The late American singer Nina Simone’s voice was markedly distinctive. A contralto (the term used to describe female singers with the lowest musical pitch), when Simone sang, her voice seemed full of passion and character – a voice that you couldn’t not take note of.
In recent weeks, I’ve been listening to several of her albums: 1974’s It Is Finished, 1984’s Live at Ronnie Scott’s and the mega ‘Best of’ collection, Sugar In My Bowl, which, on two discs, has 40 songs spanning the early part of her career.
Simone, a North Carolina preacher’s child, wanted to be a classical pianist but couldn’t get admission to a music school because she was black. She turned then to playing and singing in small venues and clubs, covering everything from jazz, gospel and blues to pop and R&B.
Many of her recordings are of songs written by others but covered by her in a style that is her own. On It Is Finished, she does a version of The Pusher, a song that was made famous by Steppenwolf but was written by Hoyt Axton.
Simone’s blues-soul version of what is originally a rock classic is unique. As is her cover of Mr. Bojangles, the country song that has been covered by dozens of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Arlo Guthrie.
Her own songs span an impressive range of themes. Mississippi Goddam, which became a civil activists’ anthem, was written after the bombing and killings of blacks in Mississippi and Alabama in the 1960s.
I Want A Little Sugar in My Bowl, a delightful blues song, was based on a composition with a similar title (Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl) by Bessie Smith, the early 20th century blues singer, but with Simone’s own tweak to the lyrics. But the one song that got her fame and became her first hit in America was George and Ira Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy.
Simone’s was not an easy life. Her early years as a performer were filled with long hours at small bars and clubs where she sang nightly. Her husband (a former New York cop) who also managed her career was abusive and violent (the marriage finally broke up).
And finally, after finding success as a prolific recording artist and performer, she had to live in exile in France for much of the latter part of her life because of taxes that she left unpaid in the US (as part of her protest against her country’s involvement in the Vietnam war).
I had read about Simone and her troubled life but last week when a film turned up, a biopic titled What Happened, Miss Simone?, with rare footage, interviews and narratives, it gave me a deeper insight into one of America’s finest musicians – as well as an inspiration to rediscover Simone’s music.
The film has some footage of her performances, which were known for their magnetic nature and her powerful presence. She often blended dialogue with the audience or just self-spoken words into songs.
Simone died in France in 2003. She was 70. Her discography lives on, of course, with her music frequently used by others – from filmmakers to rap artists.
As I wrote this, I was listening, back-to-back, to her versions of three songs: Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne; The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun; and Bob Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. All three are classic songs. Without doubt, Simone’s versions must have made their composers proud.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
I just managed to restrain the temptation to lead with this part of Download Central. Last Sunday at 8am, I used a combination of Airtel, Google Chromecast, my Internet browser, my laptop, my TV set, and (of course) my credit card, to watch in its entirety (three hours plus) the first concert of Grateful Dead’s last tour from Santa Clara in California.
I was, of course, in my bedroom. Trey Anastasio (lead guitar) joined the remaining members of the Dead (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) as did Bruce Hornsby (piano) and Jim Chimenti (keyboards).
The setlist was vintage Grateful Dead: think Truckin’, Alligator, Cryptical Envelopment, Dark Star, St. Stephen, Drums, The Other One and plenty, plenty more. Superb. The closest you could get to a Dead gig in Gurgaon.
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Last weekend in a curious case of serendipity, I found The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir, a documentary film by Mike Fleiss. The film is focused on the Grateful Dead’s co-founder, singer and rhythm guitarist but as expected, the spotlight is also on the late Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s legendary guitarist; on the band and its origins; on its cult-like followers; on the influence of drugs and psychedelics; on the 1960s; and all of the other things that any film on any aspect of the Grateful Dead can’t not cover.
If you’re not a fan of the band, it’s not a film for you — but if you are one, then it’s a must-watch. Weir who quit school at 16 to become the youngest member of the band in 1965 is at the centerpiece of the film and talks candidly about his experience; about Garcia; and about the pressures that fame had on the band members.
Also watch: Grateful Dead Final Concert 7-9-1995
And there’s rare footage that those familiar with the Dead will love to see – including one from the early 1990s of Garcia and Weir scuba diving at Maui, Hawaii, with one underwater sequence showing the former stroking the neck of what seems to be a giant eel with its head protruding from a cave, quite in line with what you’d expect Garcia to be doing underwater.
I mentioned serendipity in the beginning because this month happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead and all eyes are on its remaining members who have decided to go on one final tour with a number of concerts that start on June 27 in California and end on July 5 in Chicago.
The tickets for the actual concerts sold out in less than five minutes after they went on sale (scalpers will no doubt have a field day) and so have those for the several simulcasts that are planned in theaters across various cities in the US.
Although all the remaining members of the band (Garcia died in 1995) are aging – Weir is the youngest at 67, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are 69 and 71, respectively, and bassist Phil Lesh is 75 – the yet-to-be-staged final Dead tour is already a huge draw.
The Dead have been a touring act – by one estimate, between 1965 and 1995, they may have played more than 2,300 concerts and many of their die-hard fans may now be as or near about as old as the living band members are.
Then there was a story in the June 8 issue of The New Yorker magazine about how Weir was rehearsing with Phish’s Trey Anastasio in New York before the Fare Thee Well concerts begin because the phenomenally talented Phish lead guitarist will be filling in for Garcia at the concerts.
And the info that singer-pianist Bruce Hornsby has been enlisted to do duty on the keyboards, an instrument that has been an essential part of the Dead’s ensemble. Hornsby has played nearly 100 shows with the Grateful Dead in the early 1990s and is like an extended member of the band. Anastasio would probably need to rehearse more.
All of this information has re-created interest in the band for its fans, including probably the hundreds of mostly middle-aged fans in India, all of whom will likely have hoards of their music but few of whom will have had a chance to watch the Dead in the flesh.
And then, in another serendipitous dose, to mark the 50th anniversary of the band, music website Aquarium Drunkard compiled all of its Dead Notes – in flysheet format – accompanied with zipped downloadable files of iconic performances of the band’s songs (mostly from gigs in the late 1960s and the ’70s), which together makes a great collectible for an old Deadhead (ask me, I know!). It was, altogether, a pleasant series of fortunate events to mark a landmark anniversary of a band that I loved.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
It hasn’t been two weeks yet since Ornette Coleman, jazz saxophonist, trumpeter and violinist, died on June 11. Coleman was known for his unconventional style that became a genre named ‘free jazz’ (that name came from Coleman’s 1960 album of the same name).
The blues influenced Coleman’s music but it was iconoclastic for its time – creating controversy in the jazz world of the 1960s – because of its free form structure and non-conformist improvisation. Later, he embraced electric sounds – guitars and keyboards mainly.
And here’s some more serendipity: on Coleman’s 1988 album, Virgin Beauty, Jerry Garcia played the guitar on three tracks; and, in 1993, Coleman got on stage while the Grateful Dead were playing to jam on at least five songs.
If you haven’t heard Coleman or jazz ain’t your thing, those could be the entry point to one of the genre’s greatest innovators.
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Donwload Central appears every fortnight
Fifty-four-year-old guitarist, bandleader and lead singer, Warren Haynes, can be described as a ‘rockaholic’. Haynes fronts his own southern blues-rock band, Gov’t Mule; he played lead guitar and sang for The Allman Brothers Band (in two stints: from 1989 to 1997; and again from 2000 to 2014 when the band retired); he regularly plays with a host of other bands, including Phil Lesh and Friends, The Dead (which is a vestige of the original Grateful Dead), and The Derek Trucks Band; besides, he also records and performs solo. Read more
This one’s strictly for hardcore Deadheads. It took me nearly 20 years to discover Grayfolded, a nearly two-hour-long album divided into two CDs – Transitive Axis and Mirror Ashes.
Every time this column makes even the tiniest mention of the Grateful Dead or offers on its web version, a download link for one of their concerts, there is one guy, a friend, actually, but also a virulent critic of that band, who makes it a point of making a snide remark. There are many people who consider the Dead’s fans as drug-addled hippies who get lulled into a happy, semi-comatose state by the band’s improv-heavy meanderings. That certainly amounts to gratuitous stereotyping. Read more
In the late eighties when Neneh Cherry first burst onto the scene with her album, Raw Like Sushi, and won two Brit awards, she promptly melted one of them and got it crafted into jewellery, some of which she gifted to other nominees in the categories she won the award for. Raw Like Sushi showcased the then still incipient trend of hip-hop and rap but with an infusion of electronica, a genre that earned it the label trip-hop. The tracks on that debut album, including two major hits, Buffalo Stance and Manchild, brought her instant fame. And, more important than that, an enviably cool image.
Mud Morganfield and his half-brother “Big Bill” Morganfield play the blues. Sometimes they play together. I have a live recording of the two playing at the Chicago Blues Festival, doing songs such as Mannish Boy, Nineteen Years Old and Forty Days and Forty Nights, all songs that you can instantly recall as being standards sung by blues legend, the late Muddy Waters. No coincidence there because both the Morganfields are his sons. Remember Muddy Waters’ real name was McKinley Morganfield. Muddy died in 1983 but his two sons in their 50s–Mud’s the older one—keep his trademark Chicago blues sound and legacy alive. They play gigs. They cut records and have a considerably big fan following among blues aficionados. Read more
My daughter, about to be eight, has an earworm. You know, a piece of music that seems stuck in your ear so seemingly permanently that you just couldn’t get it out. It’s a song that she hums, sings and dances with vigorously even though it’s not being played anywhere. And I’m happy. Delighted, actually, because the song happens to be Lonely Boy by The Black Keys. Actually, the duo that makes up The Black Keys may also seem like an earworm for Download Central, in case you are one of those readers who for some strange reason follows this column fairly regularly—I don’t know how many times I have written about them, obsessively, compulsively and, perhaps also, maniacally.
I usually like my music to come with vocals and lyrics. I like to listen to the singers, their voices, the words they sing and what they mean. They could be joyous and exuberant or morose and melancholy, love struck or angry. It doesn’t matter. I like all of that and depending on my mood, I usually love to hear songs sung as much as I do the rest of it—the music, the beats, the rhythm and the solo riffs. But sometimes, words can become a distraction. Sometimes, like it was for me last week, words just don’t do it for you. You are too preoccupied with your own thoughts to need somebody else’s words and you just need instruments and nothing else. No pernicious interruptions by vocalists, no matter how great they are. Read more