solitude" and Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow," to traditionals like "Little Liza Jane," "Cotton Eyed Joe" and "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair." Five of her Colpix records were concert recordings -- a good thing, since the intimacy of her alto comes through best on spare, intimate live tracks like the heartbreaking "He Was Too Good to Me" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

In the studio, Simone and her arrangers steered in more commercial directions with dicier results. It's apparent the crossover success of Ray Charles swayed 1962's "Sings Ellington!" in a more commercial direction. Thus, the likes of Ellington's "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" are marred by hackneyed arrangements and bleached-white background vocals performed by some group called the Malcolm Dodds Singers.

Simone is most fetching when she's brooding between a small combo and an adoring audience. "The Colpix Years" may not be the ultimate anthology of the High Priestess of Soul (someone's going to have to license material from several labels, foremost RCA, to pull that one off), but it provides ample evidence that Simone never was one to trifle with.

Steven Stolder

Steven Stolder is Associate Editor at Excite. He writes for Music Universe, Rolling Stone and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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