In the original era of 1960s political correctness when entertainers toned down their personal rhetoric to continue their careers as performing artists, Nina Simone could never be silenced. She was the voice of freedom. The original chanteuse channeled passionate reasoning and emotional fire to sing about growing up and living in a racially segregated United States of America. Nina stood on stage as a warrior queen with her sultry song whispering, moaning and roaring behind the piano. She held the keys to her independence during her concerts inside her protest songs that rallied against the injustice and mistreatment of her skin, her sex in the age of societal intolerance.
Throughout her multifaceted and ever changing career, Nina Simone was manipulated by record labels, mistreated by handlers, husbands and managers and wholeheartedly misunderstood and disrespected in her homeland. During her years in exile from America, this soulful siren had a spark that could never be extinguished by any type of discrimination. Any sign of exploitation only fueled Nina’s rage and inspired her to sing out seductively louder and prouder than ever before.
As a confidant of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone believed in his dream but the reality of coming of age as an outspoken African American female artist in the ’60s was anything but luxurious. Fame eluded her and unfortunately infamy followed her everywhere she went. Nina’s candid views were unheard of—she was a revolutionary ahead of her time. Even the Beatles refused to speak out against social injustice; Nina Simone considered it her duty to as a creative activist to criticize the powers that be about the injustice in America.
Throughout this tumultuous time and fueled by energetic fervor, Nina recorded some of the most memorable music of the 20th century. Prolific is an understatement; Nina Simone was a virtuoso on stage and in the recording studio. Between 1957 and 1973, Simone completed 27 albums for four different record labels. Unlike her personal heroine Billie Holliday, not only could Nina sing exquisitely, she, herself was a classically trained pianist. This made her a creative force as composer and lyricist. Because of this, Nina had a musician’s ear and knew how to craft classic originals and adapt famous standards of her day.
It’s the voice in such songs as “Wild is the Wind” that I first discovered thanks to David Bowie, “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “I Want A Little Sugar in my Sugar Bowl” that first put a spell on me while living in the southern paradise of New Orleans.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve been a Nina Simone fan my whole life but in reality I first discovered her in the movies. Simone’s music made her resurrected icon with songs that appeared in such films as Point of No Return, Stealing Beauty and the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. Even then, it took Jeff Buckley’s elegant cover of “Lilac Wine” and the appearance of Nina’s spectacular rendition of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” in the film The Dancer Upstairs to make me a full fledged Simone devotee while living in New Orleans.
The Mississippi River in the heart of America’s South was the perfect place to fall for the voice that was Nina Simone. Even though she lived and recorded more than 30 years ago, her songs and vocal style are as timeless and legendary as ever. Unfortunately, the unspoken racism that existed in my modern-day New Orleans perfectly reflected the life and times that Nina Simone wrote and recorded about over three decades earlier. I saw it, lived it, and breathed in the silent stench of discrimination, poverty and disillusionment within the city that I loved so much. It was as if the world may have technologically improved but the bigoted traditions of the past were ingrained with the Southern culture of Louisiana. This was the type of inequality that Nina Simone sung and spoke out about. What would have been Nina’s thought on America’s passive ignorance towards New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the devastation left by Katrina?
“Mississippi Goddamn,” the song she performed after Dr. King’s assassination, would be the song that mirrors that outrage and disgust of post-Katrina New Orleans. This and many others are found in the new dynamic four disc (3 CD and 1 DVD set) To Be Free. Not only is this a collection of vintage songs written and recorded by Nina Simone, this is the soundtrack to American history from an artist that is unknown by the majority of modern music fans. It is a criminal shame that Nina Simone is rarely mentioned up there with Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin, and Patsy Cline as queens of American music.
To me she surpasses all of those incredible singers because Nina composed the majority of the music and lyrics to all her originals. And Simone came up with the arrangements of her favorite artists that she covered, like Gershwin’s “I Love’s You, Porgy” Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quite Pas,” George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” and Bob Dylan’s “Just like a Woman.”
Although To Be Free may not include all of my beloved Nina Simone songs (“Lilac Wine,” “Sinnerman” and her brilliant cover of “House of the Rising Sun” among others are missing), you will hear live versions of “Wild is the Wind,” the Langston Hughes-penned powerhouse “Backlash Blues” any my personal favorite “Who Knows Where the Times Goes.” The 30 minute DVD, Nina: A Historical Perspective is a breathtaking insight inside the mind, the music and the voice of Nina Simone told in her own words.
Inside the music and film of To Be Free, you will see and hear why and how she inspired a generation of artists and bands. Thanks to Mary J. Blige, Lauren Hill, Alicia Keys, Cat Power, Bowie and Buckley, the legend of Nina Simone sings on within them, their vocal styles and covers of her originals. We must not forget the many films that have showcased Nina’s voice and songs and helped introduce her music to a new generation of soulful enthusiasts. If you’re a novice and searching for a place to start your education of Nina Simone look no further than To Be Free. This box set captures the beauty, power and essence of all that encompassed the artistry and myth that was Nina Simone.
We all have hurt, loved and lost but nobody knows this more than Nina Simone. To Be Free captures the passion, the glory and the pain of life, love and dreams. It’s time to feel the spark that was as electric as the wind was wild. She was an icon. She was an artist. She was a lover. She was a fighter. She was a mother. She lived for the art of the song, and nobody brought the music of her time to life like Nina Simone. You will be moved. You will be seduced by a voice who sang for us with a soulful revolutionary spirit that thrives inside these heartfelt songs of emotional empowerment. We hope to one day rejoice in her sounds of freedom that Nina desperately desired to believe throughout her defiant life and beyond.
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