Artist: Nina Simone
Album: Mood Indigo : The Complete Bethlehem Singles
Label: Bethlehem BMG
Release Date: 2.12.2018
There has been quite a bit of media attention, (both in print and film) in the past few years on the up and down controversial life of Nina Simone, who left the building in 2003. With this package of her very first recording session from 1958, you will get to hear not only hints of the directions she would head for in the future, but how fully formed her artistic instincts and vocal and instrumental chops were from the get-go. Of the 14 tracks, all recorded in one day and mostly in one or two takes, 11 would appear on Little Girl Blue her first album, with the remains released as 45s in the future, along with the dissected album at the behest of Syd Nathan, Bethlehem’s artistically disinterested owner, who eventually got wallet wise, when DJs turned Simone’s version of “I Loves You Porgy” into a radio hit.
Nathan, who’s attention was with his R&B and hillbilly labels King and Federal, was at loggerheads with Nina from the start, when she told him what she thought of his A&R and production directions. “I wasn’t interested in playing any of the songs he picked and also said I would pick the musicians I wanted to support me,” the artist told the boss. She picked sparingly with Johnny Bonds on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. Though she only used them half the time, their contributions are large on these pristine recordings of both standards and two Simone originals
Ashley Kahn’s text in the artistic 16 page booklet is both informative and introspective. If I have any bones to pick, they are personal. Though I fully respect her artistry, as a songwriter, the liberties she took with Walter Donaldson’s melody on “Love Me or Leave Me” is beyond interpretation and way over the line. She basically discarded it, substituting a fairly generic lounge motif, whereas peers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday made it swing just as hard to the notes of the legendary composer. She does the same with “For All We Know “ written by J. Fred Coots (full disclosure: a Spooner family friend). I will say the classical inspired substitutions she came up with here, are gorgeous and contribute movingly to Sam Lewis’ lyrics. The fact that these recordings were her very first, tell you why the world would soon be hearing from her.
A classical musician is really all Simone said she ever wanted to be. Destiny, along with a whole lot of baggage, both personal and racial, sent her in many directions. I know that this album sent me in search of what else she had to offer besides Donaldson & Kahn’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me” that became a huge worldwide hit in the ’80s when it was turned into a commercial for Chanel #5. Perhaps it made amends for the slight? It certainly did revive Simone’s career.
She deservedly received worldwide acclaim and several award, including several Grammy nominations, and a Grammy in her lifetime, along with some that should have been awarded much earlier than posthumously. As for the R&R Hall of Fame, my bet is if she was still here, she’d be a no show, but then with Nina you could never tell.