DEAR JERRY: Many artists have a signature song, one instantly connected with them and only them. Tony Bennett's “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”; Wayne Newton's “Danke Schoen”; and Dean Martin's “Everybody Loves Somebody” are three such examples.
Yet when it comes to a signature song for Nina Simone, there are at least three different answers: “I Loves You Porgy”; “Mississippi Goddam”: and “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” are all referred to as her most famous recording.
As far as I know, Nina's only hit was “I Loves You Porgy,” making it a no-brainer.
“My Baby Just Cares for Me” was one of her early singles, but bombed, and I know nothing about “Mississippi Goddam.” I doubt any radio station would have played such a song, at least not in those days.
Do you agree with me?
Lucille Carmichael, Philadelphia
DEAR LUCILLE: I do agree with you … though there is one little proviso: “I Loves You Porgy” is only a no-brainer to folks living in America in the late 1950s and early '60s.
Simone's “Porgy,” as it is sometimes shown (Bethlehem 11021), reached the Top 15 in the States in 1959, and was her only U.S. hit of consequence. However, Nina's soulful revival of the Gershwins' “Porgy and Bess” standard went nowhere in Europe. Most folks in that part of the world, especially the British, might say “Porgy? Isn't he that Looney Tunes pig?”
Over there, the best-known Nina Simone tune is “My Baby Just Cares for Me” (Bethlehem 3031) not that listeners on either side of the Atlantic heard it in 1962 when first issued as a single.
Remarkably, 25 years later, Paris-based Chanel produced a 30-second TV spot for their No. 5 Parfum, featuring beautiful French actress Carole Bouquet frolicking about to Simone's “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
Both the commercial and the song became wildly popular in Europe, prompting a UK rush-release single of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” backed with “Love Me Or Leave Me” (Charley CZY-7112).
By late November 1987, the tune no one noticed in 1962 held the No. 4 spot on the UK New Musical Express Top 30.
Feeding the frenzy, Aardman Animation (“Wallace & Gromit”; “Chicken Run”; “Flushed Away,” etc.) created a magnificent claymation-style video. The Chanel spot and Aardman video are both on YouTube. See and hear it here!
Which brings us to “Mississippi Goddam.” This is one of seven live cuts on “Nina Simone in Concert,” her first LP for Philips (200135/600135). Issued in June 1964, this collection includes portions of New York performances in March and April.
Anyone buying “Nina Simone in Concert” expecting the folk-blues repertoire found on her earlier live albums (“Nina at Town Hall”; “At Newport”; “At the Village Gate”; “At Carnegie Hall”) may have slipped into shock.
The program begins with a new reading of “I Loves You Porgy,” and includes two more of her 1958 recordings: “Plain Gold Ring” and “Don't Smoke in Bed.”
Simone then uses the four remaining selections, “Old Jim Crow”; “Go Limp”; “Pirate Jenny”; and “Mississippi Goddam,” to sermonize her views on race-related issues.
This she did more than a year before Barry McGuire's protest song, “Eve of Destruction,” topped all the nation's charts, creating a new genre for gloom, doom, and even violent revolution themes.
I'd say this line from “Mississippi Goddam” falls into that category:
“This whole country is full of lies, and you all gonna die; die like flies.”
As you suspected, no radio station would even consider airing “Mississippi Goddam.” Flying in the face of reasonable expectations, the label still released the song as a single (Philips 40216).
“Mississippi Goddam,” written by Nina, may be her most controversial song, but not her most famous.
Neither this tune, nor the one preceding it, “Old Jim Crow” (Philips 40194), stood a chance of being a hit.
Even “Nina Simone in Concert” failed to make the Top 100 albums, pretty much the case with all her LPs except “Nina at Newport” (Colpix 412).
Simone left America in 1970, landing first in Barbados. In 1992, several countries and continents later, Nina found a permanent home in France, where she remained until her death in April 2003.
IZ ZAT SO? In response to negative feedback from the media over “Mississippi Goddam,” in which she sings those words six times, Philips created a custom, promotional 45 rpm for dee jays.
A special paper sleeve shows the 'new' title as “Mississippi *@!!?*@!,” along with an explanation of how all mentions of “goddam” is replaced by beeping tones.
To say this bizarre concoction was awful is to be as complimentary as possible.