'He needs me' Nina Simone (Little Girl Blue/Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, Bethlehem, 1958)

Nina Simone’s debut record – that after a dispute led her to sever all ties with the record label - includes many of her most famous songs and the less-known ‘He needs me’. It’s striking to remember that Simone recorded this when in her 20s, as it conveys such depth and complexity of emotion.

Those seconds after the first note where the sound expands almost in the silence, just before the second note and she starts singing, this is such a stunning beginning and something that affects me so much; that lingering pause where she is waiting and the audience also.

I remember reading a passing comment in a Toni Morrison novel about the self-abnegation of the characters, or indeed the perspective, of some Nina Simone songs (though the word the character in the novel used was much harsher in judgment). Perhaps ‘He needs me’ could be included in this.

And yet, there is a mix of contradictory emotions being expressed here that are not easily defined, or put into a box: resignation, sadness, but also defiance, and possibly manipulation (remember her stated intention is that her ‘one ambition’ is to make the indifferent man recognise her and his need for her). The song then ends with a confession that, as is Simone’s wont, sounds like a question and is etched with vulnerability and uncertainty.

The piano performance, the way it interlaces with the tenderness of the vocal is extremely beautiful, making manifest the virtues of understatement and restraint.  

The song was written by Arthur Hamilton and included in a 1955 film ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues’ – a musical based on a radio series, apparently that featured many of the stars from that era; Ella Fitzgerald, for example and Peggy Lee, who won an Oscar for her performance (see below). This description from Wiks appeals to me:

Jazz cornetist Pete Kelly (Webb) and his Big Seven are the house band at the 17 Club, a speakeasy in Kansas City in 1927 during Prohibition. New local crime boss Fran McCarg (Edmond O’Brien) wants a percentage of the band’s meager earnings. When the band is opposed, Kelly decides to decline and see what happens.

However before the night ends, Rudy, the manager of the club, orders Kelly and the band to go to the house of wealthy Ivy Conrad (Janet Leigh), a woman with a reputation for hosting rowdy parties and who has designs on Kelly. Reluctantly, Kelly arrives at the party and leaves a message for McCarg to call him there. When the call comes through, it is intercepted by Kelly’s drunk, hot-tempered drummer, Joey Firestone (Martin Milner), who turns McCarg down. Kelly and his band are run off the road as they drive back to Kansas City.

The following night, Firestone roughs up Guy Bettenhauser, McCarg’s right-hand man. Kelly desperately tries to patch things up, but to no avail. As the band finishes its last number, two gunmen burst through the front door of the club. Kelly tries to save Firestone by sending him out the back, but Firestone is shot to death in the alleyway. Tired and frustrated by his drummer’s murder and the subsequent departure of Al (Lee Marvin), his clarinettist and long-time friend, Kelly returns to his apartment to find Ivy waiting for him. Although he initially resists her advances, the two strike up a relationship that turns into an engagement.

Here is Peggy Lee singing ‘He needs me’ on TV in 1955 to promote the film; her performance has an otherworldly, sleepwalking quality that strikes me as strange, but sweet all the same, as she stares up at the ceiling, or in the direction of the camera blankly (and the swirling strings surround her) …