May 7, 2018

Nina Simone: The Colpix Singles


The singer’s stint at the label (1959 to 1963) was a strange and frustrating period


NINA SIMONE’S STINT at Colpix Records, taking in the years 1959 to 1963, was a strange and frustrating period for the singer. Yielding a wealth of uneven recordings, the results varied from brilliant to ill-conceived. Of course, you could say that of most of the periods of Simone’s career. One of the hardest major artists of the twentieth century to classify into one or even two genres, she restlessly flitted between jazz, pop, soul, folk, gospel, and more. As bold as she was, her very adventurousness guaranteed both hits and misses.

At Colpix, though, the highs weren’t quite as high as they’d be in the mid-to-late 1960s. As she’d just established herself as a jazz-pop vocalist of note on the Bethlehem label with her Top Twenty version of “I Loves You, Porgy,” the larger Colpix company no doubt hoped she could replicate that success. But Simone wasn’t really a singles-centric singer, her artistry too wide-ranging to be contained on seven-inch records.

That didn’t stop Colpix from trying to get hits with Nina, however. They issued more than a dozen singles while she was with the company, and the A- and B-sides from all of them are on Stateside/Rhino’s two-CD, 27-track compilation The Colpix Singles. Less striking, mature, and imaginative than her peak work for Philips in the mid-‘60s, it still shows her developing into an artist of distinction, if in a poppier and less creative mold than she’d explore in her subsequent Philips and
RCA recordings.

Simone wrote or co-wrote just three of the songs, and her covers tended toward jazz-pop standards by the likes of Rodgers-Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and Hoagy Carmichael. She sounds gutsier and more confident when she sinks her teeth into more contemporary, bluesier material, like Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” (covering the adaptation incorporating lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr.). She’s also more forceful when putting highly individual stamps on traditional folk tunes, particularly “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Little Liza Jane.”

Simone’s strengths as an idiosyncratic vocalist shone best on haunted and somber material, though she could be likeably sassy and more upbeat, good-natured numbers. Her talents as a jazzy pianist with touches of her classical training are estimable too, though production-wise, Colpix took a rather all-over-the-map approach. That’s especially the case on the flurry of singles — eight of them — it unleashed between fall 1959 and the end
of 1960.


Some of these have hokey orchestration and backup choral vocals that, at their most dated, sound like a throwback to pre-rock days, or at least more at home on soundtrack LPs than pop-jazz ones. Some are live recordings that are more at home on albums than 45s, and not especially hitbound material, despite their virtues. But sometimes, wisdom prevails and the backup’s a simple jazz combo, as on the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send You,” “Trouble in Mind,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” The sparser arrangements tend to be the most effective, especially on her stark, even spooky live adaptation of the folk standard “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” which has only her voice and piano until the very end.

The singles declined in frequency from 1961 to 1963, Colpix perhaps realizing that Simone should be an album-oriented act. Some of the later cuts display more command and confidence than her earlier work, like “Gin House Blues” and the aforementioned “Work Song.” There’s still too much jazz in these to be labeled early soul, but Nina did more or less take a stab at the soul market with “Come on Back Jack,” an “answer” record to Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road, Jack.” It’s kind of fun, but also kind of contrived.

By 1963 Colpix wasn’t pushing Simone hard in the 45 market, and just two songs here, a live version of “Little Liza Jane” and its B-side “Blackbird,” date from that year. More than any other track on this compilation, “Blackbird” (its composition credited to her and Herbert Sacker) anticipates her more accomplished and personal work of the mid-to-late 1960s.

Backed only by hard-to-identify percussion—it sounds like a combination of hands slapping, bongos, and an eerie pulsating vibration from another instrument—it takes the spiritual/gospel feel of much of Simone’s early work into almost avant-garde territory, with more than a hint of African folk. It’s not hit single stuff by any means, but that hardly mattered then, and it doesn’t matter at
all now.

Despite Colpix’s repeated attempts, none of these songs were hits, though “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” made #93, and “Trouble in Mind” #92. Fortunately, her Colpix output wasn’t limited to 45s, though it overexposed her, issuing eight LPs (plus a compilation) of live and studio recordings in four years. Taken on its own, The Colpix Singles give a fair idea of her musical progression, as fitful and erratic as it was, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But if you already have a lot of Simone on Colpix, is this worth adding to your collection? That depends on exactly what you own. There have been a good number of CD reissues of her Colpix material, the best of them being Rhino’s two-disc Anthology: The Colpix Years, from 1996. And indeed, almost half of The Colpix Singles isn’t on Anthology, though these tend to be the less impressive standards. Anthology did cherry-pick the best cuts, so this is more of a fill-in for completists.

If you’re a completist to the point of being a fetishist, note that The Colpix Singles does have seven single edits that appear for the first time since their original release. Perhaps of greater appeal to collectors, all have been remastered in mono. Also note, however, that with just over 78 minutes of running time, this could have fit onto a single CD, though the two-disc format does allow for gatefold packaging with repros of inner labels of a few Colpix 45s. The liners aren’t extensive but do give a reasonable overview of the contents.

Most important of all, if you’re new to Simone, don’t confuse this with a best-of. She made some good music on these singles as she was finding her feet, both as a performer and a recording artist. But it was in the mid-1960s that she would truly blossom, in part because she developed a greater social consciousness, both in the songs she wrote and those she covered. Yet some of the seeds of her intriguing eclecticism—which she’d very much retain on Philips and RCA, remaining equally difficult to pigeonhole into one or two styles — were planted on
these tracks.


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