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.