Silk & Soul

Jan 25, 2006 at 12:00 am

Someone said that when Ella Fitzgerald sang that her man was gone, it sounded like he stepped out for cigarettes. And when Billie Holiday sang, you knew the cat was never coming back. So let's talk about how Nina Simone sings it. Listen to her version of "My Man's Gone Now" on Sings the Blues: He's never coming back, and the world will never be the same.

Simone had already been a sensation for a decade when she moved from smaller labels — Bethlehem, Colpix and Philips — to RCA in 1967. "The High Priestess of Soul," as she was by then dubbed, could sing it all, and though the blues gave her RCA debut a theme, it was hardly confining. She harks back to the Bessie Smith songbook for "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl," revisits her earlier success with "House of the Rising Sun," loiters on Tin Pan Alley for the aforementioned "My Man's Gone Now" and turns a Langston Hughes poem into song to rail at resurgent segregationists in "Backlash Blues." "Are you ready for this action?" she asks in "Do I Move You?" — and it's as stark and lusty a come-on as you'll hear on record.

The more pop-oriented Silk & Soul can't claim the perfection of its immediate predecessor, but still has plenty to offer. An oversized talent, Simone has to hold back a lot on songs like "Cherish" and "The Look of Love." But there's artistry in her restraint, like the way "Cherish" becomes an overdubbed duet between soft- and sharp-voiced Simones. And we get tunes here, too, that let Simone give her all. She goes to church with "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" and bares her soul in a very different way in her baroque-influenced "Consummation." (Norah Jones fans, check Simone's version of "Turn Me On.") Both discs contain bonus tracks of alternates, singles and b-sides.

Forever Young trumpets Simone as the '60s crusader for civil rights and self-determination with reissued tracks, alternate takes and a couple of amazing live performances now released in their entirety for the first time. Chief among them is "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)," recorded three days after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination; it's 13 minutes of searing history in song that asks the listener to bear witness.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].