In 1951, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music, an event that instantly put an end to her ambition of becoming the first female black concert pianist in the US. A lesser artist would have given up and taken up typing instead. But Waymon was cut from a different cloth to most. Rather than admit defeat, she changed her name to Nina Simone and began playing at every bar that would have her. She quickly built up a fanbase, leading to a record contract and a debut album, Little Girl Blue. Over the next five decades, Simone released 19 studio albums, influencing and inspiring millions with her distinctive scowling vocals and unparalleled musicianship. Here’s our pick of the 10 best Nina Simone songs of all time.
10. I Ain’t Got No / I’ve Got Life
The album ‘Nuff Said was recorded at the Westbury Music Fair just three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The program was dedicated to his memory, and the album captures the shock and the raw emotion that followed his death. On the face of it, I Ain’t Got No / I’ve Got Life, a medley of two songs (Ain’t Got No and I Got Life) from the musical Hair, is a sunny, joyous anthem for the hippie movement…. and as such, a puzzling addition to such a somber album. But in Simone’s hands, the song transforms from a personal call for freedom into a universal one, becoming an anthem for change and one of the most uplifting civil rights songs ever recorded.
9. Four Women
As The Guardian writes, Simone’s interpretations of existing songs were so emphatic that other artists would often thieve her version rather than the original performer’s. However, very, very few artists would have the courage to risk covering her own composition, Four Women, so completely does she make it her own. There’s no chorus and the structure is unconventional, but its raw, unproduced simplicity is spine-tingling.
8. Feeling Good
Feeling Good was written for the musical “The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd” in 1964. In the years since, it’s been covered by dozens of artists, including John Legend, Sammy Davis Jr., Traffic, Michael Bublé, John Coltrane, George Michael, Victory, Eels, Joe Bonamassa, Eden, Muse, Black Cat Bones, Bassnectar, Sophie B. Hawkins, Leslie West, Avicii, and Lauryn Hill, to name just a few. But no matter how successful some of those versions have been, none have lived up to Simone’s. Originally included on the 1965 album I Put a Spell on You, it finally got released as a single in 1994, reaching No. 40 on the UK Singles Chart.
7. I Put a Spell On You
I Put a Spell On You was originally recorded by Screamin’ Jay in 1956. Almost a decade later, Simone came along and put her own stamp on it. Hers was a more polished, refined version than Screamin’ Jay’s rowdy original, with a swirling bass and a coating of jazz sheen. Cutting through the fluid, melodious arrangements is Simone’s vocals, as spellbinding and effortless as ever.
6. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood has been covered numerous times over the years. Many of those covers, including those by The Animals and Joe Cocker, have been excellent. But Simone’s searingly heartfelt interpretation leaves them all coughing on its dust. Redemption might be out of reach for the song’s narrator, but the song was saved the moment Simone sang the first note.
No one’s quite sure about Sinnerman’s origins. Some claim it started as an African-American spiritual, others say it was a Scottish folk song before anything else. Regardless of how it began life, it found its ultimate expression on Simone’s 1965 album Pastel Blues. It’s since been sampled by Kanye West on Get By, Timbaland on Oh Timbaland, Hozier on Nina Cried Power, and Celeste on Stop This Flame.
It takes skill (and quite a lot of guts) to take on a Leonard Cohen song, especially one as enduringly beloved as Suzanne. In 1969, Simone didn’t just cover the song, she made it her own, restructuring the melody around ascending piano chords to lend each line an almost unbearable urgency. The result, as ew.com says, is a total tear-down on Cohen’s touchstone.
3. My Baby Just Cares For Me
My Baby Just Cares For Me was originally written by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn for the 1930 film version of the hit musical “Whoopee!” It was first recorded by Eddie Cantour, who turned it into his signature song. Three decades later, Simone came along and stole Cantour’s thunder with her own blistering take. First released on her debut album, Little Girl Blue, it got completely overshadowed by the runaway success of I Love Porgy. Several decades later, it finally got the attention it deserved when it was included in a perfume commercial in the late 1980s. It awoke the interest of a new generation of fans, becoming a regular part of Simone’s live shows until her retirement.
2. Mississippi Goddam
As Farout Magazine notes, Mississippi Goddam marks Simone’s direct involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. Composed by Simone in tribute to civil rights activist Medgar Evans, who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963, its release the following year captured the tide of emotion that followed both Evans’ death and those of the four children killed during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. It took her just an hour to write, but its legacy as one of the very first civil rights songs ever recorded lives on to this day.
1. I Loves You, Porgy
Simone recorded I Loves You Porgy on the suggestion of a friend, who’d heard Billie Holiday’s version and thought it would be a good addition to Simone’s debut album, Little Girl Blue. The song began picking up airplay almost immediately, launching Simone into the Top 20 in 1959. Predictably, comparisons with Billie Holiday were made – comparisons that, understandably enough, didn’t go down well with Simone. “I didn’t like to be put in a box with other jazz singers because my musicianship was totally different, and in its own way superior,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It was a racist thing: ‘If she’s black she must be a jazz singer.’ It diminished me.” I Loves You, Porgy, on the other hand, is a song that can’t be diminished, as beautiful today as it was over 60 years ago.