Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Nina Simone brought the haves and have-nots together in 1968 when she released a medley of two songs from the musical Hair on her album ‘Nuff Said!. “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” weren’t paired up in the original stage show, but Simone makes the combination natural, necessary, and irresistible, celebrating the self over the superfluous.
Hair has managed to avoid being strictly a period piece – exuberance and good vibes are appreciated anywhere, anytime – and its songs have a lot to do with that. They’re strong, very catchy, and suit a wide range of artists. Even the two-minute ditty “Frank Mills” has been covered by artists from Liza Minnelli to the Lemonheads. The covers of “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life” differ in one important respect – they’re performed not in the light of the show, but in the imposing shadow of Simone.
Kellylee Evans – Ain’t Got No / I Got Life (Nina Simone cover)
Jazz vocalist Kellylee Evans wears Simone’s influence on her sleeve, and this cover comes from her 2010 album Nina, a collection of Simone-related songs. Like Simone, she incorporates several genres into one uncommon voice, somehow both soothing and energizing. Her cover of “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life” is a pleasure to listen to, making her rejoicing sound effortless.
Jim Guthrie – Ain’t Got No / I Got Life (Nina Simone cover)
Jim Guthrie’s 2003 album Now, More than Ever is one of those albums that becomes famous for being underappreciated despite its high quality. When albums achieve this paradox, they often get rereleased with additional tracks (viz. Underwater Moonlight by the Soft Boys, now on its third incarnation), as happened with Now, More Than Ever. The 2010 rerelease included a cover of “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life” that brings an indie-bedroom ethic to the song, a lonely insistence that he does in fact matter in this world.
Le Volume Courbe – Ain’t Got No / I Got Life (Nina Simone cover)
In an interview, Charlotte Marionneau – born in France, based in London, blooming in Le Volume Courbe – claimed it took her two years to get up the gumption to sing her version of “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life,” intimidated as she was at following in Simone’s footsteps. “Eventually,” she concluded, “I just thought, well, I just have to try to make it mine.” That she does. Sounding as if she’s sliding around the corner of an alley wall, she has the air of someone who’s not haunted so much as aware that something negative is out there waiting to prey upon her. The album this is on? It’s called I Killed My Best Friend. A perfect song for jogging after midnight in a foggy graveyard.
Starburkes & the Tea Leaf – Ain’t Got No / I Got Life (Nina Simone cover)
This comes from Acoustic Coffee House on Big Eye Music, a label that specializes in somewhat faceless tribute albums and background music. There’s precious little to be found about this artist, and if this song were to be piped over actual coffeehouse loudspeakers, it could easily passed unnoticed, which is a shame, as there’s talent in the singing and playing that makes the song stand out from its bland surroundings. Her cover may not be transcendent, but it would have a lot of shy sensitive males flocking to stand kind of near her after her coffeehouse set is done.
Patrice – Ain’t Got No / I Got Life (Nina Simone cover)
Now this is how you do an acoustic cover. Patrice Bart-Williams is an Afro-German with a reggae-centric sound; his 2010 studio album One includes a fuller version of “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life,” complete with Nina Simone samples, but in this dialed-down take he sounds like he’s speaking for nobody but himself, and the song’s all the stronger for that.