I have mentioned somewhere before in the vaults of A Story To Tell that, for me, it takes some getting over the power and expression of Aretha Franklin’s voice. She is probably my favourite female singer, and I could never tire of hearing her belt out soul classics old and new, but then I’m sure that many people would say the same. However, even Aretha cannot hold a torch in some respects to another female vocal giant from the soul, jazz and r’n'b canon, and someone whose depth and variety of work, and musicianship sometimes just astounds me. I am talking, of course, about Nina Simone and as with many subjects discussed through this blog, it is easy to forget just how incredible her output was. I was prompted to dig out some of her work after hearing what is one of my favourite recordings of all time on a recent film I watched. The film is irrelevant, but the tune is far from it, her outstanding 1969 cover of the Bee Gee’s “To Love Somebody” taken from the RCA LP recording of the same name.
Clocking in at a swift 2:42, this record is, in my humble opinion as close to perfect as it gets, and the album that spawned it is no less remarkable. As with a lot of music it is impossible to say why I love it so much. Is it the rumbling gospel tinged drum and piano intro? Is it the uplifting yet plaintive confusion of the love declarations within? Is it that the original tome of the song is melancholy and brooding, while Simone makes it appear so life affirming? The utter magic when the chorus kicks in for the first time at 51 seconds after two verses of teasing brilliance? Probably all of these things, and what is clear is that the Gibb brothers certainly knew how to pen a good song, and my God did Nina Simone know how to arrange and sing one. There are a number of interesting things about this song and album that deserve remark. It was Simone’s second big UK hit, following swiftly on from 1968′s “Ain’t Got No-I Got Life” off the equally stunning “Nuff Said” album, itself a surprise hit and recorded almost completely live at the Westbury Music Fair three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968.
So a pretty charged affair all in all and worth digging out if you are unfamiliar. But what is most significant about “To Love Somebody” as an album is its marking of the beginning of a great period of fusion for jazz music. It features all covers, including a selection of songs by The Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and as she sang herself, clearly shows that the times they were a-changing. The feeling across the album is of spiritual and social revolution and rejuvenation, and equally of musical change. Simone, a classical and traditional jazz virtuoso, is taking steps into the rock and pop world, underpinned with a blues and soul sensibility, and the affects are quite stunning, and in their own way incredibly important in paving the way for jazz’s increased popularity and diversity in the 1970s.
If you have not really listened to Simone’s late-1960s/early-1970s work outside of the jazz then this is a perfect opportunity. The afore-mentioned “Nuff Said” is brilliant, as is 1970′s live recording “Black Gold” and my other absolute favourite cover album “Here Comes The Sun” from 1971. Nina Simone has a life that truly fascinates for so many reasons, and is a subject that we can return to again and again. But for now, sit back and revel in the splendour of a musical great. Seriously, you really don’t know what it is like until you have tried it.