Nina Simone Sings the Blues, issued in 1967, was her RCA label debut, and was a brave departure from the material she had been recording for Phillips. Indeed, her final album for that label, High Priestess of Soul, featured the singer, pianist, and songwriter fronting a virtual orchestra. Here, Simone is backed by a pair of guitarists (Eric Gale and Rudy Stevenson), bassist (Bob Bushnell), drummer (Bernard "Pretty" Purdie), organist (Ernie Hayes), and harmonica player who doubled on saxophone (Buddy Lucas). Simone handled the piano chores. The song selection is key here. Because for all intents and purposes this is perhaps the rawest record Simone ever cut. It opens with the sultry, nocturnal, slow-burning original "Do I Move You," which doesn't beg the question but demands an answer: "Do I move you?/Are you willin'?/Do I groove you?/Is it thrillin'?/Do I soothe you?/Tell the truth now?/Do I move you?/Are you loose now?/The answer better be yeah…It pleases me…." As the guitarists slip and slide around her husky vocal, a harmonica wails in the space between, and Simone's piano is the authority, hard and purposely slow.
The two albums enclosed in At Town Hall/The Amazing Nina Simone bookend the remarkable summer of 1959 in the career of Nina Simone, when she recorded a studio session, The Amazing Nina Simone, in May, and in September appeared At Town Hall in a superlative performance that was recorded and soon issued. Just 26, Simone displayed great assurance, especially on the live date, casting off the cloak of the vocal jazz/standards singer and performing with her own trio featuring her lively piano. The studio date features an orchestra, but it too finds her early on in her recording career stamping her voice on standards "Willow Weep for Me" and "Blue Prelude".
Nina Simone was a singular artist, and she went where she pleased, leaving behind a recorded legacy that is passionate, political, defiant, and delicate by turns, no matter what strain of folk, blues, jazz, or gospel she was dipping into, and she did it all with dignity, grace, and intelligence…
If this is blues, it's blues in the Billie Holiday sense, not the Muddy Waters one. This is one of Nina Simone's more subdued mid-'60s LPs, putting the emphasis on her piano rather than band arrangements. It's rather slanted toward torch-blues ballads like "Strange Fruit," "Trouble in Mind," Billie Holiday's own composition "Tell Me More and More and Then Some," and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Simone's then-husband, Andy Stroud, wrote "Be My Husband," an effective adaptation of a traditional blues chant. By far the most impressive track is her frantic ten-minute rendition of the traditional "Sinnerman," an explosive tour de force that dwarfs everything else on the album.
Nina Simone recorded seven albums for the Philips label between 1964 and 1966. It was the period in her career in which her reputation was cemented as a world-class artist, and one in which she gained fame for her contributions to the civil rights movement as well. Despite the fact that she recorded great albums both before and after her years with Philips (most notably with RCA), her Philips period is easily her most enigmatic. Among her Philips recordings are her live label debut and six studio recordings featuring wildly varying instrumentation, arrangements, and contents. The box contains all seven LPs on four CDs, and includes one bonus track.