Nina Simone (born Eunice Waymon) changed her name so that she could begin to play jazz clubs without her parents becoming aware that she was making money playing jazz, which her family referred to as the “devil’s music.” The name has become synonymous with Jazz, Civil Rights, and protest all alike. After considerable success throughout the 60’s and very early 70’s, Nina Simone shied away from the public eye for the later part of her life. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder late in her life, and passed away from breast cancer in 2003, at the age of 70.
As we transition from Black History Month into Women’s History Month, I feel it’s only appropriate that my first Top 25 countdown be about an individual who paved the way for many people in both communities. Hopefully, this article can give an introduction to an artist that many people know the name of, but whose recording career can sometimes rest in obscurity.
25. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Upon hearing Nina’s version of the song for the first time, I was only familiar with the cover version done by the band, The Animals. This version is a bit slower, which allows Nina the ability to do whatever it is that she does so well with her voice. It’s up for debate whether she is singing from the point of view of herself, reiterating her humanity as a music icon, or she is singing from the point of view of the Civil Rights movement, pleading with the popular audience in the 60’s to see blacks as human beings with components of both good and bad. Either way, this song makes a great choice for number 25 on the list, to introduce you to what Nina can do vocally, and what the message in her music is primarily about.
24. Forbidden Fruit
This song is kind of a fun choice to throw on the list. A sing-songy re-telling of the story of the Apple and the Garden of Eden erupts into a party at the chorus. The story-telling verses are mostly just drumsticks and piano, but when the chorus comes around I have a hard time believing I wouldn’t have taken a bite of the fruit for myself if I was hanging around Eden. Just sounds like fun.
23. Gin House Blues
What? You say that this song is only on the list because I’m a sucker for booze and songs about booze? Although that’s mostly true, it’s songs like these that show why Nina was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year. Even though she didn’t write this song, this cover of a Bessie Smith song is delivered very well. Smooth rocking tunes about alcohol, what more could you ask for?
22. That’s Him Over There
The Amazing Nina Simone
A few of the songs on this list are here simply because they are enjoyable pieces of light jazz to listen to. This is one of them. Mostly just Nina accompanied by her piano with very minor production, this song is quite simply “pleasant.”
21. Exactly Like You (Live)
Nina Simone at Town Hall
This is another song that highlights Nina’s singing and playing ability, even without the presence of her overarching career message. There’s a point in the song where she breaks down into a little piano solo at about 1:45 and ad libs some scat-like phrases on top of it; it is solid evidence of Nina’s ability as a jazz pianist, despite her presence in the realm of pop music.
20. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
Another Bessie Smith cover, which made the list because (aside from another nod to alcohol in the opening lyrics), the recording and delivery itself is great. Nina Simone was an artist who could bring a room to their emotional knees (i.e. “Mississippi Goddam” but we’ll get to that one in a second), but also could deliver just plain good jazz and piano pop songs. Along with another song coming later on the list, this recording off of the Pastel Blues album is super clean and easy to listen to.
19. Mississippi Goddam (Live)
Nina Simone in Concert
It pains me to put this song so low down on the countdown, but to me, it’s not as aesthetically pleasing as some of her other songs. HOWEVER, this song is absolutely incredible as a musical primary source of the Civil Rights Era. Nina penned this one herself also, the subject matter being some of the many famous murders of blacks by whites at the time (Medgar Evers, the Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama) and performed it in front of a mostly white audience. It starts with a light show-tune instrumental, and Nina announces the song as a show-tune, but states that “the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” The crowd initially laughs at Simone’s commentary and then quickly realizes that the song is not a light, happy show-tune, but a commentary on the state of racism in the U.S. at the time. You can almost feel the shift in the recording as the crowd realizes that they are in over their heads while Nina sings loudly, “you’re all gonna die and die like flies.” When Nina says to the crowd “I bet you thought I was kidding didn’t ya?” she’s no longer met with laughter, but silence. This is admittedly a stretch, but this song is kind of like the Red Wedding without all the blood. (Sorry for the spoiler but if you haven’t watched it yet, are you really ever going to?)
18. Ain’t Got No, I Got Life
This song is a medley from the musical Hair and marked sort of a resurgence of Nina’s career at the time it was released. The lyrics seem to be put into a different context when Nina sings them, always seemingly related to the concept of being black in America, but it the message isn’t as outright as it is in some of her other songs. That being said, it’s a good combination of two songs and the tone of the song shifting midway through keeps it interesting even after multiple listen-throughs.
17. To Be Young, Gifted and Black
On many levels, Nina Simone was a pioneer of black power through music, and perhaps no song portrays this as well as “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” This song is different from some of her other empowerment anthems in that it is focused on empowering young black individuals, rather than broadcasting the struggle of African Americans during this particular time in history. Nina focused so much of her energy on challenging the notion that to be black was anything but to be beautiful, and she harbored that energy into one of the shorter, more pop/soul oriented tracks on this list.
16. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free
Silk & Soul
Although it is a cover, this is another statement song that seems to mean so much more when it’s sung by Simone. The lyrics don’t leave anything up to the imagination as Nina sings of her wishes of equality in everyday life in the form of freedom. Another plus – the song also sounds good, which is imperative if you want a song with a message to reach a widespread audience. As a bonus, check out Nina Simone talking about what it means to be free in this interview before listening to the song:
15. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
To Love Somebody
Most of Simone’s later studio albums consisted of multiple covers and interpretations of other famous songs. Even the album this song was released on is titled based off of her cover of the Bee Gees’ 1967 song. This included quite a few Bob Dylan covers (“Just Like a Woman”, “Mr. Bojangles”, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”), but this one is the best. This recording is soft, airy and folky, while still staying true to Simone’s strengths. Vocally, she sings this one softer than some of her other songs, and with a great underlying piano foundation.
14. My Baby Just Cares for Me
Little Girl Blue
This one is from Nina’s first ever studio album, Little Girl Blue. The subtitle on the front of the album cover is “Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club” and although I never had the opportunity to be in an exclusive side street club in the late 50’s, the album does a good job of achieving that sound. Nina’s early tracks don’t showcase her vocal ability as much as her later albums do, but on a lot of these songs Nina’s able to break into piano solos which can be equally as enjoyable.
13. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today
Nina Simone and Piano!
A cover of a Randy Newman song, Nina delivers this one with a vocal prowess that is a little louder and harsher than a lot of her softer recordings at that time, but is also void of a lot of the production on her later albums. The name of the album this one is on is Nina Simone and Piano! and that’s really all you’re hearing on the recordings. In this one specifically, Nina does an exceptional job of portraying the mood of the song and lyrics using just her two original instruments and it pays off.
12. Do What You Gotta Do
For fans of modern pop/rap music, you’ll recognize quite a bit of this song starting as early as the first verse. Kanye West had Rihanna basically sing the entire first verse of this song on his song “Famous.” I think it always pays to know where the original samples come from and what artists your favorite sampling artists are getting their inspiration from. Aside from the sample, this song is this high up on the list because it’s a rare recording that feels similar to some Motown soul recordings, highlighting Nina’s ability as a recording artist outside of her normal piano/vocal arrangements.
11. Since I Fell for You
Nina Simone Sings the Blues
I can’t say that I have any particular soft spot for the blues, but this track is just what the album promises: pure unadulterated blues. From the piano, harmonica, and guitar instrumentals singing back and forth with Nina’s own vocals, this is a blues song that is as blues-y as blues gets, performed by a woman whose affinity was not strictly for blues. In some ways, it’s more enjoyable and palatable than other songs of the era from blues greats.
10. Here Comes the Sun
Here Comes the Sun
I was nervous when I first listened to this one because of how much I love the original Beatles version. Maybe it was just the way the sun was shining in through the window as I watched the snow melt from my seat on the B48 the morning that I first heard it, but this cover stays true enough to the original while being its own recording completely. The vocals are higher in Nina’s register than a lot of the other songs on the list, and the piano is also really light and sparse (minus a few breakdowns). When you cover a song as great as “Here Comes the Sun” you really have to outdo yourself to make it work, and this does far more than just work; it’s marvelous.
9. I Loves You, Porgy
Little Girl Blue
This is regarded as the song that really started Nina Simone’s career. It charted in the Billboard top 20, and the rest of her career followed suit. As with “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” there’s an ambiance in the recording of these early songs that’s so pleasant that I can’t help but feel like I’m in a tiny street side jazz club while listening. It’s a very slow, pretty and sensual recording, nearing in on beautiful.
8. Trouble in Mind
Honestly, I was hooked on this song in the first 3 seconds. Simone’s piano intro is happy and jazz-filled. When her vocals and a bit of guitar come in to compliment it for the rest of the song, it makes for a recording that’s really pleasant. I don’t need to go into too much detail about what makes this a great tune; you can get that on your first listen-through.
7. Why? (The King of Love is Dead)
While I’ve described Nina Simone as somewhat of a Civil Rights musical hero and highlighted some of her best protest and inspirational songs, no song portrays this as well as this one right here. The King of Love referred to in the title is none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and this live recording took place just three days after his assassination. Written by Nina’s bass player after the assassination, this recording is the first time anybody had heard the song, meaning they only had 3 days to compose, learn and perform it; still the recording is flawless, and the song epitomizes a Civil Rights legend’s reaction to Dr. King’s death through song. It’s not just a song; it is an audible piece of history.
6. Love Me or Leave Me
Let It All Out
I first heard this song when I was in the 7th grade. My teacher, Ms. Morgan, brought it in to play for the class. Even though back then old music just sounded like old music with no other discernible qualities, the song stuck out to me still, and I downloaded it from Limewire (I know, so badass) when I got home. Years later, this song still hasn’t grown old to me. The quick rapping style of the verses is enjoyable to listen to, but her piano playing throughout the song is something to really marvel at. The classical breakdown in the middle of the song (an open homage to Bach) proves yet again that Nina could really play piano with the best of ‘em.
5. Lilac Wine
Wild is the Wind
Another alcohol themed song! “Lilac Wine” starts off in a dark place, Nina’s vocals and playing haunting, captivating the spirit of pain. Then, as she begins to sing about the wine, her tone softens and so does the music, replicating the effect that a glass (or 7 glasses) of wine can have on a broken heart. Aesthetically pleasing and soothing after the dark beginning, the song is something to listen to all the way through its shifts and changes; the musical equivalent of wine (and I love me some wine).
4. Sunday in Savannah (Live)
Part of the joy of listening to live Nina Simone songs is hearing the way she speaks to the crowd before a song begins. This song was also taken from the same concert recorded 3 days after the assassination of MLK. Full of insight and warmth, the intro to this song is enough to land it this high on the countdown; she spends about 2 whole minutes thanking the people who have come to see her in hopes that she can provide some type of relief for the tragedy that had just occurred. That’s only enhanced when she spends the next four minutes playing a delightful little song about a beautiful Sunday in Savannah. The intro and the song combine to form a piece that’s another nice little piece of history, capturing the mood and essence of the black south in the late 1960’s.
3. I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl
Nina Simone Sings the Blues
I didn’t want to weigh down the final selections of the countdown with all long live songs, or large instrumental breakdowns. So coming in at number three is this sweet little bluesy jazz number. Modeled after a song by Bessie Smith, this one is a long tongue in cheek metaphor for being uh, “in the mood.” It’s short, sweet and to the point. It’s just a quality sounding and well-written tune; the prime example of Nina’s ability to make catchy jazz-pop numbers as well as hard-hitting protest songs.
2. Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You
Nina Simone and Piano!
Much like the other recording off of this album, this song just has Nina and her piano goin’ at it. This one though, is a love song, and other than “Lilac Wine” and “I Loves You Porgy” we don’t have a lot of those from Nina. I initially didn’t have this song on the countdown but was shown it by a friend, and immediately regretted missing it. But I’m only human, so these countdowns aren’t perfect. With this song on it though, this countdown is a little closer to perfect. This song showcases her vocals, which get bigger and grander and evolve into something magical toward the end of the song, and her piano playing accompanies this change perfectly. I prefer the beginning; the first line is a thing of pure beauty, “Darling, you are always needed.” Even though Nina did not write the song, her performance is pure beauty. Nina also was quite fond of this entire album, saying that she would much rather be remembered for this than for songs like “My Baby Just Cares for Me”. So let’s remember Nina with this incredible love tune coming in at number 2.
1. Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Live)
Here we are! My all-time favorite Nina Simone song is upon us! Thanks for reading through the article if you’ve had the patience to do so and I hope you enjoyed the music. Number 1 is another live track, a cover, with a long spoken intro. Nina starts off by speaking with the audience about how tired she is (perhaps foreshadowing her upcoming slowdown in studio album releases and later mental health issues), but as always she is willing to pour her soul into another number. Nina speaks softly to a mostly quiet room (save for a few coughs), leaving the listener reflecting on the great mystery of life and time. This song is very light and slow, a true reflection piece, and by the time she starts singing, her intro has more likely than not put you in a place to reflect on time: time passed, time passing now, time soon to pass us by. This song is number one on the list because it’s one of those rare gems that can put you in a mood and cause you to reflect on a universal emotion, but that reflection is profoundly different for each of us; a vivid and intricate web of memories of people and places and events, and of course time.
Thanks to everyone who read and finished all the way through the article. I know that 25 songs can take up a good chunk of your day. If you enjoyed these 25 and want some more quality Nina Simone songs, here were the honorable mentions that almost made the countdown, but didn’t quite get there:
“Seems Like I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You”, “Feeling Good”, “Suzanne”, “I Put a Spell on You”, “Strange Fruit”, “Sinnerman”, “To Love Somebody”, “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter”, the entire Wild is the Wind album