To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story

Title: To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story
Artist: Nina Simone
Label: Sony Legacy
Catalog No.: 886971100921
Release date: 9/30/2008

To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story is a four disc (3 CDs + DVD) box set that chronologically covers the 36 year recording career of pianist/singer Nina Simone. Released by Legacy Recordings, the set is unique in providing a career-long profile of Simone’s music and life. A total of 51 songs comprise the compact discs. The DVD is a 23 minute audio/visual montage of 10 song and interview segments. Expansive and well researched liner notes are included with a brief overview on the artist by Ed Ward and background on the compilation provided by the set’s producer, Richard Seidel. Track by track notes are provided by David Nathan. Interspersed between the liner notes are black & white photographs of Simone from youth to middle age. Together, the CDs, video and liner notes provide valuable contextualization and position Simone as an important musical and political figure who was shaped by and played a role in shaping the social movements of her day.

The compact disc selections include 8 previously unreleased tracks and 43 reissues of songs spanning ten record labels, from Simone’s recording debut on Bethlehem in 1957 to her final major label recording on Elektra in 1993. An objective of the set (as stated by Seidel) is to highlight Simone’s distinctive conflation of eclectic musical genres or facets thereof inclusive of classical music, jazz, R&B, Broadway musicals, blues, folk songs, gospel and spirituals, rock, French songs, civil rights protest repertoire, and reggae. From a cultural research perspective, Simone’s eclectic mixture of music genres successfully counters music industry marketing strategies, at play since the 1920s, which tended to categorize Black music within rigidly constructed boundaries (e.g., “R&B” or “popular”) (see Maultsby 2006; Mahon 2004:142-175).

At the outset of her recording career, Simone was a prodigious musical talent foundationally grounded in classical music. Having experienced the harsh realities of racial discrimination and an early failed marriage, she brought a breadth of musical and personal maturity to her first recording date at the age of 24. Co-musical accompaniment on the selections ranges from jazz drums and bass instrumentation to arrangements for full orchestras. Simone’s singing voice-a later compliment to her fluid pianistic skills-is poignant, at times harsh, and almost always captivating.

The first compact disc in the set covers Simone’s career from 1957 to 1968. Twenty songs range in thematic and generic categories from Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” to a French love ballad by Jacques Brel, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” to “Four Women,” a Simone original that addresses the discriminatory social effects between four Black women of different skin color. The second compact disc includes seventeen recordings from 1968 to 1969. The opening selection is a Simone composition, “Mississippi Goddam,” written for the highly publicized 1963 murder of four black girls in Alabama. The song was recorded in a live performance within days following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Simone’s reference to the tragedy and her rebuke to her audience to “sing along with me… for God’s sake … the time is late” is sadly stirring. In stark contrast, the following song by Barry Gibb (of The Bee Gees), “In the Morning,” is an optimistic outlook on the potentialities of carefree life. The CD closes with Leonard Cohen’s poem set to music, “Suzanne.” The third compact disc spans recordings from 1969 to 1993. Simone’s deeply moving delivery of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” is enhanced by background data on her life, including the recent separation from her second husband, Andrew Stroud. For the final 33 years of Simone’s life, from the early 1970s to her death in 2003, she lived outside of the United States, variously in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. The final two selections of the box set reflect the world weary life that had become Simone’s-an orchestrated reggae rendition of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” and Rod McKuen’s “A Single Woman.”

The DVD, produced by Peter Aristotle Rodis, situates an already superb CD box set over the top. One might think of Simone as an explosively, multi-generic, “black aesthetic” artist who brought much more to her performance than mere song. She infuses melody, harmony and rhythm with growls and screams from pain and joy. She rises from her pianistic posture to dance about the stage in an ecstatic trance. She interacts emphatically with the audience and the musicians on stage. In her own words from a late 1960s interview, “I’ve always thought that I was shaking people up, but now I wanna go at it more and I want to go at it deliberately. I want to go at it coldly. I want to shake people up so bad that when I leave a night club … I just want them to go to pieces. Where we’re all groovin.’ And that’s my ideal of a good performance, when I have pleased me and pleased them and everybody’s feeling alright, we’re all groovin’ now.”

Here’s Legacy’s promo video for To Be Free, featuring Simone singing the title track:

Whether you’re a novice to Nina Simone’s music or a long time fan, To Be Free, listed for sale at $49.99, is well worth the price.

Editor’s note: To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story was recently nominated for a Grammy for Best Historical Album.


Maultsby, Portia. 2005. “Marginalizing and Mainstreaming Black Popular Music: An Interpretation of Marketing Labels.” Unpublished paper presented at the 2005 Society for Ethnomusicology conference. Atlanta, Georgia.

Mahon, Maureen. 2004. Right to Rock. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Posted by Karen Faye Taborn