Nina Simone is having a moment, with last year’s Liz Garbus documentary What Happened Miss Simone? to be followed by a Hollywood biopic entitled Nina, starring Zoe Saldana.
That film has generated controversy over the casting of the pale and statuesque Star Trek actress as a musician whom, her family have pointed out, was discriminated through her life because of her dark skin (Garbus has meanwhile dismissed Nina as “ugly and inaccurate”). Thirteen years after her death, Simone, goes the argument, is still a victim of institutional prejudice.
None of this has anything to do with The Philips Years, which brings together in remastered form the seven discs Simone released at the height of her career.
But it does point to her ongoing relevance as an African-American pushing against racial strictures — in addition to testifying to the intoxicating spell that her music, by turns stormy and gossamer-light, continues to cast.
Delving into the collection what is most striking is the breadth of her catalogue, which transcends the dinner party blues of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ and ‘Feeling Good’ (both feature on 1965 album I Put A Spell On You).
There are too many stand-outs to list in detail; highlights include her cover of Irving Berlin’s ‘This Year’s Kisses’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ from 1966’s Let It All Out; while ‘Wild Is The Wind’, later covered by David Bowie on Station to Station, is devastating in its searing beauty.
Whether a relative newcomer to Simone or a fan eager to dive deeper, this is a rare box set worth having for more than novelty value or because it looks good on the shelf. The raw, force-of-nature quality of Simone’s talent is consistently stunning.
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