Fifty years on from Nina Simone's performance at Westbury Music Fair on 7 April 1968, Ian from Flatpack reflects on one of his favourite albums.
When I was about fourteen I inherited a radiogram, one of those monolithic pieces of stereo furniture with an old-fashioned radio dial (Luxembourg, Hilversum, etc) and a record player. It seemed to take up half my bedroom, and of the five or six records I owned 'Nuff Said! was probably the one that got the most heavy rotation. It opens with an announcement: "Westbury Music Fair takes great pride in presenting the High Priestess of Soul, Miss Nina Simone." The compere's stilted voice and the sedate tone of the opening two numbers (In the Morning, Sunday in Savannah) always led me to imagine a recital hall on a Sunday afternoon; sun pouring through the windows at the back, pressed linen in the audience, Nina holding court at the piano. Then Savannah closes with a righteous crescendo - "it's the same state, the same feeling, don't you dare go fishing son" - and in the quiet afterwards a good-natured heckle from the crowd which I've never been able to decipher. "Didn't she do it?" replies Simone, gently. "Well alright - I hope you got that on that tape."
Every intonation is lodged in the memory from years of over-playing this LP, even the brief record-jump which my cassette copy preserved. What cast such a spell? The clue is in the heckle. The singer has created an electric connection with her audience, and she's channeling something for them. I had an idea of what this something was - side two opens with the introduction "of course this whole programme is dedicated to the memory of Dr Martin Luther King. You know that." But I had no Google at the time, and no particular desire to demystify this mysterious record. The sleeve notes made it clear that the song she launches into - Why? (The King of Love is Dead) - had been written by bass-player Gene Taylor in the two days between King's assassination and this concert, but I wasn't really aware of the rioting and grief that was burning up the country at the time. I'd domesticated the performance in my mind by projecting it into a sun-dappled Southern scene.
It turns out that RCA played a part in this domestication. At the point on Why? where the record fades into applause, Simone is only just getting started. Listen to the full 13-minute version and you hear a litany of recent deaths: Hughes, Coltrane, Redding - "they're shooting us down, one by one." The singer's implication is pretty clear, spelt out at the same gig in her rendering of Mississippi Goddamn with the aside "I ain't about to be non-violent, honey." (Unsurprisingly this didn't make the cut either. 'Nuff Said! is an apt title for a live album which was so heavily censored.)
Elsewhere Peter Guralnick has written about this moment as a death-knell for southern soul, driving a wedge between the black and white musicians who helped build Stax, while the documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston makes a case for the Godfather of Soul averting a riot with his stagecraft. What Nina Simone did that night in Westbury, Long Island is very different, yet again demonstrating a peerless ability to inhabit a song and provide a lightning-rod for her audience's emotions. Why? is the most explicit nod to that moment - and still pretty miraculous as a rapid-response elegy - but the whole performance crackles with something which came through my radiogram loud and clear, regardless of the missing pieces.
Do you have a favourite album from 1968? There's a pretty big pool to choose from. If you'd like to share your LP with others, there's a listening room at our Vinyl Drop-in on Sunday 15th April at the Custard Factory. Drop us a line for more info - firstname.lastname@example.org - or just turn up with your record on the day.