Nina Simone: Little Girl Blue

Significant in being the first album from a leading figure, Simone's long-playing debut is often a dreary disappointment

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As a debut album, Little Girl Blue is a curate’s egg of a recording. Simone was in her mid-20s and still hopeful of a career as a classical pianist. Those hopes faded when she was denied admission to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia on the grounds of race. Needing to support herself, she reluctantly started to play the local clubs, adopting a new identity so that her family would not know she was playing jazz, folk and blues.

Given her classical training, it is no surprise that Simone’s piano playing is both sophisticated and complex. You may be listening to the blues but there is no doubt that there are strong elements of J S Bach running through many of the tracks. The arrangements are simple, with just bass and drum accompaniment, leaving plenty of room for Simone to improvise.

At this stage of her career, she is vocally less confident and more cautious; often hiding behind extended solos or instrumentals. Nonetheless, the album is a marker for where Simone will venture in the future. Often referred to as a jazz singer, Simone was equally at home with gospel, soul and folk. Yet despite all the positives, this album still leaves the listener feeling dissatisfied.

The slow tracks – Don’t Smoke In Bed and He Needs Me – verge on the morbid and the instrumental rendering of You’ll Never Walk Alone is played in a contrived, pseudo-classical style. But when Simone swings or ups the tempo, the album comes to life, and you get a much more confident and carefree artist. In some ways, the album seems to match Simone’s contrasting and contradictory moods at the time.

The album was released by Bethlehem records, to whom she sold the rights for $3000, thus depriving herself of some generous future royalties. Dissatisfied by the way Bethlehem promoted the album, Simone subsequently moved to Colpix. Unknown to Simone, Bethlehem released a subsequent recording (Nina Simone And Her Friends) from material recorded at the same time.

This is not a great first album, but it is an important milestone in the Simone’s career. Mercifully, there is only one bonus track – He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands – and this was recorded at the same sessions. This 180-gram, blue vinyl, limited-edition version is of the high quality I have come to expect from this series.

Discography
Mood Indigo; Don’t Smoke In Bed; He Needs Me; Little Girl Blue; Love Me Or Leave Me; My Baby Just Cares For Me; He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands; Good Bait; Plain Gold Ring; You’ll Never Walk Alone; I Loves You Porgy; Central Park Blues (46.26)
Simone (v, p); Jimmy Bond (b); Albert “Tootie” Heath (d). New York, December 1957.
20th Century Masterworks Colored Series 350237