As a rule I avoid weddings and funerals. They both represent transitional stages for which I’m not ready, and – if I had my way – would put off indefinitely. However I’ve often sat around thinking about what music I would like to have playing at both of them, should I be so unfortunate as to have them occur. In particular, *who* would play, since of course it would need to be live music. Having ruled out Madonna and Roberto Carlos as outside of my budget, I content myself with fantasies of being serenaded from beyond the grave. Disembodied spirits are relatively inexpensive. Sure, obtaining the necessary components for the blood sacrifice to get them to show up on time can be a lot of work, but think of all the money you will save on lodging and air transportation. Having established at least this much, I can move on to selecting which resident of the afterlife will perform at my wedding/funeral. Now is when it gets really tricky, because a lot depends on who I am marrying and/or the manner of my demise. Isaac Hayes, for example, would seem an ideal choice but I’m not sure I could live up to the turned-on expectations he would no doubt incur in my bride. She might even run off with him, across the great divide. And Black Moses singing at my funeral would be just, well, kind of weird. Then there are the artists whose palettes are truly universal. John Coltrane would work perfectly at either of these life ceremonies, for example. The list of these candidates is few in number, but among them is definitely my High Priestess, Nina Simone.
Nina could change from Broadway show tunes, to gospel, to blues, to soul and funk without making a big deal about it, without a lot of stylistic pomp to say “hey, look at me, I am going to sing some blues for you now.” Everything she did was done with conviction. It didn’t surprise me to learn recently that Nina suffered from some variety of bipolar disorder, what used to be called manic-depression. The electrically-charged highs and lows of her emotional range and vocal register were one and the same. Whether or not she is coyly telling you how fun it is to be kissed in the dark, or asking for more sugar in her bowl, you know better than to second-guess her sincerity. Whether she is singing Gershwin, or a twelve-bar blues arrangement, or the scandalously secular gospel-cry of “Real Real,” she is never anything less than completely present, in the moment, at the piano, on the microphone, transforming a studio into a dimly-lit smoke-hazed jazz club or a back-country house party. The empress between the pillars of light and dark, her suffering is also her wisdom, and you should thank the universe for being lucky enough to have HEARD her in your short lifetime.
This album was the first long-player for Nina’s tenure with RCA/Victor after leaving the Philips label. If the studio staff had anything to do with assembling the backing band for this one –and I believe they did, as Rudy Stevenson is the only musician here that had been regularly playing with her, if I’m not mistaken — well, then they deserve some mighty thanks. Bernard Purdie. Bernard Purdie! Bernard PURDIE!! The man. ‘Pretty’ Purdie once again shows his ability to play to the song, hanging back in the mix. And one of my favorite under-rated guitarists, Eric Gale, was also on the sessions. There is also a collaboration with Langston Hughes on the socially-topical “Backlash Blues.”
This record isn’t exactly obscure, but if you are thinking, ‘Meh, I’ve already heard this one,” then think again. This is a Japanese pressing made using the proprietary K2 technology developed by JVC to avoid digital artifacts in the analog conversion and reduce jitter — meticulous care is taken at every step of the mastering and duplication process, held to very exacting standards. If all that doesn’t mean anything to you, just know this: the Japanese are obsessively and famously crazy about good audiophile-quality CD pressings, and have by and large not succumbed to the “loudness wars” that have plagued CD remasters in ‘The Occident’ wherein all dynamics are made ruler-flat so that everything will sound “good” (read: the same) on your Mp3 player or in your car. I’ve heard several CDs of this material and this one is by far the most sonically stunning.
There are few things quite as annoying to me than having the same music endlessly repackaged. This goes for many of the “new” high-definition formats being shoved down consumer’s throats lately (with little knowledge at the consumption end about the realities of any actual differences), but in fact it is part of a game the music business has played for at least a half century: how to milk the most revenue out of the same piece of recorded music. In the 1990s this took the form of CD reissues that threw together a bunch of material by an artist to give you the impression that you were getting something you didn’t already have, perhaps something previously unreleased. Such was the case with a European RCA/Novus collection of Nina Simone called simply “The Blues,” which has all the tracks on “Sings The Blues” with an additional seven songs. If I had been paying closer attention when I bought it impulsively, I might have been more wary of the fact that the first half was even in the same running order as “Sings The Blues,” but I was hell-bent on getting my hands on some kind of rarities, unreleased outtakes or live recordings or some such. In fact, the CD is just a repackaging of this album with some extra material thrown in. (To be fair, perhaps the original “Sings The Blues” was not available on CD at that time, but the packaging is ambiguous to put it mildly, and this title should probably have been deleted after proper reissues saw the light of day..) There is also a recent 2006 remaster that includes two bonus tracks. As a favor (if not quite a guide) to the perplexed, I am going to compile this material into another separate post, but for now let’s just enjoy Nina Simone Sings The Blues as it was meant to be enjoyed. The booklet for the 2006 pressing, which contains both original and new liner notes, is included just for kicks here.
1. “Do I Move You” (Simone) – 2:46
2. “Day and Night” (Stevenson) – 2:35
3. “In the Dark” (Green) – 2:57
4. “Real Real” (Simone) – 2:21
5. “My Man’s Gone Now” (Gershwin, Heyward) – 4:16
6. “Backlash Blues” (Hughes, Simone) – 2:31
7. “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (Simone) – 2:32
8. “Buck” (Stroud) – 1:52
9. “Since I Fell for You” (Johnson) – 2:52
10. “The House of the Rising Sun” (Traditional) – 3:53
11. “Blues for Mama” (Lincoln, Simone) – 4:00
* Nina Simone: vocal, piano
* Eric Gale: guitar
* Rudy Stevenson: guitar
* Ernie Hayes: organ
* Bob Bushnell: bass
* Bernard Purdie: drums, timpani
* Buddy Lucas: harmonica, tenor sax
1 I Want a Tall Skinnny Papa Millinder 2:51
2 What He Done for Me Traditional 2:39
3 I Want Jesus to Walk Around My Bedside Harris 2:38
4 All Over This World Traditional 2:42
5 Pure Religion Traditional 2:33
6 This Train Tharpe 2:29
7 Down by the Riverside Public Domain 3:07
8 Rock Me Tharpe 2:37
9 Rock Me Tharpe 2:47
10 That’s All Tharpe 2:03
11 Trouble in Mind Jones 2:39
12 Rock Daniel Traditional 2:38
13 That’s All Tharpe 2:03
14 Let That Liar Alone Tharpe 2:41
15 The Devil Has Thrown Him Down Traditional 2:51
16 Sleep on Darling Mother Traditional 3:03
17 God Don’t Like It Traditional 2:32
18 I Want to Live So God Can Use Me Tharpe 2:32
19 What’s the News Tharpe 2:52
20 Nobody Knows, Nobody Cares Traditional 2:36
21 Jesus Taught Me How to Smile 3:06
22 Forgive Me Lord and Try Me One More Time Traditional 2:35
23 What Is the Soul of Man 2:31
24 Singing in My Soul Dorsey 2:53
25 I Claim Jesus First Dorsey 2:36
26 Strange Things Happening Every Day Tharpe 2:44
27 Two Little Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread Hamighen 2:51
Review by Stewart Mason
The second of two well-packed discs released on the Austrian reissue label Document, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 covers the years of 1942 to 1944, a period during which Tharpe was raising the ire of her religious audience by branching out into a more secular era. Though in retrospect the sentiments of songs like “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” seem tame, the outcry was similar to when Sam Cooke went pop in the late ’50s: how dare the pop market take away our Sister? It stands to reason; Sister Rosetta Tharpe was gospel’s most fiery voice and one of the finest guitarists in any style of her era. (The stabbing, rhythmic lead guitar underpinning these songs sounds like it was probably a huge influence on Chicago blues later that decade.) The passion and vitality of these performances is remarkable, as is the joy Tharpe clearly takes in the physicality of even her most pious recordings. Even for non-believers, this is rich, fulfilling music. The quality of these transfers on the rarer material can be a little rough, but not distractingly so.
Biography by Jason Ankeny
Alongside Willie Mae Ford Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is widely acclaimed among the greatest Sanctified gospel singers of her generation; a flamboyant performer whose music often flirted with the blues and swing, she was also one of the most controversial talents of her day, shocking purists with her leap into the secular market — by playing nightclubs and theatres, she not only pushed spiritual music into the mainstream, but in the process also helped pioneer the rise of pop-gospel. Tharpe was born March 20, 1921 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas; the daughter of Katie Bell Nubin, a traveling missionary and shouter in the classic gospel tradition known throughout the circuit as “Mother Bell,” she was a prodigy, mastering the guitar by the age of six. At the same time she attended Holiness conventions alongside her mother, performing renditions of songs including “The Day Is Past and Gone” and “I Looked Down the Line.”
In time the family relocated to Chicago, where Tharpe began honing her unique style; blessed with a resonant vibrato, both her vocal phrasing and guitar style drew heavy inspiration from the blues, and she further aligned herself with the secular world with a sense of showmanship and glamour unique among the gospel performers of her era. Signing to Decca in 1938, Tharpe became a virtual overnight sensation; her first records, among them Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Rock Me” and “This Train,” were smash hits, and quickly she was performing in the company of mainstream superstars including Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman. She led an almost schizophrenic existence, remaining in the good graces of her core audience by recording material like “Precious Lord,” “Beams of Heaven” and “End of My Journey” while also appealing to her growing white audience by performing rearranged, uptempo spirituals including “Didn’t It Rain” and “Down by the Riverside.”
During World War II, Tharpe was so popular that she was one of only two black gospel acts — the Golden Gate Quartet being the other — to record V-Discs for American soldiers overseas; she also toured the nation in the company of the Dixie Hummingbirds, among others. In 1944, she began recording with boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price; their first collaboration, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” even cracked Billboard’s race records Top Ten, a rare feat for a gospel act and one which she repeated several more times during the course of her career. In 1946 she teamed with the Newark-based Sanctified shouter Madame Marie Knight, whose simple, unaffected vocals made her the perfect counterpoint for Tharpe’s theatrics; the duo’s first single, “Up Above My Head,” was a huge hit, and over the next few years they played to tremendous crowds across the church circuit.
However, in the early ’50s Tharpe and Knight cut a handful of straight blues sides; their fans were outraged, and although Knight soon made a permanent leap into secular music — to little success — Tharpe remained first and foremost a gospel artist, although her credibility and popularity were seriously damaged. Not only did her record sales drop off and her live engagements become fewer and farther between, but many purists took Tharpe’s foray into the mainstream as a personal affront; the situation did not improve, and she spent over a year touring clubs in Europe, waiting for the controversy to die down. Tharpe’s comeback was slow but steady, and by 1960 she had returned far enough into the audience’s good graces to appear at the Apollo Theatre alongside the Caravans and James Cleveland. While not a household name like before, she continued touring even after suffering a major stroke in 1970, dying in Philadelphia on October 9, 1973.