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:
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) …