Nina Simone, Baltimore: Still Speechless

Some artists you can’t figure out. These artists are often the ones I skip over when I’m choosing someone to write about. If I can’t emotionally get my mind and heart wrapped around their music and voice, how could I put words to it?

One of these artists is Nina Simone. Her voice is as sharp as a razor blade, as extravagant as a fur coat, yet as innocent and simple as a little girl. It penetrates your being and goes straight for the soul. Listening to her can be a spiritual experience.

From my personal collection

I have many of Simone’s albums and with each album, I find a new gem. Sometimes it could just be the way she stylizes a song differently, other’s it’s her own compositions. On one of my recent vinyl hauls, I found her 1978 album, Baltimore.

This album immediately took me by surprise. Nina Simone was singing reggae? I wasn’t complaining. I liked it. Songs like the title track “Baltimore” and her cover of Hall and Oates “Rich Girl” really show a different tone to her voice. It is different than every one of her previous studio albums and I think it was innovative.

Although, this change was not welcomed by Simone. We all know Simone was a complex lady, but I truly believe she had a beautiful soul. In 1977 famed jazz producer, Creed Taylor, signed Simone to his label CTI. Simone was not one to do what she didn’t want to, yet her comment’s made about this album proves she did just that. The sessions were tense and she eventually recorded the album’s vocals in an hour and a half.

Yet, a master piece was still born.

First, I was immediately hooked to the second song “Everything Must Change.” Simone’s vocals glide over the words of this song like second nature. At this point in her life, both personally and professionally, she had experienced change, while also not experiencing enough change. On this recording, Simone’s melancholy vocals continue to take on different shapes to each listener’s situation years later.

Then there is Simone’s second ballad of the album, “My Father.” The song’s lyrics make a complete circle, but Simone’s vocals fill in all the space between the words. It’s brilliance.

From last.fm

On side B I found Simone’s “melody” of traditional Christian songs intriguing. Through my experience with Simone, she doesn’t often give a higher power credit, but in “Balm of Gilead” and “If You Pray Right,” she does just that. Her voice sounds completely content and joyful in “Balm of Gilead,” which is taken straight from the Holy Bible. “If You Pray Right” takes on a complete gospel spin that really isn’t Simone, but it’s a vocal style that many African-American singers get type cast into. She is the High Priestess of Soul though, so she can preach like no other! It’s nice to hear Simone in these less heavy songs as she brings a new identity to both of them.

When I first heard the album I thought it was an interesting avenue Simone traveled down musically. Then I did the research and found that she was in essence, disgusted with the album, but the listener can’t hear that. She gives 110% to a project she distastes. Why?

Nina Simone both, self-perceived and in reality, lived on the back burner. People knew she was always going to give her all and they took advantage of that. Even this could not mask her genius interpretation of emotion.

I’m just going to have to end here because I simply can’t think of anything else to say. Again, Nina Simone has left me speechless.

Back in My Mind Again

We all have those “go-to” artists. I have many of them including Judy Garland, Jack Jones,  and Loretta Lynn. My “go-to” artists are the those I am most familiar with, but the other night I listened to one and it struck a different chord with me.

I’m a sucker for every Supremes album I have ever heard and they are one of my top Supremesfavorites. I prefer “The Supremes,” over “Diana Ross and The Supremes.” Their earlier work, with the late Florence Ballard, possess something much different then their later work (don’t get me wrong though, I love Cindy Birdsong).

Although Ross is the lead in both groups, there is just a sense of sincerity, honesty, and unity in their earlier works. When they took Florence out it wasn’t the same.

Last Friday, June 12th, was the 50th anniversary of “Back in My Arms Again” going number one. I did not realize this was one of their number ones, and it was actually their 5th consecutive number one single. I immediately called my mother and asked her if she remembered this song. I then reminded her how old she is.

That evening I listened to the album that features “Back in My Arms Again,” More Hits By The Supremes. This album contains many of my absolute favorite Supremes’ songs including “Nothing But Heartaches,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and the lesser known “The Only Time I’m Happy.”

51bl0wd2zPL._SY300_The back liner notes are littered with pictures of the Supremes and their world reign as the top female group. As I listened and reflected on their career I am just astonished at what these three young ladies from Detroit were able to achieve through music. They are a cultural staple. Their beauty has out lasted decades and their impact on pop culture is profound.

Many credit the Supremes, and Motown, as making African-American performers acceptable in mainstream pop. The Supremes are at the head of this break through. They, along with artists like Mary Wells, Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, were able to rise to fame during America’s difficult Civil Rights Movement. Although they were African-American in segregated America, they still had number one hits and rivaled Beatles fame.

This speaks to the power of music. It doesn’t matter your race, gender, orientation or background, for music transcends all of that. It penetrates straight to your emotions and soul. Due to this phenomenon sometimes history is made and that is exactly what happened with The Supremes. We were taught through their music that music has no tolerance for racism and social immoralities.

It also makes one realize it is never just music. Music, no matter what format, is essential to our history as human beings and a country. It ignites emotions and endorphins that nothing else can. Sometimes it even brings out the best in people and helps correct a long time wrong.

I guess you could say music has a supreme impact.

 

Harry Belafonte, Belafonte Sings The Blues

Music takes you places.

I recently found myself in the back of a small blues bar. The kind that has those red velvet
seats and old wooden tables. Each setting possessed a marble ashtray and I was using it. I ordered a glass of scotch and it was on it’s way. I was by myself, not necessarily in a down mood, but in the mood for a journey, something different. I was just ready to be somewhere else.

Then the record needle picked up and I realized it was just a vinyl fantasy.

This is where Harry Belafonte took me with his 1958 release “Belafonte Sings The Blues.” I had listened to some of Belafonte’s earlier materiel, including his calypso recordings, but this has to be one of my favorites in his catalog.

One must understand that the essence of the blues is communicating your emotions not only through words, but tone and assertion.  Each song on this album takes on a different mood, whether it be vulnerability, anger, contentment, or happiness. I could write all day on the nature of blues and jazz music, but one thing is for certain, Belafonte has it down pat.

Belafonte_sings_the_bluesHe opens the album with Ray Charles’ “A Fool for You.” This song serves as a prelude for what is to come, especially when Belafonte declares “that you can cry so loud you give the blues to your neighbor next door.” His listeners are his neighbors and I’m not looking for a place to move.

Belafonte then goes into “Losing Hand” explaining how he gambled on love, but was done wrong by the lady. At this point I had taken my cigarette to the roulette table. The next song, “Hallelujah I love Her So,” tells of the happiness he feels in a relationship. Although It moved me a little more to the bright side, let’s just say one can acquire new chips, but they don’t always last long.

I had a brief intermission (record flip) and I was then thinking about my past. “Cotton Fields” were a reality for far too many families during this recording and the years before it. He explained the struggle while also dealing with segregation. I find it interesting how Belafonte later led many civil rights causes and was a good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. This song expresses the strife he was fighting against.

The true gem of this record is the Billie Holliday penned, “God Bless The Child.” By Harry-Belafonte-with-guitarthis time he was just Harry and we were sitting at the table just partying in a slightly drunken pity. We just can’t rely on anybody. We realized the best way to be is to “have his own.” He sings this as if he is having a conversation with you. Through his interpretation, the words opened a new meaning through a perceived back and forth dialogue. This has to be one of the best rendition of this song ever, rivaling Miss Lady Day.

By the time I got home that night, I reeked of smoke. Yet through all the haze, clarity seemed to seep through, giving me a relaxed feeling for the time being. It’s going to be tough. I will be singing the blues again, but I now have a sense of satisfaction that life is going to be ok.

That’s what the blues does for you. Through its depression it brings hope. Belafonte’s record is one that can truly take you through that journey.

Diana Ross, “Diana Ross:” Big Hair, Kinda Cared

In the year of 1970 the musical world was going through major adjustments. Civil rights had finally made its way through and black artists were being recognized in the mainstream music scene. Labels, such as Motown, made this push possible.

The Supremes in 1965. Left to right: Florence ...

The Supremes in 1965. Left to right: Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Supremes had emerged as one of the top African American mainstream acts. They had pursued tremendous success with   unforgettable, chart toping tunes including “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Baby Love.” As one of their last albums was titled, they were the cream of the crop.

By 1970 it was time for a change and that included The Supremes lineup. Diana Ross had emerged a star and Motown owner and founder, Berry Gordy, saw this. Many accredit this to their once love affair, but her continued and proven success over the last forty years proves that Miss Ross had superstar chops. It was time for Diana to be placed outside of her comfort zone and become a solo act.

How liberating. How frightening.

Diana Ross proceeded to record an album, with some familiar tracks, on her own. She worked with famed producers and artists Ashford and Simpson and she confidently recorded her first solo album.

This album produced two of Ross’ signature hits, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” but there is much more to this album. I listened to this album years ago while cleaning my house thinking nothing of the other songs. They only served as background noise. Once I actually sat down and listened to this album I realized I was extremely wrong.

Ross's first solo LP, Diana Ross, featured her...

Ross’s first solo LP, Diana Ross, featured her first solo number-one hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This album is jam packed with amazing songs. First, there is “Keep An Eye.” Ross had recorded this song before with The Supremes on the “Love Child” album, but there is a different feeling in her solo rendition. She hauntingly sings of how you should “keep an eye on your close friends” for a “friend is an enemy you can see.” The song goes on to explain how her friend stole her man, just because she loved him as much as she did. This proves fault on two sides and declares one victim. By the end of the song Ross explains how there used to be three of them, but now there’s only two. She urges listeners to guess who’s missing. Could this have been a situation that she perceived during her Supremes tenure?

Another song that really sticks out is “I Wouldn’t Change the Man He Is.” The song starts out jazzy and continues into a big band frenzy. One can just imagine Ross upon a piano in one of her signature gowns singing this song. She explains how she’s got a “funny kind of man.” She goes on to say how he says he can get a long without her,  and that she might as well forget candy and roses. She then exclaims how she wouldn’t change the man he is, for he is responsible for her “sunny days” and “although he brings her tears, she still loves the man he is.”

Ross has often spoke and written about her relationship with Barry Gordy. She claims he was very controlling, yet she often knew he had her best interests in mind. Could this have been a song for Mr. Gordy?

These are just two tracks that typify the depth of this album. Some of Ross’ best vocals can be found on this record. One can feel the freedom in her singing style. She no longer had weights to hold her down, she now gained full responsibility for all her actions. This was Diana Ross, the beginning of a legend.

Today, Ross still tours with her plethora of hits that she acquired through her solo recordings. I have been privileged to have seen her 3 times in concert and she is still a force to be reckoned with. Her first album is the prelude to everything Ross would become, both emotionally and musically. She proved there ain’t no valley high or low to keep us from hearing her tunes.