Nina Simone died 20 years ago. From Mississippi Goddam to Four Women, the 10 iconic songs

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On April 21, 2003, Nina Simone, legend of jazz, soul, blues and more, died in France. Voice of the African American community and civil rights activist, excellent pianist as well as singer, she was born on February 21, 1933 in North Carolina. Her real name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, but she chose to become Nina Simone on stage: Nina as niña in Spanish, the nickname with which she called her an old boyfriend, Simone as Simone Signoret. Twenty years after her disappearance, we remember this timeless artist by retracing 10 of her most famous songs.

My Baby Just Cares For Me (1958)

Let’s start with what is considered one of Nina Simone’s most beautiful songs: My Baby Just Cares For Me from 1958. It is a cover of a song from the 1930s, but Nina Simone’s is certainly the best known version. It is part of the artist’s debut album, Little Girl Blue – Jazz as played in an exclusive side street club. But the song remained almost unknown until 1987, when the fashion designer Coco Chanel chose it as the soundtrack of the Chanel No. 5 perfume television advertising campaign. The commercial was a huge success and the song entered the charts of several countries, becoming one of Nina Simone’s biggest hits. A music video directed by Peter Lord was also made. In those years, many rediscovered the music of this artist, who had become an icon of jazz. So much so that, after a break, Nina Simone left for a world tour: at the end of each show she sang this very song, which had helped her get back on track.

I love you Porgy (1958)

It is also part of Nina Simone’s first album I love you Porgy. Also in this case it is a cover: the song comes from Porgy and Bess, a work by George Gershwin from the 1930s which tells the love story between Porgy and Bess. With this song Nina Simone won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000.

Mississippi Goddam (1964)

Among the most incisive songs of Nina Simone, which has become a civil rights anthem, there is Mississippi Goddam. The song is part of the album Nina Simone in concert in 1964, in which there are recordings of some concerts held by the artist a few months earlier at Carnegie Hall. The song, said Nina Simone, was written in less than an hour and represents her reaction, furious and lucid, after the 1963 murder of African-American American activist and politician Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the raid that killed four black girls that same year at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The passage, with crude words, denounces the violence that the black American community has endured for centuries. A language so explicit that several radio stations decide not to broadcast it. For Nina Simone it is a crucial moment: she becomes friends with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and her career, like her life, has an activist turn.

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (1964)

Another famous song by Nina Simone, which over the years has been covered by various artists, is Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstoodfeatured on the album Broadway-Blues-Ballads from 1964. The song was written by Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell and Sol Marcus. It tells the complexity of human emotions, the artist’s fear of being misunderstood by her lover, her need to be understood. Once again, it showcases Nina Simone’s unique vocal style, with a slow, deep melody that pairs perfectly with her husky voice.

I put a spell on you (1965)

In 1965 the album was released I put a spell on you. The first track is the song of the same name. It’s a cover of a 1956 Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song that has become a classic: over the years it has been interpreted by various artists, with Nina Simone’s version being one of the most famous. The singer’s powerful and emotional voice is accompanied by a slow and sensual melody. The lyrics are about a woman trying to win back her lover.

Feeling Good (1965)

Another very famous song by Nina Simone is Feeling Good. The song was written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. But Simone’s version, released in 1965 on the album I put a spell on you, has become the definitive interpretation of the song, so much so that she is often credited to her and many of the covers of the following years are inspired by this version and not the original. The artist’s voice, which alternates whispers with very powerful sounds, is accompanied by a jazz orchestra. The lyrics tell of a sense of liberation and emancipation, with phrases like: “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good” (“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me and I feel good”).

Four Women (1966)

Another famous song is Four Womenwritten by Nina Simone and released in 1966 in the album Wild Is the Wind. The text is a denunciation of racism, sexism and other struggles faced by black women in America. It’s also an indictment of the oversimplified way women of color are portrayed in art and media. In fact, it talks about four African American women, each of whom represents an African American stereotype in society. There’s Sarah, forced to endure the heaviest and humblest jobs; Saffronia, who has lighter skin than her because her father is a rich and powerful white man who raped her mother; Sweet Thing, who sells his body; Peaches, the rebel who doesn’t want to accept the condition of black women and screams her name like a battle cry. Nina Simone said she wrote the song after a few conversations with black women. “It seemed that we all suffered from self-hatred. We hated our complexions, our hair, our bodies. I realized that those feelings about ourselves were brainwashed by a few black men and many white men,” she said. The song cost the artist several criticisms and some radios refused to play it.

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free (1967)

Another civil rights anthem, written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas, is I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. The song was recorded by Nina Simone in 1967 and is featured on her album Silk & Soul: his version immediately became a classic. The artist’s soulful voice fits perfectly with the gospel-inspired melody. The text speaks of the desire for freedom and equality, together with the hope that sooner or later everyone will be able to live in a world without discrimination.

Ain’t Got No, I Got Life (1968)

A classic of Nina Simone’s repertoire is Ain’t Got No, I Got Life1968 single taken from his album Nuff Said. To write it, the artist mixed two songs: Ain’t Got No And I Got Lifefrom the musical Hair. A bold and powerful interpretation, which earned Simone popularity among a new younger audience. With a cheerful and catchy melody, through this song the singer celebrates the simple things in life and expresses her rejection of material goods and social conventions.

To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969)

One of Nina Simone’s most famous songs is To Be Young, Gifted and Black: written together with Weldon Irvine, is dedicated to friend, writer and activist Lorraine Hansberry (her most famous work is A Raisin in the Sun). The singer performed it for the first time in 1969 during the Harlem Cultural Festival which then was the focus of the 2021 documentary film Summer of Soul. This song has also become an anthem of the civil rights movement: it celebrates the beauty, talent and resilience of people of color, emphasizing the importance of being proud of one’s heritage.