One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.
Today’s One Great Cover post is a guest post written by Graley Herren, and is excerpted from his post “Just Like Nina Simone’s Blues” on his Substack Shadow Chasing with his permission. We’re grateful for the opportunity to present it here.
When Bob Dylan was named the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year, he delivered a thoughtful acceptance speech in which he reflected upon his musical inspirations, including “The High Priestess of Soul”:
Nina Simone. I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub. She was an artist I definitely looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she learned directly from me, sitting in a dressing room. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player, and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken, and dynamite to see perform. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about. Nina was the kind of artist I loved and admired.
The admiration was mutual, though it was tempered by Simone’s acute awareness of Dylan’s comparatively privileged access to the star-making machinery of American pop culture. In a 1966 interview, Simone lamented,
I have no faith that the greatest talent in this country will get any recognition while they’re alive. Perhaps Bob Dylan, but me, and Billie [Holiday] before me, and [John] Coltrane—in the jazz circles, yes, but not the general public. I don’t believe that the talent that would be considered artistic in this country is going to get any recognition, and that includes me.
Simone numbered Dylan among “the greatest talent in this country,” but her main point was to decry the biased inequity with which respect for such talent was granted or denied.
That said, Simone paid Dylan the highest compliment one musician can give another by performing several of his songs, and doing so with profound sensitivity. Late in life, her esteem for Dylan was unequivocal. In Princess Noire, biographer Nadine Cohodas points out that Simone kept a picture of Dylan on the wall of her French home in Bouc-Bel-Air, hanging next to a photo of Little Richard. Her friend Precious Williams visited there in 1999, and as she was leaving Simone told her, “Please tell my public that there aren’t many of us geniuses still living. Hardly any of us left at all. It’s down to Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Frank Sinatra, except Frank’s already dead.”
Simone and Dylan’s musical paths intersected most directly when she covered five of his songs during a five-year span: “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” on Let It All Out (1966); “I Shall Be Released,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on To Love Somebody (1969); and “Just Like a Woman” on Here Comes the Sun (1971). All of these performances are noteworthy, but for this post I want to focus on “Just Like a Woman” as a comparative case study in the artistry of Simone and Dylan.