TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In April, the late singer, songwriter and pianist Nina Simone will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In anticipation, two compilations of Simone's early singles have been released. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the music and editing show how her early producers sought to shape her image.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAIN GOLD RING")
NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Plain gold ring on his finger he wore. It was where everyone could see. He belonged to someone but not me. On his hand was a plain gold band. Plain gold ring had a story to tell. It was one that I knew too well. In my heart, it will never be spring.
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Nina Simone, 1957. She once said, I play jazz and blues, but they are not mine, calling her style African-rooted classical music. Playing to her several strengths, Simone tailored an individual style that didn't fall into any one category. But two new singles collections show how her early producers placed her in one box after another. As a young classically trained pianist, she played in bars to pay the bills and started singing because that was expected. And then as a black woman who sang and played in nightclubs, she got pegged as a jazz musician.
So her first album was for swinging trio with Tootie Heath on drums. As pianist, she could work a rhythm groove, and she incorporated her classical chops with grace and whit.
(SOUNDBITE OF NINA SIMONE SONG, "LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME")
WHITEHEAD: Simone's first label Bethlehem had a hit with her "I Love You Porgy" and would release her entire debut album, "Little Girl Blue," as a series of singles. The longer tracks were bluntly edited to radio length. So while archival reissues often contain extra material, Nina Simone's "Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles" actually contains less music from her first session. The full version of "Mood Indigo," for example, begins with a trio romp that artfully sets up her vocal. The single just starts with the vocal. Those edits carve away improvise content to spotlight Simone the singer. At 24, she had power and knew how to frame it. You can hear Joni Mitchell coming in her long low notes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE GIRL BLUE")
SIMONE: (Singing) Sit there, count the rain drops falling on you. It's time you knew all you can ever count on are the rain drops that fall on little girl blue.
WHITEHEAD: Nina Simone quickly moved onto a bigger label. Her other new compilation "The Colpix Singles" was recorded between 1959 and '63. Trawling for any approach that might click with record buyers, "Colpix's" A and B sides found her in all sorts of settings, with suite studio orchestra or punching big band, with choirs and strings or spare percussion, with a rock 'n' roll feel or on stage with her band. She even did an answer song to a Ray Charles hit. On a woodwinds-laced "Willow Weep For Me," the young Nina betrays a debt to Billie Holiday.
Listen to the little flip she gives the word lovely.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLOW WEEP FOR ME")
SIMONE: (Singing) Gone my lover's dream, lovely summer dream. Gone and left me here to weep my tears into the stream. Sad as I can be, hear me willow and weep for me. Whisper...
WHITEHEAD: Nina Simone's "Colpix Singles" might reflect her own perceptions of a changing audience. Some clubs she worked booked jazz and folk acts and she was drawing listeners from both camps. The singles added a one performance from the Newport Jazz Festival coming in on Al Schackman strumming guitar pitched Nina as a folk song revivalist. The song's from 1879.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE EVENING BY THE MOONLIGHT")
SIMONE: (Singing) In the evening by the moonlight, you could hear the banjos ringing. You can hear them by the moonlight. You could hear my folks all singing. How my mother, she would enjoy it. She would sit all night and listen as we sang in the evening by the moonlight. Oh, yeah, in the evening by the moonlight, you could hear folks all singing. In the evening...
WHITEHEAD: "In The Evening By The Moonlight" touches on another key to Nina Simone's mature music, the gospel feel and fervor she absorbed as a child pianist in her mom's country church. Simone really came into her own after leaving Colpix in 1964. Soon after, she recorded her sardonic civil rights anthem "Mississippi Goddam," taking possession of her image. Simone earned her spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She supplied the animals with a couple of hits, but she was no more a regulation rocker than she was a straight jazz, classical, gospel or folk musician. Nina Simone stood a little aside from all of that, a singular artist with something for everyone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME ON BACK, JACK")
SIMONE: (Singing) Come on back, Jack. Hey, Jack, come on. Come on back. When I told you I was through and I told you to move on, I didn't know I'd miss you so. But, baby, I was wrong. Those nights without your love...
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed two compilations of Nina Simone's early singles on Bethlehem and Colpix. Simone will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Sarah McBride, the first transgender person to address a major political convention. It was on the night Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination for president. McBride served as an intern in the Obama White House and is now spokesperson for the LGBTQ rights group the Human Rights Campaign. Her new memoir is about love, loss and the fight for trans equality. She fell in love with and married a trans man who was also an activist, but she lost him to cancer.
I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.