Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” had a storied career, producing over 40 albums throughout her life. She gained popularity with her original music as well as through reinventions of standards (including a Hall and Oates tune later in her career). She was formally trained on the piano from a young age, and although she never reached her dream of being the first African-American classical pianist, she did become the first African-American woman to play piano at Carnegie Hall (even if she wasn’t playing classical tunes). Simone went to Julliard, but she was denied entrance to the Curtis Institute of Music, which she suspected was due to her race. She had the last laugh, though; a couple of days before she died, she was awarded an honorary degree by this institute.
Simone was active in the civil rights movement (she even performed at the Selma march), and she wasn’t afraid to speak (or sing) her mind despite how this affected her career. She was more in the Malcolm X school of thought (and was his literal neighbor) than in Martin Luther King Jr.’s, but King’s death still affected her and led to a tribute song.
Simone’s accolades are many. She has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame, and her legacy lives on. Her songs remain in the public ear, including being sampled in modern hip-hop and rap songs by Kanye West, Jay-Z, Timbaland, and Lil’ Wayne, among others.
To coincide with the release of the original Netflix documentary about her life, What Happened, Miss Simone?, in 2015 this tribute album was released with liner notes by Angela Davis. Let’s listen to some reinterpretations of some of her most iconic songs.
Mary J. Blige – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (Nina Simone cover)
Mary J. Blige inducted Simone into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was originally cast to play Simone in a biopic. For her contribution to this album, she takes on a Simone original from her Broadway-Blues-Ballads album that has been covered prominently, like by The Animals and Elvis Costello. (FYI, “House of the Rising Sun” was also performed by Simone prior to The Animals’ version, but the song’s origins go even further back, to an old folk song.) The original starts with a music box background and Simone’s deep voice culminating in the plea that titles the song. Blige’s version has more R&B styling, and her delivery is a little less forceful. However, the focus of the song remains on the vocals, matching the original emphasis.
Common and Lalah Hathaway – We Are Young Gifted & Black (Nina Simone cover)
This song was written for Simone’s friend Lorraine Hansberry, famous for her play A Raisin in the Sun, who died at a young age from cancer and left an unfinished play of the same name. The song was included on her album Black Gold, which lost the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance to Aretha Franklin. This was ironic, as Franklin later covered this song for her own album Young, Gifted, and Black and won the same Grammy award yet again for the album.
This song was considered a civil rights anthem at the time. In this reinterpretation, the activism remains in the added rap portion. “Mississippi goddam, Ferguson goddam, Staten Island goddam, Baltimore goddam, America damn” pretty much says it all. This line references “Mississippi Goddam” (which I would have loved to hear “revisited” on this album, but alas), which was Simone’s response to Medgar Evers’s murder and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
Alice Smith – I Put A Spell on You (Nina Simone cover)
This song was originally by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and was dubbed one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Many have covered it, but Simone was one of the first to do so. Alice Smith might be a little more under the radar than some of the other contributors on this album (although Prince covered her!), but this interpretation of “I Put A Spell on You” really stands out. It is haunting and sparse, capturing the pain in lines like “and I don’t care if you don’t want me, I’m yours right now.”
Lisa Simone – I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl (Nina Simone cover)
Simone’s daughter has her own musical career, most famously on Broadway, and has her own tribute album to her mother, Simone on Simone. She added yet another tribute to her mother by covering this song, based on a Bessie Smith song but with different lyrics. In the original, Simone is accompanied by simple piano, soft high hat, and a saxophone soloist. This version has many of the same elements, but it has a little extra percussion and a bass guitar soloist replacing the sax. Lisa Simone’s voice is smooth and sultry, emphasizing the lyrics dripping with innuendo.
Lauryn Hill – Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair (Nina Simone cover)
I couldn’t end this post without talking about at least one of the six songs on this tribute album that are by Lauryn Hill. In a review of the album, NPR writer Salamishah Tillet notes that this album marks her “most comprehensive set of studio recordings since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998.” This song was actually an old folk song with origin stories in the US Appalachia region and Scotland. Simone made the song more mainstream. Hill’s version is much less muted than the original, but her deep voice matches the power of Simone’s. There is a lot going on in the production; it adds a slightly mystical ambiance, but fortunately it never overshadows Hill.
Nina Revisited Track List:
- My Mama Could Sing (Lisa Simone)
- Feeling Good (Ms. Lauryn Hill)
- I’ve Got Life (Ms. Lauryn Hill)
- Ne Me Quitte Pas (Ms. Lauryn Hill)
- Baltimore (Jazmine Sullivan)
- Love Me or Leave Me (SAYGRACE)
- My Baby Just Cares For Me (Usher)
- Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (Mary J. Blige)
- Sinnerman (Gregory Porter)
- We Are Young Gifted & Black (Common, Lalah Hathaway)
- I Put A Spell on You (Alice Smith)
- I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl (Lisa Simone)
- Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair (Ms. Lauryn Hill)
- Wild Is The Wind (Ms. Lauryn Hill)
- African Mailman (Instrumental) (Ms. Lauryn Hill)
- I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (Nina Simone)