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Nina Simone: 'Nuff Said
Simone continued to release new studio material up until 1993's A Single Woman (Elektra Records) but with mixed success. Between 1964 and 1993, she had fewer than a half-dozen widely popular singles though I Put a Spell on You (Phillips, 1965) produced two of her most memorable releases; the title track and "Feeling Good" pushed the album into the Billboard Top 20 in the UK, but—signifying her diminished significance in the US—I Put a Spell on You just barely made it into the Top 100 in her native country.
Rather than a platform for her political activism, 'Nuff Said (RCA Victor, 1968) showed just how extensively Simone's influences were spread. The album included covers of two Barry Gibb (The Bee Gees) tunes, George Gershwin, Fletcher Henderson and the famous Rev. Thomas Dorsey spiritual "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." But in the midst of this weirdly eclectic mélange of styles and genres, Simone's most profound statement comes in the form of "Backlash Blues" written by Langston Hughes and Simone, friends and part of an activist group of Black intellectuals and artists.
Simone had recorded the song previously on Nina Simone Sings the Blues (RCA, 1967) but this version was recorded three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the visceral emotion of the twelve-bar blues piece plays out in lyrics such as "You give me second class houses/ And second class schools/ Do you think all colored folks/ Are just second class fools?." Rather than simply lamenting the state of Civil Rights, the song ends with a warning, "You're the one will have the blues not me/ Just wait and see."
Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit
As the original label indicates, the writing credit for "Strange Fruit" is attributed to Lewis Allan. The name was a pseudonym used by Abel Meeropol; not an uncommon practice for Communist party members at the time, though it is not clear that this was Meeropol's motivation.
The Greenwich Village club Café Society opened in 1938 and was the first fully integrated club in the US, though some—like the Cotton Club—occasionally bent their rules for Black "celebrities." The club would eventually host the likes of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis but in its first full year, it regularly capitalized on the talent of Billie Holiday. While her "Strange Fruit" performance was controversial, Café Society's owner, Barney Josephson, had a progressive, left-leaning agenda, one that would later cost him his club in the Communist targeting "Red Scare." He not only welcomed Holiday's performance of the song, but insisted that she close her shows with it.
Margolick's Strange Fruit... relates that having to continually perform the emotionally draining song sickened Holiday, singing it with her eyes closed and likely imagining the "Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." But as it became a staple of her act, Josephson gave the song itself, equal billing to Holiday. Less accepting of the song was Holiday's label, Columbia Records and her producer—the man who "discovered" her—John Hammond. Hammond flatly refused to allow Holiday to record "Strange Fruit" and Holiday sought another label.
A Harlem native of Austrian Jewish immigrants, Milt Gabler began working in his father's Manhattan radio shop as a teenager. When he took it over in the 1930s, he also shifted its business model, buying excess copies of recordings for resale. He was the first music seller to credit all the musicians who participated in a recording, and to sell records by mail. Holiday approached Gabler, offering his company—now rebranded as Commodore Records—the opportunity to issue "Strange Fruit." The record was a major success, putting Commodore on the map and leading to a partnership with the Decca label. Douglas Martin's New York Times obituary for Gabler (July 25, 2001) reported that the producer died with a single photograph of Holiday on his bedside table.