Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue
BMG – 2021
11 tracks: 45.53 minutes
What a debut this must have been, as Nina Simone burst on to the scene with this disc! Recorded over 14 hours in a single day in New York in December 1957, the album was released in 1959 by Bethlehem Records and was an immediate success. Nina was classically trained and fond of Bach and Liszt, but also well versed in the African-American folk songs that she heard in her youth in a musical family. She studied at the Julliard School in NYC, taught music privately and played in Atlantic City. Sid Nathan, owner of Bethlehem Records offered her the chance to record and paired her with bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath as her rhythm section. Nina is on piano and vocals and, at times, it is extraordinary to realize that this young lady was in the recording studio for the first time.
With her contralto voice and well-developed piano skills, Nina was already the full package and this debut disc is terrific. In the 50’s the dividing line between blues and jazz was far less distinct than today, but Nina also adds all manner of subtle quotes from outside both genres. She opens with Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and demonstrates her phenomenal piano technique for the first minute before she gives us that immortal first line: “You ain’t never been blue until you’ve had that mood indigo”. It is a striking start to the album and the fast-paced version leans on the rhythm section’s peerless swing which allows Nina to explore widely in her solos. “Don’t Smoke In Bed” (Willard Robison) is reprised from Peggy Lee’s repertoire and its funereal pace is separated by some very classical sounding piano interludes. Arthur Hamilton is best remembered as the author of “Cry Me A River” but Nina selects another torch song, “He Needs Me”, on which she sounds vulnerable yet self-confident at the same time, her deep vocal underlined by lovely piano highlights. The title track “Little Boy Blue” was a Rogers and Hart song from 1935 Broadway show Jumbo but Nina was undoubtedly influenced by Ella Fitzgerald’s 1956 cover, albeit adding her own subtle changes, like the motif from “Good King Wenceslas” at the beginning, repeated later in the song between verses. The pace quickens for “Love Me Or Leave Me” (Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson), a song that goes back to 1928, Nina’s fingers flashing across the keys, even including a Bach-like fugue mid-tune. The same writing team provides the joyous “My Baby Just Cares For Me”: on the original LP that brought Side A to a halt but was not selected as a single at the time; now everyone knows it because of its revival in the 1980’s after being used in a perfume advert, probably making it Nina’s best known performance.
The second side of the LP started with “a cool blues instrumental”, “Good Bait”, written by Count Basie and Tadd Dameron. Again opening with a solo piano exposition, Nina takes her time, the rhythm section only entering at 01.45. It’s a moody piece, very much a slow blues in feel, and includes a short feature for bassist Jimmy. “Plain Gold Ring” is a less familiar song, written by George Stone, one of several pseudonyms used by Earl Solomon Burroughs who was the co-writer of “Great Balls Of Fire”. No Rn’R here though as Nina’s ethereal vocals are underpinned by insistent bass and drums. The instrumental version that Nina gives us of Rogers & Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is astonishingly creative and a million miles away from the version sung every week here in the U.K. by the fans of Liverpool F.C. who adopted it as their anthem in the 1960’s! The pace of the song is slowed right down though the refrain is recognizable as Nina ranges far and wide across the tune and what sounds like bowed bass and cymbals add to the doom-laden feel. However, the album is probably best remembered for Nina’s take on DuBose Heyward, George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” (from Porgy & Bess). This was the single taken from the album at the time of its release and it very much launched Nina’s career. Beautiful piano and vocals just need to be heard and appreciated. The album closes with the only original here, “Central Park Blues”, a seven minute instrumental which highlights the close interplay between the trio.
Nina Simone passed away in 2003 and is fondly remembered for many great performances and recordings, but this debut is definitely a joy to hear. Not sure why this is being reissued now, but my recommendation to readers is to set time aside and listen on headphones to fully appreciate one of the great debut albums.