Years ago, a friend of mine organised a benefit concert for women (I forget what the actual cause was) that was headlined by Nina Simone. It turned out, much to my friend’s surprise, that Ms Simone behaved throughout like an arrogant, prima donna-ish arse. My response to this: she’s Nina Simone, she can do what she likes.
Simone’s greatest strength, I think, is as an interpreter of other people’s songs. While nodding to the originals, she always took them somewhere else, stamping herself all over the songs and effectively claiming them as her own. Her versions of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and Here Comes The Sun (for starters) are a case in point. I suspect that this has as much to do with her (justifiable) arrogance as it has to do with her incredible talent as a musician.
What I love most about her though is her voice. It’s not pretty or soulful or tender – but it’s somehow all of those things. Even when it’s at its most foghorn-ish, or it’s slipping out of tune, there’s a real strength and beauty there. Something really unique and unusual. A voice you just don’t want to mess with. And it’s possible that because she obviously wasn’t a naturally gifted singer that she twisted the songs she covered to suit her marvellous voice.
This version of Suzanne, while demonstrating Simone’s powers, also offers evidence of how Leonard Cohen is almost always best served by other people having a crack at his songs.
Two versions of Suzanne here: the studio version and a fantastic live performance from 1969.