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The Soul of Nina Simone


By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


What do you do with a hit that follows you for over thirty years? That was a question Nina needed to answer, was forced to confront. She had to figure out how to keep the music fresh, sort of like keeping the romance in an old marriage.


What do you do?


Is it not true that the whole essence of a classic resists being updated? People invariably want to hear it the way they remember it. So Nina not only had to fight against the song as milestone but also fight against audience expectations and demands that she stay stuck in the past.

Additionally, when Nina’s version of "Porgy" first became a hit, the song was already on the verge of being a shop-worn number whose numerous showboating interpretations veered recklessly between sentimental tripe and over-sung pseudo aria.


Yes, they often bill “Porgy And Bess” as a true American opera, as if being an “opera” ipso facto made the music great.

Anyway, in the early 1960s, Nina scored with her paean to Porgy. The hit number eventually became an albatross, requested at every performance, then it became a throwaway two-and-a-half obligation fulfilled without much enthusiasm. There are a couple of recorded versions that illustrate Nina at her most mundane, which, of course, is far above most singers at their best, but nonetheless it is not prime time Nina. 


And then miraculously she found new ways to revive the hoary chestnut by taking a jazz approach, by weaving into the song thematic ribbons from other Porgy and Bess songs, and suddenly Porgy sounds like a new love.

Earlier I mentioned opera, well, one thing Nina brought was training in classical music. Early in her career she obviously mixed into classical music. Later on, she used her training to play her piano like it was a spaceship and she was casually stepping out on a Sunday stroll through the universe.

People often overlook her piano playing, which was far more than mere accompaniment. She was an expert pianist who could easily hold her own as an instrumentalist, and that ability enabled her to paint masterful tone portraits, which, when combined with her vocal wizardry, created a galactic rush that both exhilarated and exhausted her listeners.

But you have ears—here are two versions: the first from an Ed Sullivan appearance very early in her career, the second from a concert during the period when she was deep into social relevance.



Investing love with political significance is a whole other approach she brought to Porgy. The way she sang it inveighed against the slings and sorrows that the system slung at us black folk, even as she was rejoicing in the particulars of an individual one-on-one relationship.


Hear how she cajoles the audience; as she is launching this intimate number, she semi-sarcastically notes that the musicians are making more noise than the audience, almost as if she was salaciously whispering into her lover’s ear, "I ain’t hearing you screaming, what’s the matter, baby, ain’t you feeling it?!!?"

So then, this is “I Loves You Porgy” at the highest level, at the level that leaves most men wishing their name was Porgy and most women craving a someone to lay all their loving on. This is why we listen to Nina Simone.

Rest in Peace, Miss Simone!

The soul of Nina Simone was released by RCA records in 2005. The album is available at all leading and independent record stores.


Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


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