Rabbit Holes #9: Nina Simone on Colpix

Seventy years ago this summer, a young pianist from Tryon, North Carolina—a town of fewer than 2000 residents—made her professional debut in Atlantic City. This was not the culmination of a dream but rather an economic choice born of the racial circumstances of the era. It was a letdown.

The venue was the Midtown Bar. If they'd known what she was doing, her parents would have objected and her musical peers would have sneered, so Eunice Waymon performed under a pseudonym: Nina Simone. Adding to the indignity for this classically trained pianist, playing wasn't enough; she was also expected to sing.

Simone would continue in Atlantic City for almost two years, then do similar work in Philadelphia, where her family had relocated in 1951 in expectation of her being accepted into the prestigious Curtis School of Music. (She wasn't.) Eventually, this work would pay off in the form of a debut album, Little Girl Blue, for Bethlehem Records, recorded in 1957. But even this would be a disappointment, as the label had financial problems and the release would not come until 1959 and then be under-promoted. The album's "I Loves You Porgy" would become Bethlehem's biggest hit. But before the album came out, Simone had signed a contract with a different label, Colpix.

Soul Music Records has just released Blackbird – The Colpix Recordings, the first comprehensive reissue of the music Simone made for the label between Aprils 1959 and 1963. Some of this music has been released before—often in sketchy, unauthorized form—but here are the eight complete albums filled out with singles and radio edits. (Left off the set are two compilation albums Colpix put out after Simone decamped to Philips, including one in which strings were added after the fact to what had been a small-group session.) The 107-track, 8-CD set was remastered by the esteemed Nick Robbins. The package includes essays from Simone's archivist, the librettist of the opera Nina Simone's Absurde, and the founder of the UK Appreciation Society for Nina Simone.

If Colpix is unfamiliar to you, don't feel bad. The label existed for less than a decade, from 1958 through 1966. Oddly, it was a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures; much of its catalog was film and TV soundtracks. Otherwise, its releases were random pop and proto-rock acts, novelty dates with the voice actors for Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound, comedy recordings, and occasional one-off jazz sessions: Art Blakey, Chris Barber, Randy Weston, Zoot Sims.

Simone, the label's signature artist, developed at a startling rate, from the revue-like quality of her debut, The Amazing Nina Simone, to holding an audience rapt at a concert that would yield two albums—Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall and Folksy Nina—with music including originals, movie-theme instrumentals, and folk music. In between came live albums from New York's Town Hall, The Village Gate, and the Newport Jazz Festival, and studio dates covering a huge range including a whole album of music composed or performed by Duke Ellington.

Auditioning this set as a whole provides a new appreciation of Simone as a pianist, particularly the numerous instrumental pieces; though she is now known as a singing pianist, or as a vocalist who played, she had the talent and touch for a successful concertizing career if circumstances had allowed. An unexpected bonus is hearing so much from guitarist Alvin Schackman, who appears on half the set and whose work with Simone predated her recording debut and continued through 2000.

The live sets capture her power better than the studio sessions do, but the latter are notable for the first appearance in her catalogue of Nat Adderley and Oscar Brown, Jr.'s "Work Song," on Forbidden Fruit, and the solo-piano-plus-vocal readings of "Hey, Buddy Bolden" and "Satin Doll" on the Ellington album.

On Town Hall, she mesmerizes with solo renditions of "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" and the original instrumentals "Under the Lowest" and "Return Home." Newport's highlights are Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," on which Simone sings only during the last two minutes, and the driving, percussion-heavy original "Flo Me La."

Nina at The Village Gate is the gem of the collection, the first glimpses of the power Simone could muster, particularly the material originally on side B: Oscar Brown, Jr.'s "Brown Baby," Babatunde Olatunji's "Zungo" (presumably brought to Simone by Schackman, who was concurrently working with the Nigerian percussionist), and the spirituals "If He Changed My Name" and "Children Go Where I Send You." The latter has Simone asking the crowd, "You ever been in a revival meeting? I bet you don't even know what I'm talking about. Well, you in one right now." For the Carnegie Hall show, her solo debut there following a shared 1961 date with Miriam Makeba, instrumentals like "Theme from Samson and Delilah" and "Theme from Sayonara" share space with a beautiful medley of "The Other Woman/Cotton Eyed Joe," two Jewish folk pieces, a gorgeous solo-piano-and-vocal "Lass of the Low Country," and a 10+-minute "Work Song" that must have rocked the normally staid hall.

Five months after that triumphant Carnegie Hall concert, four Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama, were murdered at church by Ku Klux Klan members. All the frustration and righteous anger Simone had experienced in her 30 years broke the dam. That tragedy and myriad other instances of racially motivated violence and oppression led her to write the song "Mississippi Goddam" (released as a single as "Mississippi *%??**&%), the closing track of In Concert on Philips, her first album after leaving Colpix and one of the songs for which she would be best known. Eunice Waymon found a new calling as Nina Simone, joining the lineage of Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln, lifting her voice not just to sing but in protest.

DaveinSM's picture

That is a nice picture of Ms Simone. So often musical genius is associated with a tortured, turbulent personal life, as it unfortunately was in her case.

Highly recommend watching the biopic “What happened, Miss Simone?” for not only some stunning concert footage, but also an insightful, compassionate look into her life story.

Hers was a fiery anger, but also a righteous one.

MBMax's picture

kind of release is why I still love the CD format in spite of its weaknesses.

Though I am only borderline interested in this particular box, at $40-$50 for the set out in the wilds, I just might pull the trigger. Assuming the sound quality is decent (is it?? No comment here unless I missed it...), with a great DAC I don't feel I am compromising as much going CD versus LP; especially assuming that this set on LP would be at least 2x, maybe 3x the price.

Rest in peace Miss Nina. You were a great one.