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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Saturday, 07 April 2018 20:03

Nina Simone – The Colpix Singles

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Fascinating collection of rare singles from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Colpix Singles is a fascinating new collection, released to mark the 80th anniversary of Nina Simone’s birth date, and is available as a two-CD set, remastered in mono, and single Highlights LP on vinyl.

She signed to Colpix – short for Columbia Pictures Records – from Bethlehem Records in 1959. At the time, it must have felt like an astute signing; her version of I Loves Porgy from her debut album had been a Top 20 Billboard hit, and her reputation was rising.

Colpix was an unusual label, however. As the name suggests, they generally released movie soundtracks and albums recorded by actors, and perhaps as a consequence, they were not sure how to market Nina Simone – who was hard to pigeon-hole, and was not a natural fit with the movie-oriented label.

That uncertainty is reflected on Disc One. The first single to be released was Chilly Winds Don’t Blow, which was written and produced by Hecky Krasnow. Krasnow was best known for novelty records, such as Frosty The Snowman, and his style was not a good fit for Simone. The B-side, Solitaire, was far better. Both songs were included on her debut studio LP for the label, The Amazing Nina Simone.

The second single, Children Go Where I Send You, was an adaptation of an old spiritual, which was arranged by Nina herself, and much better suited to her style. The flip-side was the standard, Willow Weep For Me, which is very good, as one would expect.

The label had more success with Simone’s second album, a live recording from September 1959, entitled Nina Simone At Town Hall. The first single from the album, The Other Woman, failed to chart, but is highly regarded nonetheless. The album also produced two further singles, Summertime and Fine And Mellow.

The label was still looking for a hit single, and tried another change of tack in 1960 with the release of Since My Love Has Gone, which was based on a melody by Verdi. There’s a dramatic orchestral arrangement, this time by Stu Phillips, and whilst the results were impressive, it again failed to chart.

Over time, the label seemed to recognise that it was struggling to impose a style on Nina Simone. “I played what I wanted, and nothing else,” she later recalled of her time on the label. “Hell, they weren’t paying me well enough to tell me what to play.”

The next single saw Nina Simone return to the blues, with a fine recording of Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out; a song she later returned to on Pastel Blues (1965). The B-side was even better; an excellent version of Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair, another signature song that she later re-recorded. Giving Nina more say seems to have been effective, with the song charting at 23 on the US R&B chart – her first hit for the label.

Her third album for the label was Nina Simone At Newport, another live recording. The album was a success, reaching 23 on the Billboard pop charts. It spawned the single Trouble In Mind, with Cotton Eyed Joe on the flip side. The single reached number 11 on the R&B charts, but significantly, this was the last hit she had for the label.

Her fourth album, Forbidden Fruit, was recorded in 1961, but mysteriously failed to chart. The first single, Oscar Brown Jr’s Work Song is a classic Simone recording, and again, it seems surprising that it was not a big hit. 

With the hits drying up, Colpix again tried their hand at a novelty single. Come On Back Jack was their response to the Ray Charles hit, Hit The Road, Jack. The single never appeared on an album, and as a result, is considered quite collectable.

With the failure of that single, Colpix seems to have devoted less energy into promoting Nina Simone’s career. She recorded four more albums over the next two years – three live recordings, and a studio album, Nina Simone Sings Ellington (1962), but only two more singles were released, suggesting they had given up on her as a commercial prospect.

In hindsight, the Colpix label was probably not the best fit for Nina Simone, given its movie focus. She recorded eight albums for them over a period of four years, but this only included three studio recordings; an unusual balance which suggests they were not sure how to market her. As a result, Nina Simone’s Colpix recordings are usually less highly regarded than her recordings for Philips which followed, or her later recordings for RCA, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As a result, the Colpix Singles is not the best place to start when exploring Nina Simone’s music; for that, I would recommend Anthology (2003), which is an outstanding collection that includes music from most of the labels she recorded on over the years, including Colpix.

Nevertheless, there is plenty to enjoy on this collection. First of all, it allows the listener to appreciate Nina Simone’s growth as an artist, moving away from the novelty and popular songs the label tried to impose on her, to the folk and blues-oriented songs that became her trademark. Secondly, it includes some rare, non-album tracks that are quite collectable, all re-mastered from the original mono master takes. Thirdly, and most important – there’s some great music here. Songs like The Other Woman, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out, Black Is The Color, Work Song and I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl

If you’re looking to add to your Nina Simone collection, this is a good way to explore some of her lesser-known recordings, many of which deserve great recognition. 

 

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