In conjunction with the digital release of an expanded edition of Folksy Nina, the iconic Nina Simone’s 8th album for Colpix Records, SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan recalls in this Q&A the impact this pioneering artist and SoulMusic Hall Of Fame ‘Legacy Posthumous’ inductee had on him during his teenage years in London which led to his starting the first UK appreciation society for Nina Simone...
Q: How did you first discover Nina’s music?
A: I first heard of Nina Simone through another hitmaking American artist, Dionne Warwick who was most assuredly my ‘introduction’ to R&B, soul and later, other Black American music genres such as jazz, blues and gospel. After Dionne’s massive UK and US hit with “Walk On By” in 1964, she was in London promoting her then-first LP. In an interview with “New Musical Express,” Dionne mentioned that she liked Nina Simone ‘among others’.
Intrigued, I decided to ask the manager of a record shop I worked in on Saturdays to earn pocket money – I was 16 and still in school – and he pointed me to the jazz section. There was just one LP by Nina, Live At Town Hall, which had been released in Britain. It had a tiny almost indistinguishable picture of her on the LP cover. Back then, if you wanted to preview a record before buying it, you could listen to it in a booth. I will never forget hearing the first track on the album, “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” and I started crying, literally. I knew nothing about Nina…just that her voice reached through the grooves and touched a very deep place within me. I had to know more!
In the autumn of 1964, Nina’s original version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was released. I bought it and was so passionate about the fact that a British group, The Animals had covered it and had a hit with it while Nina’s version got no promotion in the UK that I wrote a letter to another British music publication, Record Mirror, to complain about the lack of attention Nina’s original got!
Nina’s 2nd LP for Philips Records, Broadway-Blues-Ballads came out later in 1964 and that’s when I went on a hunt for all the LPs she had recorded before, starting with her first album for Bethlehem Records which included her 1959 hit, “I Loves You Porgy”. Then, I spent most of my pocket money on getting all of Nina’s Colpix LPs which were then expensive US imports! Pye Records in Britain was the licensee for Colpix and had released the Folksy Nina LP also in 1964 as her name became a little more known.
Q: Did you remember much about the Folksy Nina LP?
A: I played it over and over again until I knew every song! My particular favourites were “When I Was A Young Girl,” “Erets Zavat Chalav” (a rousing Israeli song) and “Twelfth Of Never.” I had never heard anyone sing with such pure emotion and cover such a massive range of material. To a young sixteen-year-old being weaned on British pop artists of the day like The Beatles, Cilla Black etc., hearing the diversity on Nina’s albums was like discovering a virtual musical treasure trove.
Q: What spurred you on to start a fan club for her?
A: Well, I had joined the UK fan club for Dionne Warwick, of course, and then started meeting some of the other fan club secretaries for American artists like Otis Redding, Don Covay, Inez & Charlie Foxx and the ‘big’ one, the Tamla-Motown Appreciation Society. Like all teenagers, I wanted to be ‘in’ with the ‘in crowd’ of this small group of young Brits who loved R&B and wanted to be advocates for the artists and bring greater awareness of their music in the UK.
As I got each of her Colpix LPs, I was even more ‘hooked’ on Nina and how amazing she was. That’s when I knew I had to start a UK fan club for her! I wrote to Philips Records in London in March 1965 and asked if they could forward my request to her manager in New York to start an ‘appreciation society’ for her in the UK. I felt that the term ‘fan club’ didn’t quite fit her level of artistry!
About a month later, I got a letter from ‘Stroud Productions’ which was the company started by her husband/manager, Andy Stroud, telling me that I definitely had their official ok to start it and sent me some materials to use – 8x10 photos, a little booklet about Nina and so on. The greatest part was also finding out that Nina had been booked for her first European tour, starting in June. I was so excited! I started placing little ads in Record Mirror and the Tamla-Motown Appreciation Society newsletter to announce the formation of the Nina Simone Appreciation Society, which I ran from my bedroom-study above the fish-and-chip shop which my Dad managed where our family lived!
Q: When did you first meet Nina?
A: I was in regular touch with Andy’s secretary in New York, Pearl by mail and she kept me posted on when Nina and Andy were arriving in London, as well as the itinerary for her European tour. I took time off from school to go to Heathrow Airport to meet Nina. I brought some flowers and I still remember vividly as Nina, Andy and their four-year old daughter Lisa came through into the arrivals area! I walked up to them and said, ‘Hello, I’m David Nathan who runs your appreciation society in Britain!’ or words to that effect. While Andy was busy organizing the luggage and making contact with the limo driver sent from Philips Records, Nina and I started chatting. I was in complete awe! Here I was, this somewhat geeky teenager speaking with my new ‘heroine’.
One of the first questions Nina asked me was whose music I listened to others than hers and I mentioned Dionne Warwick. Nina wasn’t familiar with her at that time and asked Andy who she was and he replied, ‘She’s the girl who works with Burt Bacharach’ and Nina said she’d check her out when she went back to America.
Nina then went into a short ‘rant’ about how we had an artist in Britain – her Philips’ labelmate Dusty Springfield – who was copying an American favourite of Nina’s. “Have you heard of Aretha Franklin?” Nina asked. I replied that I had heard the name but not her music. This was 1965 before Aretha had hit the mainstream after signing with Atlantic Records in 1966. Nina was berating Dusty because Dusty had recorded one of Aretha’s early Columbia hits, “Won’t Be Long”; after her own experience of having The Animals and Eric Burdon steal her thunder with their global hit with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” she was not happy that British artists were doing cover version of American R&B artists’ original recordings.
I often muse that my own musical DNA in a sense starts with Dionne, which led to me finding out about Nina and then Nina mentioning Aretha to me for the first time!
Q: What was it about her work that set her apart from other artists?
A: Well, after Broadway-Blues-Ballads, I got her 1st Philips’ LP, In Concert which included civil rights’-related songs like “Mississippi Goddam,” “Jim Crow,” “Go Limp” and her amazing interpretation of “Pirate Jenny” by Kurt Weil & Bertold Brecht. That’s when I realized Nina was far more than a remarkable artist who could effortlessly move from a spiritual like “Children Go Where I Send You” to a folk song, “Hush Little Baby” and then on to an African chant, “Flo Me La.” She was determined to use her platform as a performer and recording artist to be completely out front and upfront about about civil rights and her passionate commitment to freedom and justice. There was literally no other artist that I was aware of that was so fearless in the choices of material she recorded. As she often said, if she didn’t ‘feel’ it, she wouldn’t record or perform a song. There was an unbridled authenticity about her music that drew me – and later, many others – in…
Q: What are some songs or albums a new fan of hers should start out with?
A: That’s a really hard question to answer! I’d say for sure check out her early albums, like Forbidden Fruit, At Town Hall and of course, Folksy Nina. Songs like “I Put A Spell On You” – my personal all-time favourite recording of hers – and “Wild Is The Wind” and “Feeling Good,” now a timeless classic due to Nina’s rendition of it. So much good material and probably unfair to suggest one album!
Q: Finally, do you have any other notable Nina-related anecdotes not covered by the questions above you’d like to share?
A: I have so many that we’d have to do a part one, part two and part three at least!