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The Nina Simone Database

Four Women: The Philips Recordings
Additional discography

Verve 440 065 021-2 (2003 US)

Published on May 20, 2003, this collection brings together all seven of the albums Nina recorded for the Philips label.
Tracks sorted by number (sort by session or by title)
Disk 1
 1 [2:30] I Loves You Porgy   George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DuBose Heyward

 2 [6:17] Plain Gold Ring   Earl S. Burroughs

 3 [6:36] Pirate Jenny   Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill piano played by Atkinson

 4 [2:38] Old Jim Crow   Jackie Alper, Nina Simone, Ron Vander Groef

 5 [5:25] Don't Smoke in Bed   Willard Robison

 6 [6:58] Go Limp   Alex Comfort, Nina Simone

 7 [4:52] Mississippi Goddam   Nina Simone standard studio version

 8 [2:45] Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood   Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell, Sol Marcus

 9 [3:04] Night Song   Arthur K. Adams, Charles Strouse

 10 [2:20] The Laziest Gal in Town   Cole Porter

 11 [2:43] Something Wonderful   Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers

 12 [2:51] Don't Take All Night   Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus

 13 [4:15] Nobody   Alex Rogers, Bert Williams

 14 [2:54] I Am Blessed   Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus

 15 [2:34] Of This I'm Sure   Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus

 16 [2:36] See-Line Woman   George Bass

 17 [2:58] Our Love (Will See Us Through)   Bennie Benjamin

 18 [2:03] How Can I?   Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus

 19 [3:04] The Last Rose of Summer   Thomas Moore, Nina Simone

Disk 2
 1 [2:34] I Put a Spell on You   Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Slotkin sax solo by Jerome Richardson

 2 [2:50] Tomorrow Is My Turn   Charles Aznavour, M. Stellman, Y. Stephane

 3 [3:35] Ne Me Quitte Pas   Jacques Brel

 4 [3:31] Marriage Is For Old Folks   Leon Carr, Mort Shuman

 5 [2:42] July Tree   Irma Jurist, Eve Merriam

 6 [2:59] Gimme Some   Andy Stroud

 7 [2:54] Feeling Good   Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley

 8 [2:49] One September Day   Rudy Stevenson

 9 [3:15] Blues on Purpose   Rudy Stevenson

 10 [1:56] Beautiful Land   Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley

 11 [2:41] You've Got to Learn   Charles Aznavour, M. Stellman

 12 [2:04] Take Care of Business   Andy Stroud

 13 [3:23] Be My Husband   Andy Stroud

 14 [2:39] Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out   Jimmie Cox

 15 [2:55] End of the Line   John Edmondson, Cynthia Medley

 16 [2:41] Trouble in Mind   Richard Jones

 17 [3:08] Tell Me More and More and Then Some   Billie Holiday

 18 [4:01] Chilly Winds Don't Blow   H. Krasnow, B. Lovelock

 19 [3:01] Ain't No Use   Rudy Stevenson

 20 [3:29] Strange Fruit   Lewis Allan, Sonny White piano and vocal only

 21 [10:19] Sinnerman   Traditional arr. Nina Simone

Disk 3
 1 [2:26] Mood Indigo   Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, Barney Bigard

 2 [3:02] The Other Woman   Jessie Mae Robinson

 3 [4:05] Love Me or Leave Me   Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn

 4 [4:22] Don't Explain   Arthur Herzog jr, Billie Holiday

 5 [2:35] Little Girl Blue   Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers edited version

 6 [2:47] Chauffeur   Traditional

 7 [2:06] For Myself   Van McCoy with Orace Hott orchestra

 8 [4:55] The Ballad of Hollis Brown   Bob Dylan

 9 [2:58] This Year's Kisses   Irving Berlin

 10 [2:51] Images   Waring Cuney, Nina Simone unaccompanied vocal

 11 [4:31] Nearer Blessed Lord   Traditional

 12 [2:39] I Love Your Lovin' Ways   Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus

 13 [4:24] Four Women   Nina Simone

 14 [2:50] What More Can I Say   W. Brown jr, Horace Ott with Orace Hott orchestra

 15 [4:15] Lilac Wine   James Shelton

 16 [2:27] That's All I Ask   Horace Ott with Orace Hott orchestra

 17 [2:38] Break Down and Let It All Out   Van McCoy with Orace Hott orchestra

 18 [2:33] Why Keep On Breaking My Heart   Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus

 19 [7:00] Wild Is the Wind   Dimitri Tiomkin, Ned Washington

 20 [3:28] Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair   Traditional

 21 [3:58] If I Should Lose You   Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin

 22 [2:43] Either Way I Lose   Van McCoy with Orace Hott orchestra

Disk 4
 1 [3:05] Don't You Pay Them No Mind   Richard Ahlert, Robert Scott

 2 [2:19] I'm Gonna Leave You   Rudy Stevenson

 3 [2:06] Brown Eyed Handsome Man   Chuck Berry

 4 [3:23] Keeper of the Flame   Charles Derringer

 5 [2:47] The Gal From Joe's   Duke Ellington, Irving Mills

 6 [2:49] Take Me to the Water   Traditional

 7 [2:52] I'm Going Back Home   Rudy Stevenson

 8 [2:22] I Hold No Grudge   Angelo Badalamenti, John Clifford

 9 [3:39] Come Ye   Nina Simone

 10 [3:13] He Ain't Comin' Home No More   Angelo Badalamenti, John Clifford

 11 [3:09] Work Song   Nat Adderley, Oscar Brown jr

 12 [4:06] I Love My Baby   Andy Stroud

Album notes by Ashley Kahn, July 2002
(These notes has been nominated for Grammy 2004)

-Civil Rights Diva-

For black America, it was a narrow window of time from the close of the 1950s through 1966; a brief period when skinny ties and linked arm rapidly gave way to dashikis and raised fists. It was a window curtained by thought and action, political statement and artistic expression. As a litany of events unfolded - Selma, Birmingham, Washington - and promise and protest gave way to frustration and tragedy, so racial pride and outrage leapt from the page and blazed onstage: Raisin in the Sun, Freedom Now Suite, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Manchild in the Promised Land, "I Have a Dream," "Mississippi Goddam."

If there is one singer whose music reflected and still resonates with the sophistication and spirit of that era, it is Nina Simone. Her sound channeled the emotional spark of the day; her vibrato-rich voice (childlike at times, deep and wise at others) reflected its innocence; her piano virtuosity elevated it with an air of elegance (with Bach-style solos); her lyrics and song choices satisfied a need for intelligent social commentary. And she grounded it all with that thread of blackness LeRoi Jones in 1963 described as "the weight of the blues." Performing a far-reaching repertoire of Broadway ballads, gospel standards, folk tunes, and her own politically charged songs, Simone stirringly conveyed roots, cause, and connection.

"I don't remember Nina having a political stand any different from anybody else," recalls singer/lyricist/playwright Oscar Brown, Jr., whose talents contributed to Simone's expansive repertoire. "It wasn't easy flying in the face of the industry that didn't want to deliver those kinds of messages that tend not to fit into what's happening in the mainstream. However, with Nina, her talent was so powerful, she got by anyway. I mean, she was just overwhelming."

Brown relates his view of a free-flowing cultural matrix powered by the spirit of the day.

Everybody was up in arms at that time! The character of the work that we did went off into a more nationalistic or militant tone. Maya Angelou was around, Max [Roach] and I were working on a piece called "The Beat" - later it became the Freedom Now Suite. I remember [Charles] Mingus coming up to Max's house, and he had a big booming point of view. Abbey [Lincoln] had gone from being a nightclub chanteuse to a political activist in her whole persona. I was into that too [and] attracted the attention of people like Malcolm X because of songs in my repertoire like "Bid 'Em In" and "Brown Baby." It's not like we had a formal organization. There was no one person who was a leader - we were kindred spirits and we would run into each other during that period. We'd go see Odetta at some coffeehouse. Or Nina playing at the Village Gate…

Actor Robert Guillaume - bound for fame as TV's Benson, then launching his own career in the same club and climate - offers a similar snapshot:

[Those] were the golden years of Nina Simone, for whom the Gate was a second home. Lit by the light of a single spot, seated at the grand piano, she cut a striking figure, elegant and proud. Night after night I'd wait for her to sing "Mississippi Goddam." "Everybody knows about Mississippi - goddam!" she'd bellow as the audience went wild. I've never seen protest rendered so dramatically.

“To really understand the ‘60s, you had to hear Nina,” emphasizes Abbey Lincoln. "And you would have, if you'd have lived then… Well, I guess it depends what corner you were on, you know?"

By the opening years of that decade, that corner was getting crowded. While many were distracted by the sunny sound of Motown - and the British invasion soon after - a growing number came to demand more from their music: depth and meaning and soul. Black or white, they became Nina's audience, flocking to hear her at uptown dinner theaters or smoky downtown clubs, at jazz festivals in the North or marches and rallies in the South. Movie stars caught her appearances in the US; in Europe, young rock & rollers greeted her infrequent tours. Her LPs of that high-flying period could be found in houses, apartments, and offices on both sides of the racial divide. Those albums, recorded for the Philips label between 1964 and 1966, constitute this collection.

Four Women: The Nina Simone Philips Recordings is not an exercise in vault-clearing. Rather than a comprehensive sweep of all alternative takes and false starts, the focus herein is to celebrate and sequentially chronicle Simone's most significant career stretch as it occurred. When first issued on vinyl, the collective weight of these seven titles left an indelible, resonant mark on the consciousness of a pivotal decade. Almost forty years later, the music they contain continues to influence, inspire, and grow in historical significance.

How does Simone herself look back on her output of that era? In her 1991 autobiography, I Put a Spell On You, she measured their impact solely by their unintentional effect on a noted civil rights group:

The only things SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] workers stole from each other were books and Nina Simone records, and… the only thing guaranteed to make members forget their nonviolent training was for them to find out their Nina Simone records were missing.

-Piano Prodigy-

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in 1933 in North Carolina, where her earliest years were filled with the sound of spirituals, folk songs, and blues. Music was an inherent part of her family's life. Her father had been an itinerant musician before settling down with her mother; young Eunice - like her parents and siblings - sang regularly in church choir and at social gatherings. When their house was threatened by fire, a pump organ was one of the first objects rescued.

As she matured, Eunice discovered and absorbed a more sophisticated blend of musical influences. She favored pianists like Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson, whose fleetness was tempered with a polished touch. She was attracted to, and mastered the styles of, such sultry singers as Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day, and Hazel Scott. "My entire life is in my singing; it's natural that my sexuality should have a place in my manner of singing," she would later say.

Blessed with perfect pitch, she later recalled being able to play the keyboard from the start: "I played piano by ear when I was three… I remember the day the piano came into the house. It was like a toy I wanted without knowing it." By chance, Eunice's mother worked as a domestic for a local piano teacher named Mazzanovich; "Miz Mazzy" recognized the young girl's untutored talent and soon took her under her wing, helping her to learn a whole new musical vocabulary. "I discovered a friend," Simone described the experience. "I discovered Bach." Though still comfortable with a wide range of musical styles, Simone focused her passion and dedicated herself to becoming a classical pianist.

Young, gifted and black - such was Nina Simone's lot during her early years. To the sensitive girl, her talent seemed a blessing a curse: Music classes, recitals, and a boarding school education both challenged and emphasized the rampant segregation of the day. She was protected yet acutely aware of her privileged position, prone to the scar tissue left by the racism she perceived. "Every slight, real or imagined, cut me raw," she wrote, "But the skin grew back again a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black."

In 1950, as her siblings and then her parents began departing rural North Carolina for Philadelphia. Simone began a two-year stint at Juilliard in New York City. But a hard-earned scholarship soon dissipated and she rejoined her family, still determined to raise the necessary funds to resume her studies. Hearing of a less-than-talented friend's $90-a-week gig playing piano in Atlantic City, the pianist decided to ply her talent and journeyed to the New Jersey resort town in 1954. At the Midtown Bar and Grill, she talked her way into a job, adopted her sophisticated stage name (a plot to avoid her mother's disapproving eye), and began to play - forty-five minutes on, forty-five minutes off. The boss' sole comment after the first night: She had to sing, too. Lacking prior experience performing for a drinking crowd, she simply dipped into her personal bag of favorites, mixing what she liked with what she knew, intermittently throwing in a quite from an étude ("The only way I could stand playing… was to make my set as close to classical music as possible"), spinning together an impassioned, impromptu approach that became her signature.

By 1958, she had been discovered, signed, and recorded; a year later she cracked the pop charts with her rendition of a Porgy and Bess selection, a choice she credits to her initial inspiration: "The first records I heard were those of Billie Holiday, it was her version that inspired me to sing '[I Loves You,] Porgy,' my first hit."

Simone never got back to those classical lessons. Instead, forced by economic necessity to improvise and find her own voice, she established an identity that was startlingly original. In her autobiography, she depicts her Atlantic City debut, walking past the nighthawks at the bar for the first time in "my best long chiffon gown… [They] must have thought I was from another planet."
In retrospect, the image plays as an emblematic moment, crystallizing her personal fortitude (not to mention the demands she would place on herself and her audience, no matter the context) and the sweeping elegance she would bring to her performances.

-Label Star-

The first half of the 1960s marked a high-water mark in Simone's career. After exploding onto the pop charts in late 1959, she had jumped from a small independent (Bethlehem Records) to a large national label (Colpix) and in late 1963 signed with the international powerhouse Philips. The Holland-based company was yet another label born of the tradition of a hardware manufacturer (think RCA, Sony) seeking to expand into the software side of the recording industry. Formed as an offshoot of Philips Electronics in 1950, the label established itself during its first decade mainly in Europe; in 1960 it purchased Irving Green's Chicago-based Mercury Records.
With a toehold in the US, Philips entered the '60s well funded, globally distributed and helmed by Wilhelm Langenberg, a larger-than-life jazz and blues fan. In 1962, a partnership with the recording arm of the German electronics giant Siemens added more clout to Philip's worldwide reach: "One world of music on one great label" became the label's boastful slogan, printed on all its LP covers.
By 1964, when Simone's Philips debut, In Concert, was released, no artist better represented the label's credo than Langenberg's new signing. The company's other stars of the '60s - bandleader Lester Lanin, the Four Seasons, the Singing Nun - all swung in one direction, tied to the age. Simone's music transcended its own time. "Nina's music was not a fad," argues Oscar Brown, Jr. "The stuff that's good lasts, it has a shelf life - the art she made in the 1960s is as valid today as it was then."

Philip's strategy was simple: first a live album, introducing new songs ("Old Jim Crow," "Go Limp") and reworking her well-known hits ("I Loves You, Porgy," "Mississippi Goddam"), In Concert was an instant seller, earning Billboard's "Breakout Album" distinction in August 1964 (along with Dean Martin's Everybody Loves Somebody, Peter Paul & Mary In Concert, and Miles Davis In Europe, among others). It featured what would be her primary touring unit during her stint with Philips guitarist/flutist Rudy Stevenson (often supplemented by Al Schackman), bassist Lisle Atkinson, and drummer Bobby Hamilton.

It was a group that provided Simone supple, consistent support. "The trio was fine," stresses Atkinson, "We always played a tune in front before Nina came on and when she left." Brief proof of their collective swing - sans Nina - can be heard as In Concert closes and the group effortlessly slides into a spirited take on the Miles Davis composition "Milestones."

Then it was back to the studio. It's tempting - and maybe too easy to look on the LP titles; say from Broadway-Blues-Ballads (Simone's second for Philips) to High Priestess of Soul (her last), as signposts of a directed stylistic progress. Stevenson for one would argue against it: "I don't know about any evolution. High Priestess could have been the first one, Broadway could have come after it. She was doing all that stuff at the same time. They're just both creative and very different."

Notwithstanding Philip's penchant for thematic albums (Pastel Blues, for instance), Simone seemed to grow deeper into her music rather than just moving it along stylistically. She expanded her repertoire - covering music by Jacques Brel and Bob Dylan, for example - while intensifying her embrace of music both polished and pristine. From his vantage point, Schackman witnessed Simone's increased confidence and experimental depth.

If you go back to her very first album, that album is so innocent, there's actually no sign of where she's going to be going. But when you get to those Philips albums, she's already a pro, she's left that innocent place. I remember with Nina I first played a Gibson L7 [hollow-body guitar] and then I went to a Gibson Les Paul [solid-body] because I needed more power. She was after getting more power out of the sound, and one way to get that was to go electric. I think she really didn't care whether it was electric or acoustic, I think she just cared about the musicianship. She didn't do it to be contemporary - she wanted more and more grit.

On Broadway, Simone leaned alternatively on the arranging expertise of Horace Ott and Hal Mooney, covering a number of such lesser-known standards as Cole Porter's "The Laziest Gal in Town" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Something Wonderful." She balanced the title with the definitive, slow-driven take of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and the infectious, flute-driven groove of "See-Line Woman." ("For 'See-Line Woman,' I wrote a simple arrangement on a lament with hand claps and rhythms that would allow me to dance," Simone commented, "If I wasn't a singer, I would want to be a dancer.")

On a whim, Simone took Screamin' Jay Hawkins' crazy waltz-time signature song, stretched out the rhythm, endowed it with a pleading vocal, and created the title track for I Put a Spell On You. The album was propelled by other unexpected twists (two French chansons - "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and "L'Amour C'est Comme un Jour," the latter in translation) and bawdy blues numbers penned by her manager/husband, Andy Stroud ("Gimme Some" and "Take Care of Business"). "Feeling Good" is arguably the album's unspoken classic, spurred by an irresistible, menacing horn line, while Stevenson's "Blues on Purpose" is a rare Simone instrumental. ("I like Nina's playing on that - she used to hear us playing it onstage before she came out," notes the guitarist.)

On the thematic Pastel Blues, she focused on the blues as a feeling more than a form, kicking off with the near-a cappella plea "Be My Husband," retooling classics like "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and "Trouble in Mind," adding a marked sensuality to Billie Holiday's "Tell Me More and More and Then Some" and a hushed horror to the piano-and-vocal version of "Strange Fruit." True to her religious roots, Simone closed the set with the gospel fervor of "Sinnerman." ("She came through the church, you know, what they call the holy rollers," notes Abbey Lincoln.)

Let It All Out returned to Simone's mixed-bag approach, blending tributes to Holiday (an ethereal take on "Don't Explain" laced with Stevenson's flute), traditional blues (Memphis Minnie's "Chauffeur," credited to Stroud), show tunes (Irving Berlin's "This Year's Kisses"), and recent, socially conscious folk numbers (Dylan's "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," replete with strummed guitar). The album also featured "Little Girl Blue" and "Love Me or Leave Me," both emphasizing Simone's classical pedigree, particularly in the fugue-like solo on the latter track. ("Whether coming from jazz or classical or whatever," Atkinson confirms, "she's an excellent pianist, period.")

Disarmingly and relentlessly intimate, Wild Is The Wind is Simone's unintentional masterpiece: eleven leftovers from previous sessions that together achieve a compelling consistency in mood, performance, and production. Sympathetic arrangements, restrained piano playing, and rich, closely milked vocals (catch her sighs on the title tune) flow from track to track, from a boisterous set opener in the style of Ray Charles ("I Love Your Lovin' Ways) to a horn-driven, clenched-teeth tribute to the end of an affair ("Break Down and Let It All Out"). "Four Women" and "Black Is The Color of My True Love's Hair" - a Simone original and a reworked traditional song - round out this stellar album.
High Priestess of Soul was Simone's swan song for Philips, recorded in August 1966, issued in '67 and still sounding consciously commercial in its lushly produced offerings. The strings-and-rhythm "Don't You Pay Them No Mind" and a playful orchestration of Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" speak well of arranger Hal Mooney's ability to shape subtle, tasteful pop of the period. Even a spirited treatment of Ellington's "The Gal From Joe's" seems a stab at radio play. Sparser songs leaning more toward percussion and rhythm offer rootsy balance, including "Work Song" (using Oscar Brown, Jr.'s lyric to Nat Adderley's well-known melody), Nina's own "Come Ye," and a soul-stirring, tambourine-shaking medley of "Take Me to the Water" and "I'm Going Back Home."

Before 1966 ended, Simone hopped labels and entered the studio for RCA Victor Records, building like many of her generation toward a more electric, funk-driven sound: in other words, soul. Despite its Afrocentric cover inevitable title - given the tradition of designations bestowed on great black diva before and after (Empress of the Blues, Queen of Soul) - High Priestess was less about the popular sounds of Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin, and more a farewell romp through R&B moods of the recent past. In its diversity, the album serves both as an appropriate bookend to three fruitful and expansive years of music making and as a credible reminder that ultimately no style-specific appellation could hold or fully define Nina Simone.

-Enduring Enigma-

Was she or wasn't she? Don't rely on Nina to clearly define her style. In 1967, she skipped around the question: "Freedom, to me, is the definition of what jazz is, so I can't say that I'm not a jazz performer." Most critics of the day devoted an inordinate amount of ink to arguing her status as a jazz singer, the issue of category drawing as much attention as the music itself. "I have to pass on rating [High Priestess of Soul] in a jazz context," confessed one writer. "Folk? Yes. Rhythm-and-blues? Yes. Jazz? No," decided another.
Forever binding music and message, Simone ultimately saw her defiance of category - social, racial, musical - as an intrinsic part of her mission of self-affirmation and protest. While political compatriots like Max and Abbey were booked, recorded, and marketed primarily as jazz artists, Simone bristled at the classification.

I didn't like being put in a box with other jazz singers because my musicianship was totally different, and in its own way superior. Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn't fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be. It was a racist thing: "If she's black, she must be a jazz singer."

Yet Simone was not an absolutist. Jazz - as a sociological label - did in fact feel right.

To me "jazz" meant a way of thinking, a way of being, and the black man in America was jazz in everything he did - in the way he walked, talked, thought and acted. Jazz was another aspect of the whole thing, so in that sense I was a jazz singer… but in every other way I most definitely wasn't.

It's definitely a measure of Simone's originality that it's still easier to describe what she is not than what she is. In the '60s, as members of her band report, her genre-defying approach could be derived as much from her set lists as from her varied audiences and the stages she trod. Stevenson recalls:

We played the Apollo Theater with Sammy Davis. We performed at jazz concerts with big artists like Miles or Trane. We were in Las Vegas and Lena Horne was there. We worked in London and the Beatles came to see her when they were at the top… .Paul McCartney even complimented me on my guitar playing.

Simone's historical impact can today call forth a list of specific evidence. John Lennon admittedly suggesting a line from her rendition of "I Put a Spell On You" for the famed "I love you, I love you… " section of the Beatles' "Michelle." The Animals launched their career covering her versions of both "House of the Rising Sun" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." And before his untimely death, singer Jeff Buckley chose to replicate her take of "Lilac Wine," tug by heartfelt tug. ("That's the only one that matters," he insisted of Simone's cover of the ballad.)

Beyond the covers and copies, Simone's continuing legacy can be intuited from the music and directly measured through the confessions of a diverse array of artists. Generations of soulful women - from Aretha Franklin, Laura Nyro, and Roberta Flack to Sade, Janet Jackson, and Me'Shell NdegeOcello - openly declare their fealty. Richie Havens, Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, members of Fugazi and Train, and myriad other performers have professed debt or devotion to Simone, or admit that her music remains a permanent part of their listening habits. Her catalog of recordings has yielded an inevitable succession of hip-hop samples and TV ad themes. "See-Line Woman," its subtle, funky groove reworked by Masters at Work on the Verve Remixed collection, is an underground hit.

After years of touring and living abroad, a semi-retired Simone maintains a life of repose in her adopted home of France. Her appearances have become less and less regular. Absence, as it works with love and certain legends, has only served to elevate and brighten her star. Explaining Simone's enduring appeal is perhaps best left to one who has known and played with her the longest. Al Schackman:

Have you ever seen the poster of the jazz music tree, with different branches for swing, bebop and other styles? It's interesting where they put Nina - down in the trunk, more in the country-blues place. They could have put her in a few different places at the same time… but I think she's more like a first growth tree herself. John Lee Hooker was in that category, and Billie Holiday too. There aren't many left; in fact, I hardly know of any.

-Four Women-

Simone's original composition "Four Women" was heralded as a classic from the start: Philips highlighted it as "unforgettable" on the cover of Wild Is the Wind. Mournfully sung, it lived up to its simple title, depicting varying degrees of American blackness through four stark portraits: subservient Aunt Sara, mulatto Saffronia, street-walking Sweet Thing, militant Peaches. In the manner that a black-and-white photograph can effect a message more lasting that a rousing speech, Simone set aside the didactic, choosing image and detail to tell their stories.

It takes little imagination to see the four as aspects of one individual, who perhaps might be the songwriter herself. Whatever Simone's compositional source or intent, her own story - like the range of roles she inhabited in her songs and in those of others - speaks of diverse experiences: as prodigy, star, enigma, and outspoken diva, protesting social inaction or audience inattention. Today a difficult and unpredictable multiplicity is still part of her renown, a distinction of which Simone was abundantly aware. As she admitted to Newsweek in 1963, complexity and candor did not make for an easy mix.

A man in Cincinnati told me, "You've been described as mean, evil, temperamental - Nina, you've got quite a reputation."… I am all those things but that's not all I am. I am no more mean or evil or temperamental that anybody else, the only thing is I'm more obvious. I do it in public. I am in a business that feeds on emotion.

"Nina has always been volatile," explains Schackman, noting that her onstage fits of temper became a drawing card for Simone just as back-turning and stony silence proved for Miles Davis.

People were at once attracted to the volatility and at other times they'd be upset. I remember once at the Village Gate, the audience was kind of boisterous. She stopped playing and started admonishing the mainly black audience, "If you're worried about your civil rights, take a bath regularly and use underarm deodorant."

From the outset, Simone was never one to mince words or suffer perceived fools gladly. And where some saw a difficult personality, many found a brutal integrity. "A high degree of honesty can sometimes produce explosive consequences. People who know Nina well realize that her occasional outbursts stem more from pain than anger," reasoned a Billboard columnist in 1965. "If she didn't feel good, she didn't try to pretend," says Rudy Stevenson. "I respected and loved her for that, she's just that honest… .People didn't understand that sometimes."

Lest it seem Simone spent the '60s all serious and with furrowed brow, Four Women: The Nina Simone Philips Recordings offers the most complete portrait of a woman whose lighter side is too often forgotten. Her live rendition of "Go Limp" - a send-up of a call to march, dressed up as an Irish pub sing-along - is a telling example of her penchant for easygoing, self-depreciating comedy. She forgets a verse, gives up trying to remember, and implores her audience's assistance with the bawdy lyric. Even "Mississippi Goddamn" - by then a year old - seems less bitter, its fury tempered by wry humor ("This is a show tune but the show hasn't been written for it yet").
Warm and funny, sharp and critical, speaking through words or music, Simone used all she had to reach, teach, and elevate her audience. Yes, she was a performer, elegantly clothed and conscious of her spotlight, but she lived as she sang, and sang with all the romance and reality she experienced. Her genius, as Abbey Lincoln succinctly put it, was that "she sang of the world, no matter the tune."
Simone dedicated herself to one general imperative: tearing down distinctions - between black and white, performer and audience, private concern and public purpose. "I am civil rights," she once snapped when urged to join one protest too many in the '60s, Schackman recalls. Her retort was neither boast nor vain dismissal, but unapologetic self-awareness. When the music of this collection was made, Nina Simone delivered her sense of purpose every night, on every recording.
Four Women: The Complete Nina Simone on Philips Recordings - Nina Simone