To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story (RCA / Legacy)
Reviewed by Chase Hoffberger, Fri., Dec. 12, 2008
Nina SimoneTo Be Free: The Nina Simone Story (RCA/Legacy)
"When I get onstage, you keep your eyes on me." Nina Simone directed that cue to drummer Buck Clarke in rehearsal for a 1970 New York City concert excerpted on the 23-minute DVD that accompanies this 3-CD summation of the North Carolina songstress' 36-year career. Take that suggestion as gospel. To Be Free is chockablock with treasure from this dynamic personality, a high priestess of soul evoking both heartbreak (the live "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair") and sexuality (1968 studio tour de force "Ain't Got No – I Got Life"). As her 1960 Newport Jazz Fest cover of "Trouble in Mind" demonstrates, Simone (1933-2003) was a melt-your-heart singer who, as Chronicle contributor Ed Ward details in his brief biographical liner notes, went to Juilliard for piano ("Mood Indigo"). Her comet shines brightest on contributions to the civil rights movement – "Backlash Blues," co-written by friend Langston Hughes and closing out disc one's 1957-1968 run, playing perfectly into its successor's stirring "Mississippi Goddam," performed three days after the assassination of friend and mentor Martin Luther King Jr. The second disc is the most condensed, as 17 tracks target 1968-1969 and are carried in the middle by diverse arrangements of Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and folk fixture "Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)." A 1971 live duet with her brother Sam on "Let It Be Me" and the 18-minute "My Sweet Lord/Today Is a Killer" medley from 1972's live Emergency Ward hit the pulse on the final disc's 24-year run. Don't worry, Nina, we can hardly take our eyes off you.