Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue (review)

Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue (BMG)

One of the greatest debuts of all time gets another look

When an artist first appears on record, they are often still finding their way.  Little Richard sounded like Percy Mayfield early on, even Ray Charles emulated Nat Cole before finding his own voice.  That’s what makes Little Girl Blue, the debut from Nina Simone, so spellbinding – she had already developed most of what would make her one of the most unique artists in the history of music, and it’s all on display right here.  The album has just been reissued from BMG.

It’s her spectacular piano work that opens the swinging take on Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.”  Sure, she was making popular music, but it was out of necessity – she had to pay the bills and had been denied entry to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.  Still, one can forget just how phenomenal a pianist Simone really was.  It’s also at the heart of her beautiful rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”  

She makes excellent use of pacing and space on the chilly goodbye of “Don’t Smoke in Bed” – you find yourself hanging on every word.  And her voice is so expressive – sultry on “He Needs Me,” yet bouncy on “Love Me or Leave Me.” She had an uncanny ability to draw on various music styles, often in the same song. Just marvel at how she pulls in “Good King Wenceslas” for the opening of “Little Girl Blue.” 

Probably the most impressive track here is “Good Bait,” an instrumental piano piece she composed herself. There’s so many ideas crammed into a mere 5 1/2 minutes that, when it’s finally over, you expect a clamorous applause, it’s just that good.  “Plain Gold Ring” starts out a cappella, and her voice just pulls you in, before the marching accompaniment joins.  

This album also achieved something she never did after, it placed a single in the Top Twenty of the Pop Charts with her smoky version of “I Loves You Porgy” – sounding like nothing else on the radio or jukeboxes at the time.

Consider that this album marked the first time Simone had ever stepped into a recording studio, she barely rehearsed the material with her band, and most of these tracks were all done in one take.  Little Girl Blue could only have come from an artist with laser sharp focus and talent – Nina Simone was on a mission, and this album documents her confident, first steps.

The thing about Little Girl Blue is that there’s absolutely no missteps. It’s a stellar debut that takes risks, and each time, it pays off.  Certainly, Simone would develop her music deeper, she would grow in confidence to speak her mind and enact change through her songs. Yes, she still had growing to do.  But, Little Girl Blue is our first bite of a strange, and often bitter fruit that was Nina Simone.  A landmark in jazz that still sounds as fresh and vibrant as the day it was released.  —Tony Peters