To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2008, Volume 15, #10
Written by John Metzger
Wed October 8, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Nina Simone arguably is the most underrated performer in the history of popular music. Although she once was a prominent artist who was as highly influential as she was well respected, her self-imposed exile in 1973 removed her almost completely from the public’s purview. Over the course of the next 30 years, her recordings and concert appearances were sporadic at best. Consequently, when she passed away in April 2003, only those who were raised with her work truly understood the sizable loss that the music business — and the world — had suffered.
Simone may have been marketed to audiences as a pop singer — sometimes to the detriment of her career — but her interests were as complex as her personality. Her work touched upon an extraordinarily eclectic range of styles, and everyone from Richie Havens to Janis Joplin was influenced by her output. She adapted compositions by Kurt Weill, Bob Dylan, George Gershwin, Batatunde Olatunji, and The Bee Gees — as well as songs popularized by Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday — to suit her own distinctive approach. She was ornery, cantankerous, and outspoken, too, which turned off as many people as it turned on. After all, she wasn’t just a tough woman; she was a tough, African-American woman at a time when such things weren’t openly accepted. Simone, however, didn’t care what anyone thought of her. If she had an opinion on something, she wasn’t afraid to use her visibility as an artist to share it. Simone rarely wrote her own material, but when she did, she made it count, speaking out, for example, against racism and segregation on provocative cuts like Mississippi Goddam and Backlash Blues. As a result, the albums that she made between 1957 and 1973 chronicled the changing face of America by giving voice to the turbulence that surrounded the civil and women’s rights movements.
With a lack of new material to bring to market, countless retrospectives have been assembled around the recordings that Simone had made prior to her semi-retirement. It wasn’t until recently, however, that any of them truly did justice to her once-productive career. In 2006, Legacy concocted Forever Young, Gifted, and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit, a magnificent single-disc overview that emphasized Simone’s socio-political outlook. Three years earlier, RCA had compiled Anthology, a 31-track collection that admirably attempted to capture her full range as a performer in as concise a manner as possible. Although the latter endeavor was the first package to cover the complete breadth of Simone’s work — from her debut for Bethlehem to her frustratingly restrained re-emergence in 1993 with Elektra — it hardly could be considered a definitive overview because too much key material was left by the wayside.
It is an understatement, then, to say that the release of a career-spanning, comprehensive boxed set that focuses upon the entirety of Simone’s career has been long overdue. Expanding upon Anthology — and completely supplanting its importance in Simone’s catalogue — To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story answers the call quite nicely. Presented in chronological order, the endeavor’s 51 tracks touch upon every facet of Simone’s fascinating canon, and despite its brevity, the accompanying 23-minute-long DVD provides an intimate glimpse at her complicated persona. In fact, with its combination of images and music, it says more about her than a traditional, narrative documentary probably would have.
Appropriately, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story begins in 1957 with Simone’s lone recording session for Bethlehem. Despite her lack of experience, she already had developed a commanding but natural stage presence, one that allowed her to shape the emotional content of whatever material she tackled, seemingly without exerting very much effort. Like most pop artists, Simone’s greatness sometimes was undercut by her producers’ desires to score bona-fide hit singles — a feat that largely remained elusive in the U.S. market. Understandably, then, they occasionally pushed her in the wrong direction, utterly quashing the resonance and potency of her work. Wisely, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story avoids the most egregious missteps from her canon. Although the string sections and other arrangements sometimes threaten to diminish the overall effectiveness of the songs that were chosen for inclusion on the outing, Simone’s passionate and often quite intimate delivery burns with a level of unwavering intensity, which rescues the selections from their calculated surroundings and transforms them into hypnotic, compelling works of art.
On the other hand, Simone’s concert performances stood on their own accord, and one of the smartest things that the many labels with which she was associated over the years accomplished was to record her shows quite frequently. Not surprisingly, then, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story contains an abundance of live material, including a handful of previously unreleased cuts. On stage, Simone occasionally improvised lyrics to reflect the events of the world at large. Even when she wasn’t taking liberties with the words she was singing, she masterfully would alter her phrasing to re-frame familiar compositions. A supreme storyteller, she offered a positively mesmerizing interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. By contrast, she tenderly sang a duet with her brother Sam Waymon on Let It Be Me, finding both heartache and comfort in the tune. Elsewhere, she used her strength to mask the anguish within The Other Woman and playfully crept through I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl. Instead of simply mourning the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she picked up the reigns of his civil rights campaign and defiantly unleashed a trio of career-defining cuts — Sunday in Savannah, Backlash Blues, and Mississippi Goddam — on stage three days later. These selections not only formed the basis of her 1968 endeavor ’Nuff Said, but they also now serve as the highlights of the boxed set.
In the end, it doesn’t matter that there are other moments within Simone’s canon that are equally vital. To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story splendidly tells her tale by highlighting her complete range as a person and an artist.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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