Nina Simone’s Enduring Artistry Evident on Two Verve/Acoustic Sounds Series Philips Reissues

As a value proposition the 2016 “The Philips Years” seven LP box set covering all of Nina Simone’s recorded output between 1964 and 1967 can’t be beat. Digitized at 96/24 resolution at Abbey Road using the original master tapes and well-pressed at Record Industry, the seven LPs sound very good. However!

Nina Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) released her first album in 1959 on Syd Nathan’s Bethlehem Records label (Nathan is best known for King Records, James Brown’s original label). Analogue Productions released an all-analog stereo edition of Little Girl Blue and now in partnership with Verve/UMe has released two of those Philips era albums cut by Ryan Smith using the original tapes.

The Little Girl Blue review hyper-linked above contains a great deal of Simone background information but if you're unfamiliar with the remarkable Nina Simone please watch the Netflix feature documentary, "What Happened, Miss Simone?" — which won the 2016 Emmy for Outstanding Documentary. Her life story is filled with both tragedy and triumph and it helps explain why Simone’s artistry endures and continues to engage generations of music lovers, decades after she passed away in 2003 at age 70.

Whether you have an original pressing or especially if you bought the aforementioned box set (or either of these albums from the box that were later available individually), within a few seconds of the opening percussive cracks on Pastel Blues made by hand claps and a hi-hat on “Be My Husband” (written by Andrew Stroud— Simone’s husband at the time and a former policeman who eventually turned abusive) you’ll know you’re hearing a vastly superior edition of the album, both aurally and emotionally. The all analog version's superior three-dimensionality, transparency and attention to the small details produce a "you are there" sensation the digitized versions hide behind a scrim. The originals were never well-mastered or pressed.

Backed by a group that included musicians who toured with Simone, she runs through a well-chosen set that is, as the liner notes suggest “about the blues” more than it’s an album of blues, though it’s a damn bluesy outing. Simone had a minor hit with the Depression-era chestnut “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” but what stands out the most here is her rendering of “Strange Fruit”, immortalized by Billie Holiday.

Categorizing or pigeonholing Simone’s talents is impossible, either as a singer or as a pianist. She was classically trained and added singing only after racism thwarted her concert hall aspirations. “Ain’t No Use”, which opens side two is the purest “blues” on the album, but Simone’s piano fluidity takes the song beyond the basics, while her vocal is raw and direct. Her devastating Strange Fruit serves as the set’s denouement, which is followed by an extended “Sinnerman”— a worthwhile, show stopping encore (though of course this is a studio session that Simone treats like a live performance) that Simone delivers with power usually reserved for the stage. What sounds like a mediocre recording on the digitized version comes to transparent and three-dimensional life on this edition. The laminated gatefold presentation completes the package.

I Put a Spell On You, which was an earlier release, with its strings and sophisticated brassy arrangements by Hal Mooney and the legendary Horace Ott (who’s still with us) plays more like a studio album than does Pastel Blues. Both Mooney and Ott had remarkably diverse careers as musicians, arrangers and composers. Ott co-wrote “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” included on Simone’s Philips album Broadway-Blues-Ballads (PHS 600-148) later a hit for The Animals. Ott also arranged Simone’s version of Dimitri Tiomkins’ “Wild is the Wind”, most rockers know from David Bowie’s cover. Mooney’s arranging career includes associations with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan and many others.

The A&R choices here are as eclectic as you’d hope for on a Nina Simone album including of course the title track. Simone covers songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse from their Broadway show “The Roar of the Greasepaint” and “Marriage is For Old Folks” from the musical “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, as well as a few titles flown in from France including Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and pairs by Charles Aznavour and Simone’s husband Andrew Stroud—one being a 40’s style Louis Jordan-ish “in praise of sex” (as Simone claims in the notes) “Gimme Some”.

I Put a Spell On You is a thoughtful, often joyful sophisticated set of well-chosen, popular songs (pop of that era is unlike today’s pop) that Nina Simone delivers with unerring charm and warmth. It’s her most consistently excellent Philips era album and it and Pastel Blues, both released in 1965, are ideal showcases for both Simone’s enduring artistry and for what made her Philips era records special. The sound of both of these records is the best that’s been produced from these tapes and both records are well worth owning.

Steve Edwards's picture

You When You're Down and Out" the same song that Derek and the Dominos did?

Michael Fremer's picture
AnalogJ's picture

I can't speak for the new ones at this point, nor for the stereo mix, but my NM OG pressing of Pastel Blues sounds really good, quite impactful. I have impressed people with it.
Michael, if your's sounds 'meh', you might have just gotten a mediocre copy (and you know that individual copies from back then can vary quite a bit).

I happen to a have an original NM Bethlehem mono of Little Girl Blue that is a rarity in that the vinyl noise is relatively low (Bethlehem was notorious for using poor quality vinyl back then). I got the AP 45rpm stereo and it blew me away with its immediacy and presence, in spite of the extreme left/right mix.

I'm a relatively late comer to appreciating Nina Simone, having come around to her within the last 15 years or so. I'd get both of these if they were fully that much better than originals.

Michael Fremer's picture
I haven't heard that one. This new reissue of the stereo mix is worth having if you like the mono. It's a fine stereo production..
mraudio's picture reissues. WONDERFUL! Excellent and highly recommended!

DigMyGroove's picture

I have both of these reissues and agree they're well worth having. I found "I Put A Spell on You" to be surprisingly bass heavy and had to turn down the dial a bit or engage the Low Filter switch on my Fisher 800C when playing that one. No big deal though, and so wonderful to finally hear this recording and "Pastel Blues" in all their analog glory.

DrinkRecords's picture

Wondering if Hi-Res files were used to cut a new acetate before pressing or was a new acetate cut from the original tapes?

AnalogJ's picture

I haven't listened to my Pastel Blues original stereo in a while, but I have to respectfully take exception with a comment in your review (and by the way, I ordered both of these LPs from the raves they have been getting, but particularly pushed over the edge from your review.).

"The originals were never well-mastered or pressed" is a quote from your review. I can't agree with the former and I'm not sure I can totally agree with the latter. First of all, my copy, while looking mostly clean, does have a crackling from time to time, but it's also reasonably quiet at times as well. It's not current, state-of-the-art vinyl, for sure, with really quiet surfaces, but it's not intrusive, by any means, at least on my copy.

Regarding the mastering, aside from rolled-off bass, the midrange is pretty vivid, and overall, it's fairly dynamic. Will the new one better it? Could be. I'll wait until I have a chance to compare them. But Simone's voice has presence and there's space around her and the other instruments. I do expect, based on your review, that the palpability of her voice and the instruments to be even better, but my original is no slouch. I'd still give it and 8/10.

At the price of these new ones, there's no point in seeking out an original unless you find one dirt cheap. Last time I checked, and this was before this release, you'd expect to pay over $30 for a NM original. But there's nothing muddy, or strained, or restrained, or anything about the overall presentation of my original, other than lack of deep bass extension. I just expect the new one to take it to a new level.

AnalogJ's picture

Well, I just cleaned and played the Verve Pastel Blues. It's everything Michael said and more. It's more dimensional, more fleshed out, and conveys much more of the humanity than my stereo original. To a much greater degree, I can tell that there are human beings performing the music, individually and together as an ensemble.

There's greater presence, plus there's a deeper and more layered soundstage. Images are less flat, more 3-dimensional. This reissue is an entire success in just about every area.

Sonically as well as musically, Pastel Blues beats the I Put A Spell On You, in my opinion. I'll say this, though, the one tune that perhaps comes across with more intensity on my original is "Sinnerman". It's a raucous, rock'n'rolling gospel number, and possibly due to the greater compression on the original, the performance is more up front and in your face. It comes across as even more exciting. But I can't recommend this new reissue highly enough.

LGB and PB are my two favorite Nina Simone LPs. Nina Sings The Blues and Black Gold probably come next. They’re both on RCA. Unfortunately, you'll never find a great sounding copy of the latter. It just seems like it wasn't recorded well. Fortunately, you can find a good sounding copy of the former. Speakers Corner has a terrific sounding reissue.