I tend to be a bit skeptical about albums titled [Insert Artist Name] Sings The Blues, especially when the titular artist is not really known for singing the blues in the first place; more often than not, I find such albums to be curios and interesting experiments in marketing, rather than successful musical or artistic statements. There are exceptions, of course, and although Nina Simone is not often labeled as a ‘blues singer’, the blues has always been an important component of her music, whether it’s apparent or more understated. Nina Simone Sings The Blues, her first release on the RCA Victor label, was released in 1967, shortly after the blues revival influenced by the British Invasion and before the late-60s blues-rock boom.
From the first line of the opening track, “Do I Move You?”, it’s obvious that this record was not made for commercial reasons. This is raw blues, sounding more like some of Chess’s grittier sides of the ‘60s than the smoother blues of B.B. King and Little Milton; the arrangements are relatively sparse, allowing lots of room for Simone’s singing and piano and the playing of the small ensemble (two guitars, bass, drums, harmonica/sax) behind her. It definitely sounds like the entire band was playing in the room with Simone as they laid down the tracks. The album contains a mix of up-tempo blues and R&B tunes and slower ballads, which makes for a balanced and enjoyable program of music. Interestingly, although she covers some standards, Simone also adds some self-written blues tunes to the mix, which shows that she is not only an effective interpreter of other blues works but a skilled writer of her own blues songs too.
On the up-tempo side, “Day and Night” is a fun song, with Simone’s double-tracked harmonizing vocals singing over a jaunty soul-blues riff. Her rendition of the classic “House of the Rising Sun” has a gospel flavor to it, with some haunting minor chords cleverly hidden in the arrangement. Similarly, on the slower side, songs like “My Man’s Gone Now”, “Since I Fell For You”, and “Blues For Mama” have a haunting quality, mixing Simone’s plaintive and almost androgynous-sounding vocals with dark piano chords; they really are distinctive as her own unique interpretations of these songs. “Backlash Blues” is also notable for its poignant lyrics (written by Langston Hughes), which are about the then-current Civil Rights Movement. “In the Dark” also has an addictive smoky after-hours club feel.
My only gripe about Nina Simone Sings The Blues is that some of the songs are just too short; just as they seem to be getting going and finding their groove, they’re finished! Still, in the pre-CD/mp3 era, the time constraints were common to a lot of singles and albums, and it doesn’t detract from the experience of listening to the album…it just makes you want to repeat the album all over again from the start. If records titled [Insert Name] Sings The Blues make you skeptical too, don’t be fooled by this title…Nina Simone Sings The Blues is the real deal.