Nina Simone made her concert debut in the early ’40s, as a 10-year-old girl named Eunice Kathleen Waymon. It was a less racially enlightened time all over the country, but little Eunice lived in North Carolina, which meant that as the concert hall filled up with white folks, her parents were forced to move to the back. And what did our young heroine do? Motherfucker, she up and refused to play until they were given their seats back, and that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the spirit that moved — that moves — the music of Nina Simone.
Simone had the sort of recording career that usually befalls outspoken, hard-to-pigeonhole artists, which means she played at the commercial fringes most of the time, and passed through the rosters of a rather long list of labels (Mercury, RCA, CTI, and Elektra, just to list the bigger names). The artist and her music have been frequently misunderstood, although that has as much to do with Nina herself — how many artists can go from “My Baby Just Cares for Me” to “Mississippi Goddam” in a single lifetime and count on their audience to follow along? — as it does with fickle pop tastes. Because it’s so varied, and because the copyrights are so scattered, she’s never had a truly definitive compilation, but thanks to Sony’s Legacy imprint, that all changes here.
(I feel like this must be the dozenth time I’ve sung Legacy’s praises this year, but I swear to God, you guys, I’m not on their payroll; I’m just giving credit where it’s due. Sony’s reissue arm has come a long way since its days of embarrassing, half-assed product, and 2008 has been a banner year for the label.)
To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story fills up three CDs with recordings that span Simone’s career, from 1957 to 1993, and adds a bonus DVD featuring a 1970 documentary that the label curiously claims is both “never before seen” and “Emmy nominated.” I’m not sure how such a thing is possible, but if any artist could have done it, it’d be Nina Simone; her disregard for authority knew no bounds, enabling her to blur the lines between jazz, soul, blues, reggae, and gospel until they were virtually nonexistent. Her music has never been for everyone — her voice, in particular, was a unique instrument, and her uncompromising musical wanderlust can seem daunting to the uninitiated — but if you’re looking for an introduction to the fold, then To Be Free is a marvelous place to start.
The songs sound great, as you’d reasonably expect from any package like this — but they’ve also been expertly selected and lovingly compiled by producer Richard Seidel, who made room for all the standard stuff, then threw in an impressive assortment of live performances (which is crucial, because Simone was positively brilliant onstage) and unreleased material. It’s impossible to choose any one track to represent a set as far-ranging as this one, but listen to a 1968 live performance of “Sunday in Savannah” (download) for a tiny taste of what awaits you here.