By Raymond Ward, Chicago Crusader
A SPELL ON YOU !: Nina Simone started her musical career as a classically trained child virtuoso, whose piano recitals were local events. Strongly rooted in the works of Bach, the musician became a singer almost by accident and the rest is history. In 2018, Simone will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, cementing her role as one of the most important musicians of our time.
Throughout Simone’s nearly five decade long career, her recordings reached the top of the charts and earned her cult status and critical acclaim. From 1959 to 1964 she was signed to Colpix Records which relinquished all creative control to her. On February 23, Stateside Records will present a integral collection entitled, NINA SIMONE – THE COLPIX SINGLES as a 2-CD set, 1-LP or digitally on the same day.
With her voice at her finest during this time, she worked her way through jazz and blues standards such as “The Work Song” and “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” as well as folk tunes like “Little Liza Jane,” “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” her very own “Blackbird” and “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl.”
“I played what I wanted and nothing else,” said Nina of her Colpix days in her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You. “Hell, they weren’t paying me well enough to tell me what to play. There was no proper producer on my records – just an engineer to set everything up, an orchestrator to write out arrangements, and the rest I did myself.”
In recent years, Nina Simone’s life and career have been extensively covered in acclaimed biographies and documentaries. However her early recordings (that do not particularly illustrate her fight for civil rights or her personal life) are often overlooked. Very little is said about her output for Colpix, yet it is with these records that she began to develop her uniqueness. Her time at the label is often distilled down to the successful series of live albums she recorded.
Nina Simone’s background is well known. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933, her prodigious talent as a musician was evident early on. She started playing hymns in church at age 6, some of the town’s prominent residents established the “Eunice Waymon Fund” to pay for her lessons. A noted musician, Muriel Mazzanovich (who Nina affectionately called Miz Mazzy) trained the budding prodigy to be a classical concert pianist. It was from these humble roots that Eunice developed a lifelong love of Johann Sebastian Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert.
After graduation she studied at Julliard in New York before applying to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her application was rejected; she suspected it was due to racism. The blow was devastating. Broken-hearted, she vowed to apply again, but in the meantime needed to make a living and fund her music lessons. In 1954 she took a residency in a bar in Atlantic City, where she was also asked to sing. It was at this point Nina Simone was born.
When the owner of the Midtown Bar asked her for her stage name, Eunice told him to call her Nina Simone. “I always liked the name Nina, and I saw the name Simone on a movie poster” (probably the French actress Simone Signoret).
Her unique blend of jazz, classical music and blues soon won her an audience, and in 1958 she signed to Bethlehem Records. Her version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Love You Porgy” went Top 20 on the Billboard pop chart. The contract Simone signed with Bethlehem reverberated years later when “My Baby Just Cares For Me” went to number one all over Europe and yet, having previously signed them away, she received no royalties.
In 1959 she moved to New York City. “New Year 1959 found me in a creepy marriage stuck in a tiny room with a hit record, a rising reputation, and no idea of how to make the money I needed to finish my classical training,” said Nina. However, the success of “I Loves You Porgy” meant she was in demand, and Joyce O’Selznick, the talent scout for Columbia Pictures Records, Colpix, offered her a long term deal. It was an unusual label that released soundtracks, records by actors under contract to the studio, and some jazz and rhythm and blues.
During her stint with Colpix, Nina recorded 27 singles, including her final song which paired the traditional folk standard “Little Liza Jane” with the astounding Simone original “Blackbird.” More than any biography or documentary, this song shows how far she matured artistically, revealing a glimpse of her future as a civil rights activist, and songs like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Young, Gifted And Black.”
With her 27 Colpix singles, which are all included in the new compilation, listeners will be able to trace Nina Simone’s musical journey from jazz and folk singer to critically acclaimed songwriter.
NINA SIMONE – The COLPIX SINGLES will be available on February 23rd wherever you purchase music.