Fifty years after recording her first hit, a rendering of George and Ira Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy," and five years after her death from complications of breast cancer, Nina Simone continues to fascinate. She left a benchmark that was, as sung in the opening verse of Funkadelic's 1978 anthem, "One Nation Under a Groove":
So wide, you can't get around it
So low, you can't get under it
So high you can't get over it.
She mastered the art of reinvention. Simone was as comfortable singing jazz and French chansons as she was belting out a barrelhouse blues number or waxing polemic asides about social ills. Her gutsy eclecticism also included R&B, folk, reggae, Broadway tunes, and rock—catapulting her into that rare realm, the one Duke Ellington deemed "beyond category."
Still, for all her expansive musicality, Simone wasn't some anonymous singer. She had one of the most distinctive voices of the 20th century—one that wasn't comely in the conventional sense but that nevertheless captivated with its thick, bristly, almost androgynous timbre. Her quivering alto conveyed a spectrum of emotions, ranging from near-paralyzing pain and flaring rage to carnal lust.
In the past six years, we've witnessed a renaissance of interest in Simone's music with a continuous spate of compilations, reissues and remix projects—none of which has attempted to be as comprehensive as RCA/Legacy's new three-disc, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story. Sleekly packaged with rare photographs, song-by-song annotations from noted music writer David Nathan and liner notes from producer Richard Seidel and NPR's Ed Ward, To Be Free contains 51 songs, culled from various labels such as Bethlehem, Philips, Colpix, RCA and Elektra. The set also comes with a 23-minute DVD documentary that features nine live performances. For an artist like Simone, who recorded more than 40 live and studio albums, three discs seem scant for a set that purports to be her most comprehensive collection yet. Nevertheless, To Be Free succeeds as a summation of Simone's work, being at once succinct and substantial.
While savoring To Be Free in all of intoxicating blend of bruised beauty and triumphant defiance, one cannot ignore the fearlessness Simone embodied. It's important to note that despite her stature as one of the world's most iconic singers in black music, she harbored other musical ambitions. Before she became the high priestess of soul, she was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, an aspiring classical pianist, who briefly attended Julliard School of Music—no small feat for a black American woman in the mid-'50s. To make financial ends meet, while trying to further her formal education, she took a job at Atlantic City's Midtown Bar & Grill as a pianist. The bar's owner, though, insisted that she had to sing to secure the gig. In an effort to conceal from her mother that she was singing "the devil's music," she adopted the stage name Nina Simone.
She matched her artistic panache with a political outspokenness and sometimes thorny stage persona that truly defined super diva. She didn't suffer foolishness from her audience; she was known for abruptly interrupting a concert and walking offstage because of chatty patrons. Signature pieces such as the self-penned "Mississippi Goddam," "Backlash Blues" (co-written by Langston Hughes) and "To Be Young, Gifted & Black" (co-written by Weldon Irvine Jr.) and Dr. Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" remain as some of the most soul-stirring protest songs in black American music.
Indeed, To Be Free is an apt title for a set dedicated to such a pioneering figure who held onto her ideals of artistic integrity, unapologetically. And while Simone made many breakthroughs—and paid dearly for some of them—one wonders what obstacles she would have had to overcome had she tried to emerge with the same artistic and political stance in today's music industry. Hell, would she have made it to superstardom at all, dealing with today's mega-corporate labels?
Can you imagine the tug of war Simone would have fought if she had to deal with, say, Clive Davis or Simon Cowell in terms of shaping a career for mainstream appeal? It's even difficult envisioning Cowell blessing her with the green light to become one of the finalists on American Idol with a voice as dark and sometimes spooky as hers. Simone displayed a cosmopolitan fashion sense that superbly blended finesse with funk. Yet with today's ever-increasing image consciousness, would her skin tone suspiciously lighten with each new release, à la Beyoncé, to secure magazine covers and promotional videos?
Conversely, it's just as intriguing to speculate on what artistic directions she would have embarked had she lived and continued to push the envelope. Who would she team up with—?uestlove, Craig Street, Meshell Ndegeocello, Carl Craig—to jettison her into the 21st century soul? And with the prospect of America electing its first African-American president, right after atrocities such as economic meltdown, Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war, just imagine how she would have galvanized our music.
Playing the "what-if" game with what Simone would be doing offers myriad fantasies, mainly because, as demonstrated on To Be Free, she exhibited such an indomitable artistry and left such a heroic legacy that remains inspiring and nearly insuperable.
John Murph is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes frequently about music and culture. He regularly contributes to The Washington Post Express, NPR, JazzTimes, Down Beat and BET Interactive.