Five Out of Five is a new writing series at Bitter Melodies on any album from history that deserves your typical “5 star” review. The project intends to not only highlight and go in-depth on the greatest albums of all time but also to set the parameters for what a “5 star” album should sound like. The “5 star” signifier is too often flippantly used on albums that simply can’t compare to the best of all time; it has to be a very specific category or a 5-star review is rendered meaningless. The order in which these albums are written about is of no significance as it’s completely random. Hopefully by the end of this series, the albums written about add up to a clear “5 star” canon of albums that every avid music listener should have knowledge of.
In 1966, radio stations WLIB and WHAT in New York and Philadelphia banned Nina Simone’s “Four Women” from airplay citing that the lyrics were too rough for sensitive ears. WLIB and WHAT have important places in African-American radio history. WHAT in Philadelphia was the first U.S. radio station to hire a full-time Black announcer and to have a regular show with a Black woman as a hostess; this was all in the 1940s. WLIB in New York broadcast to the Harlem communities and also broke color barriers with some of the most impactful Black disc jockeys in history. In the ’70s, Malcolm X’s lawyer and some of the disc jockeys banded together to buy the station from its White owners. All-in-all, you have two of the most progressive radio stations in American history banding together to censor one of the most important songs of the 20th century.
The reasons why isn’t as simple as White radio station owners taking a political stand against radical Civil Rights music, though in essence that’s what they were doing unknowingly. “Four Women” is a brutal listen even to this day — tackling the pain and horrors of a racist and misogynistic world without mincing words. The song travels from the whipping of backs during slavery to a woman being born out of rape from a rich White man and to a young girl engaging in prostitution. To say the least, it’s one of the most gutting songs ever recorded. The cycling, cascading piano is as crisp today as it was in 1966 and was notably sampled for Jay-Z’s excellent “The Story of O.J.” in 2017. The original censorship of the song could be seen as an early ham-fisted rendition of a trigger warning to soften the blow of the painful experiences that Simone details, but that would be the kindest reading possible. More likely, the censorship was brought about by complaints from older generations not wanting to discuss difficult topics with younger ears. It’s understandable, but Simone sings of experiences that just can’t be allowed to happen without a proper discussion of why they do. For many potential listeners in Harlem and Philadelphia, this song wasn’t a history lesson; they were one of the women or their mother, sister, grandmother or aunt was. Though Simone had been a jazz/soul leader for almost a decade at this point, she sings with a specific form of empathy on “Four Women” that could speak to anybody that could relate to the song. She cares for these women; she literally embodies them and carries their stories around the world.
“Four Women” comes from Nina Simone’s greatest album Wild Is the Wind, her fifth album during the epochal Philips records run. Simone’s In Concert from 1964 restarted her career from one of excellent jazz standards to activist singer-songwriter. The material she’d write herself made up some of her most impactful work (“Old Jim Crow” and “Mississippi Goddam”). Two years later, “Four Women” would be her first songwriting credit on an album and the only one on Wild Is the Wind. It’s tempting to discuss Wild Is the Wind as two parts: “Four Women” and the other 10 tracks. Of course, that’s an oversimplification. Simone’s arrangement talents had been finely tuned at this point to give all of these ballads and blues standards the vigor and emotive power that “Four Women” has. The track after “Four Women, “What More Can I Say?” is a mini tour-de-force of its own with the full-fledged horn climax following a tender bass-piano interplay for most of it. The same can be said of “That’s All I Ask,” which was also written by Horace Ott, a songwriter and arranger that also worked with The Shirelles. Ott’s presence was sorely missed on later albums.
The definitive version of “Lilac Wine” exists here (I mean, everything’s the definitive version here). It’s possibly Simone’s greatest romantic ballad as the arrangement puts a spotlight on her tragic-yet-imposing vocals — nobody could balance those two extremes as graceful as Simone. “Lilac Wine” came from a mostly-forgotten 1950 theater production from a mostly-forgotten composer (James Shelton). Earlier versions of “Lilac Wine” kept the Broadway atmosphere fully intact, but Simone unshackled the song and modernized it by simply singing it with her entire soul. What makes for a great cover is knowing that the artist has fully embraced the song as their own. They didn’t just find something they can sing; they found themselves within the lines and fully transported it to the present-day. 28 years later, Jeff Buckley would revive “Lilac Wine” once again for his classic album Grace.
Buckley does “Lilac Wine” plainly in the style of Simone’s version, and he wasn’t the only one inspired by Wild Is the Wind for their own seminal album. Davie Bowie would cover “Wild Is the Wind” as the closer for his 1976 album Station to Station. Much like “Lilac Wine,” the title track is a pristine spotlight on Simone’s vocal and piano prowess. The bass and drums only act as accents throughout until Simone’s trademark climax arrangement style where the vocals rise and drums start clanging around. The song came from the George Cukor film of the same name and was done by Johnny Mathis. The string arrangement and Mathis’ heavy balladeering vocals weigh the original down, but Simone has that uncanny ability to bring a standard back down to earth and then shoot it into the stratosphere. Bowie’s version is also stunning; he pretty much updates Simone’s version with some art rock flare.
This was not the first version of “Wild Is the Wind” to appear on a Nina Simone album. It appeared on At Town Hall in 1959 alongside “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” While the title track was expanded and turned into a bona fide showstopper by 1966, “Black Is the Color…” was essentially in its final form already. Simone had turned the traditional Appalachian folk standard into a haunting minimalist classic that’ll leave goosebumps with her first utterance of “Black.” The song isn’t exactly being reinterpreted, but due to it being embraced into another circle of American history, you start thinking about the connotations of the word “Black” more than ever before. It’s hard to say whether the 1959 or 1966 version of “Black Is the Color…” reigns supreme, but it’s interesting to ponder why Simone would revive it for Wild Is the Wind. Was she pressed for time and knew she had a winner in her back pocket? Did her forays into activist music inspire her to read more into the connotations surrounding the song? Either way, it’s simply another classic stuffed into an album that doesn’t even crack the 40-minute mark.
Wild Is the Wind is Nina Simone’s only “5-star” album, but there are other strong contenders. In Concert is the closest as it properly kicks off Simone’s legendary ’60s run. Pastel Blues features Simone’s greatest song “Sinnerman” and the great cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” but the surrounding tracks can’t quite match the stunning arrangements found throughout all of Wild Is the Wind. If you have one opportunity to understand everything that’s great about Nina Simone, you can find it all in Wild Is the Wind. The vocals, the piano-led arrangements, the choices in covers, the romance, the heartbreak, the activism — it’s all here, without filler or stale covers. Major music outlets have started to come around as Pitchfork ranked Wild Is the Wind as the fifth best album of the 1960s. Rolling Stone included it in their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list that was updated in 2020 (a bit low at #212, but it’s a start). Time will only improve Nina Simone’s place in music history as a singular legend, and Wild Is the Wind will be cited as the best evidence of that fact.