Nina Simone

Alternate versions: ‘Oh my lover’ PJ Harvey (Peel Session, 1991 & Dry, Too Pure, 1992) plus Nina Simone

To begin with the essential sweetness of this demo version …

Underneath one of the videos posted online someone had written how PJ Harvey had recorded this demo as a teenager to get her first record deal; she sounds so young here, her voice is noticeably different, lacking the magisterial nature of the final recorded version. What’s interesting is the way this youthful voice dilutes the ‘female masochistic-schtick’ critique that could be levelled at the lyrics, as what comes through is the giddy enthusiasm, the excitement, spinning in a lovely exuberance (that total devotion thing fed to women via a lifetime of fairy-tales of all kinds), it’s got total bounce.

Love the way she doubles her voice at the end, it’s so impressive on every level: song-writing, performance, creative vision. As for the recorded version that came out on 1992 debut:

From that opening moment, the intensity of it: this is just one of those extraordinary songs. Listen to that distorted bass/guitar and the unexpected phrasing of the drums. It is archetypal – a folk song transposed to the modern era, timeless. It reminds me of this similarly magical live 1969 performance by Nina Simone of ‘Black is the color of my true love’s hair’ for the same seriousness of intent, declaration: the strength of the woman’s voice.

Here’s the Peel Sessions version from 1991, which sounds almost the same as the recorded version, which further demonstrates the level of Harvey’s musicianship (she was born in 1969, so only was only 22-years-old or so at the time of recording). Check out this interesting video with Harvey speaking about her creative, song writing process put up in 2011.    

Coda:

Related article: PJ Harvey 'Silence' (White Chalk, Island Records 2007) published 27th February 2016

I have written a lot on Nina Simone on this site, go here to find all the references.   

'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) …

Coda:

Versions: 'You don't know what love is'/Saxophone Colossus Sonny Rollins (Prestige, 1956)

This is one of my favourite pieces of music (of.all.time) because of the stunning contrast between the ponderous sax and then the other key elements, the moment when the pianist, Tommy Flanagan comes in so quietly, with such gentleness and the percussion section provided by the masterly Max Roach.    

But there is another reason to love this piece of music, for the essential dynamic that is held within the performance of Sonny Rollins; as even though it is carried along by the deep, soulful inflections it often sounds as if, on occasion, he is having a conversation as he plays (as if he is offering asides, or commentary on the essential message). 

Certainly this performance by Miles Davis from his 1954 Walkin' release is special too, as you would expect, but it somehow lacks the intensity of the Rollins' version two years later.

Much the same could be said about Mal Waldron's version from his 1960 record, Left Alone - that while beautiful lacks the emotional rawness that can be felt in the less orderly take on the standard by Sonny Rollins. How then does Chet Baker compare? 

For me, it's only when Nina Simone offers her interpretation that we find some competition; her take, as to be expected, is beyond words and heart-breaking - pure and elemental. 

'Don't explain' Nina Simone (The other woman, Philips, 1968)

Hush now, don't explain
There ain't nothin' to gain
I'm glad that you're back
Don't explain

Quickly, with a kind of urgency, Nina Simone begins, 'Hush now' ... and so does her masterful evocation of (internal) conflict in her version of the Billie Holiday standard.

Unlike Holiday's original version of the song that she wrote with Arthur Herzog after learning of her husband's infidelity that remains 'clear' and constant in its conviction, albeit held in Holiday's fractured voice, Simone's delivery is full of tension.

Simone speeds up, slows down - tells her lover to be silent, while expressing her undying devotion to him - all the while accompanied by the ironically sweet piano-line that oscillates between the lower notes and a kind of tinkly breeziness.

She then ends with a kind of confused statement of conviction as she allows her voice to become ugly, off-key. 

Perhaps closest to Simone is the remarkable arrangement by Mal Waldron - found on his 1957 record Mal/2 - that features John Coltrane.

I love the way it starts with the aggressive atonal repetition of a two notes in isolation to then move into a kind of elegant diversion to return to this key element, allowing the rest of the music to continue as if unawares. 

     

'You'd be so nice to come home to' Nina Simone (Nina Simone at Newport, Colpix, 1960)

There's a verb in French which describes the sensation of being impressed by someone or something that also scares or intimidates you. Watch this video of Nick Cave talking of how much he owes Nina Simone. 

There is certain music you want to become part of your body, you want to ingest and keep it and make it part of you, embed it somehow under your skin - because its purity and beauty is something that stuns you, silences you.  

A few days ago, I listened to this ...

 

again and again and again and again (while waiting for a film to start, during all those French ads that trade on cruelty or a sheeny romance and then in the shopping centre until my wifi connection died, so then I walked back towards the multiplex so that I could hear it again). 

Riffing on Bach, on Gershwin, Nina Simone demolishes this track, to reconstruct it and make it her own. Building so extraordinarily from the humble opening, building and more with the other musicians to descend into a kind of controlled chaos,  speeding up, and still lifted by her voice, singing ....

You’d be so nice to come home to
You’d be so nice by the fire

While that breeze on night sings a lullaby
You’d be all my heart could desire
Under the stars chilled by the winter
Under an August moon shining above

You’d be so nice, you’d be paradise
To come home to and love

 

Other jazz greats covered this Cole Porter track, of course; Sarah Vaughan in 1958; Chet Baker in the late 50s and then two decades later in his Tokyo concert and Frank Sinatra does a typically lush, but indifferent/sarcastic version, but it is only in Simone's  cover that you hear a kind of elemental menace.

Jo Stafford's rendition from the same year as Simone's recording from Newport in 1960 shows how radical Simone's interpretation was. Whereas all the other versions follow a familiar pattern, Nina Simone ignores all conventions: she starts quiet, there is no big-band swing, only the piano that is backed by the bass and the drums. 

And then those few minutes, after the vocals come in at 3 minutes 20 so intense and unyielding while the piano speeds up, there is no other expression of bliss that comes close.