Nina Simone : The Essential Playlist

Take a bow, cuz The High Priestess Of Soul is in the house today! For all of you familiar with the timeless music and legacy of this extraordinary genius, you know precisely what her music can do to you. For those of you unfamiliar with her music, read on, listen and experience what this consummate musical story-teller, icon and a woman who braved it all was all about, especially at a time when women of color were not allowed to have a voice of their own.

Before there was Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Mary J Blige, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Sade, Chaka Khan, all women of color who brought about a revolution and made a name for themselves through their music, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known by her stage name Nina Simone, rose to international fame as one of THE defiant icons of the 20th century when she debuted with ‘Little Girl Blue‘ in 1958 and went on to record over 40 albums. Her genius? She could literally cast a spell with her deep husky voice, effortlessly transitioning between the sultry seductress to the tempestuous and valiant vocal power-house ranting against racial prejudice in the wake of The Civil Rights Movement tearing America apart. Her turbulent personal life found its expression through her music, and she sang about loneliness, betrayal, heartbreak in a way so hypnotic, it could drive a weary crowd to tears. She epitomized the essence of a being a woman, and she triumphantly tackled genres as diverse as Jazz, Pop, Soul, Funk, Blues, Folk and Gospel with consummate ease, becoming the voice of an era marked with political unrest.

Fighting her own demons of failed marriages, failed affairs, financial woes, racial and sexual discrimination, Nina Simone’s final years were plagued with health issues. Being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and breast cancer she suffered from severe bouts of paranoia and depression, until she died in her sleep on April 21st, 2003, at the age of 70.

It’s only fair that the present generation, growing up on a staple diet of auto-tune and reality shows be made aware of the sound and vibe of the originators and the innovators that started it all back in the day. Nina Simone’s groundbreaking songs of passion, empowerment and liberation forms the blueprint for artists as diverse as John Lennon to Aretha Franklin, from Janis Joplin to Mary J Blige. Making a list of 10 songs from her extensive discography was literally exhausting. The following songs are some of my personal faves, and they are a celebration of a woman who was born to speak and sing for the people and save lives, and who unfortunately could not save her own while doing so.

1. The Other Woman

The glorious bluesy number originally written by songwriter Jessie Mae Robinson was included in the album ‘Nina Simone At Town Hall‘, released in 1959. A spellbinding number indeed.

2. I Loves You, Porgy.

The cover of this George Gershwin song from the opera ‘Porgy And Bess‘ would become Nina’s signature hit, reaching the top 20 of the pop charts in 1959, a rare feat for a colored woman back in the day.

3. Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair

Nina Simone revitalized this traditional folk song’s popularity when she included her version for the album ‘Nina Simone At Town Hall‘ in 1959. This song’s all that I need when I’m in the mood for something mellow.

4. I Put A Spell On You

Although the original version of ‘I Put A Spell On You‘ was by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nina Simone OWNED this number. Nina’s voice wove seamlessly through the wailing horns and strings to create one of the most thrilling love songs of all time! The song was included in Nina’s album with the same name released in 1965.

5. Four Women

Included in Nina’s 1966 album ‘Wild Is The Wind‘, ‘Four Women‘ is one of the most defiant and powerful songs of her career. The song tells the story of four individual African-American stereotypical women, and received a major backlash from listeners back in the day, resulting in the song being banned from many radio stations. This one’s positively chill-inducing.

6. I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today

Originally recorded by Randy Newman in 1968, Nina’s version, recorded for her 1969 album ‘Nina Simone And Piano‘ was soulful and haunting. I’d prefer this over the original version by Randy.

7. Feelin’ Good (Joe Claussell Remix)

I’m generally a purist when it comes to Nina, but I have to admit the Joe Claussell remix of Nina’s ‘Feelin’ Good‘ blew me away! I’d prefer this version than the original, simply cuz the essence of the original song is intact, and so is Nina’s voice. This version is rather a re-interpretation of the song, and it’s sensual, it’s tantalizing, and it easily fits in my chill-out lounge playlist, as well as my list of fave baby-making songs of all time! Sex And The City freaks, you might recognize this one playing on the background while Carrie makes out with Big in an episode of season 5.

8. Ne Me Quitte Pas

Originally written by Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel in 1959, the iconic song was covered by one and all, but Nina’s version included in her 1965 album ‘I Put A Spell On You‘ is clearly the best by far.

9. Baltimore

Again an original by Randy Newman, Nina Simone recorded this version in 1978 after a 4 year hiatus, which led to much critical acclaim and a resurgence of her career.

10. My Baby Just Cares For Me

Originally written by Walter Donaldson, the song was originally included in Nina’s 1958 début album ‘Little Girl Blue‘. The track received a major boost in 1987, when it was used on a commercial for Chanel No. 5, following which the track soared up the charts in Europe, peaking at # 5 on the UK Top 40, and becoming one of the biggest hits of Nina’s career.