Listeners experiencing 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Nina Simone's debut recordings for the first time might be taken aback at the ferocity and determination which mark these fourteen sides, compiled for the first time in complete form on CD as Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles (BMG 538320282). Those qualities distinguished this remarkable artist throughout a long and fiery career, but were thrillingly present at her very first sessions.
Pianist-singer Simone began her recording career at the jazz-oriented Bethlehem Records label at the age of 25 in 1958. Her debut album Little Girl Blue (named for the Rodgers and Hart standard) would feature 11 of the 14 tracks she recorded for the label, including what would become a signature song: her quietly intense voice-and-piano of rendition of "Porgy (I Loves You Porgy)" from George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's Broadway opera, Porgy and Bess. By the time "Porgy" began rising on the charts, Simone had already moved on to Colpix Records, but Bethlehem continued to capitalize on the artist's small trove of recordings for the label both on the collection Nina Simone and Her Friends (also featuring Chris Connor and Carmen McRae) and on 45 RPM singles. Between 1959 and 1962, Bethlehem issued all of the material Simone had recorded for the label. These fourteen seminal recordings, in their original mono single versions, comprise Mood Indigo.
Eunice Kathleen Waymon reinvented herself as Nina Simone, in part, to remain undetected from disapproving family members as she played the nightclubs of her adopted hometown of Philadelphia and nearby Atlantic City. But the lithe new name echoed the discovery of the real artist within the onetime child piano prodigy. If the repertoire on Mood Indigo was, for the most part, reflective of the typical jazz songbook of the day, Simone's treatment of it was anything but standard. It's easy to imagine the chanteuse bringing a buzzing club audience to a hush. Simone spellbound audiences by bringing classical influences to jazz and popular standards, while also imbuing these sophisticated works with the earthiness and intensity of the blues, and the fervor of gospel.
Simone demanded creative control from the start, a testament to her clear sense of self from the very beginning. Her Bethlehem sessions were either solo piano (similar to her club approach) or in a trio with Jimmy Bond on bass and Albert "Tootie" Heath on drums. In any setting, though, her voice - unmistakably smoky, husky, and piercing in its quest for the emotional truth - was the star. Simone made a pair of songs closely associated with another impeccable stylist, Peggy Lee, her own (the torch lament "He Needs Me" and steamy "Don't Smoke in Bed") - no small feat. She brought cool insouciance to a shuffling "My Baby Cares Just for Me."
Uptempo material took a backseat to deliberate, heavily atmospheric ballads. Yet a few choice songs showcased Simone's gracefully swinging side including her original instrumentals, "African Mailman" and "Central Park Blues," and a seemingly effortless vocal reading of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo," the selection that gives this collection its title. But even on a swinger like Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn's "Love Me or Leave Me," Simone tapped into her classical training for a striking, Bach-inspired piano solo.
Indicative of the artist's inspired re-settings of familiar tunes, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" was rendered not with rousing joy, but with a moody, deep-soul spirituality. (The single version here is a completely different take from the album version, so completists will naturally want to seek out that take, too.) "Good King Wenceslas" was incorporated into the stately arrangement of "Little Girl Blue." Classical piano flourishes abound on her brooding solo piano reinvention of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone" and a stirringly dramatic version of Fred Coots and Sam Lewis' "For All We Know." Encapsulating her art, the performance of George Stone's obscure "Plain Gold Ring" is pure heart and soul, laid bare for all to hear.
BMG's CD release, produced by Cheryl Pawelski for Omnivore Creative, features a 20-page booklet with comprehensive liner notes by jazz historian Ashley Kahn. Equally exemplary is the sound as remastered by Michael Graves. This set is also available on vinyl, with an exclusive colored vinyl edition out via Barnes and Noble. Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles finally brings together these landmark recordings from a true American original into one user-friendly, collector-oriented package. That's reason to rejoice, indeed.
Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles is available now at: