Release Date: July 13th, 1965
Words by: Greg Webster
July 14th, 2015
The word 'legend' is used far to casually at the best of times. But when it comes to Nina Simone, it's a descriptor that really does fit. Simone’s is a vocal and musical talent like no other, and Pastel Blues captures her at the height of her powers.
Raised on blues and southern gospel, it was said that people would come to church just to hear Simone play. Yet, her first love was classical music. Simone was famously refused entry to the prestigious Curtis Institute because she was black. She thus had to fund her classical lessons by playing 'the devils music' in and around the clubs of New York and Atlantic City.
Simone sold the rights to her first album for just $3000. Tucked away on that recording was a song called "My Baby Just Cares for Me", which went on to become one of the most recognisable recordings in popular music history.
Pastel Blues came a few years later, presenting a group of songs that on the surface seem to share nothing more in common than they occupy the same piece of vinyl. If you believe great albums should have some sort of overall narrative then you might be disappointed.
The album opens with the astonishing "Be my Husband", the writing credits of which were attributed to then husband and manager Andrew Stroud. It is a case of less is more - beautifully sparse with a simple high-hat and a foot stomp to showcase the most stirring of voices. The song has been covered countless times since its release, though Simone’s version remains unsurpassed.
Then follows a Bessie Smith classic, "Nobody knows you when you're down and out". Bright and optimistic in tone despite the lyric, it has the feel of the prodigal returning. Better still is "End of the Line", showcasing Simone in her classical light. She sings over what could be a piano concerto from the romantic period - a lament for a love gone cold and the memory of happier times. It’s a standout track. “Trouble in Mind" is a bright, optimistic eight-bar blues chug; and "Tell me more and then some" brings in a droning southern blues harp.Simone stares out from the album cover painted in a light grey-blue wash. Is she haunted? Disturbed? Who knows.
The best is kept until last. "Strange Fruit" is a song that Billy Holiday bravely made her own. Based on a photograph of the lynching of two African Americans in the late 1930’s, Abel Meeropol had composed it first as a poem and then set it to music. The liner notes refer to the song as Simone's only dalliance with 'the problem' - a guarded reference to the state of African American relations at the time. In fact, it’s difficult to hear this song without imagining some of the context because Simone, in many ways, reflected the soul and music of the people at the centre of the Civil Rights Movement. Earlier in the year she had performed à cappella on the final night of the famed march from Selma to Montgomery, which turned out to be a watershed.
The lyric is chilling:
"Southern trees bear strange fruit.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze".
It is Simone at her most intense - her sparse, dissonant piano chords picking at the problem.
"Sinnerman" takes us back to her gospel roots. Suddenly you're there in church somewhere in the Deep South. Simone is on piano and her pastor mother is calling the brethren to repentance. It’s breathless and twitchy. The words tumble out of her at a run, but there is nowhere for the sinner man to run to. At 10:19 mins. it is an epic track driven along by high-hats, cymbals and hand clapping. Billboard said that "Sinnerman" was "worth the price of the album alone," and it is. An often covered song - this is the definitive version.
Pastel Blues is a timeless album. It could have been recorded anytime but it was recorded in America in the middle of perhaps the most tumultuous of twentieth-century decades. Through it all, Simone stares out from the album cover painted in a light grey-blue wash. Is she haunted? Disturbed? Who knows.