Nina Simone’s personal biography is a long and complicated one. She was for sure one of the most complex female personalities of black American music in the mid to late 20th century. She was also one of the major innovators of what I refer to as “people music”-utilizing the jazz,blues,soul and funk spectrum of music to speak directly to the ideas of civil rights and black power. A journey from “Mississippi Goddamn” to a move to Liberia (the African nation founded by former American slaves) in a decades time showcases the complex arc of life had by North Carolina native Eunice Kathleen Waymon.
After the mid 70’s,Simone took a hiatus from recording. Though she continued performing,the quality of her shows continued to be extremely erratic. A lot of this could be attributed to the mental illness she learned of in the late 80’s-along with family/marriage discord. During a particularly rough spot in her life living in Brussels,she recorded the album Baltimore on Creed Taylor’s CTI label. She bemoaned having little creative input in the project-such as writing and arrangement. Yet it did produced one of her strongest grooves in a song entitled “The Family”.
Jim Madison’s four beat drum hit,Gary King’s scaling up bass line and the crying guitar of Eric Gale open up the song with the CTI string section for a heavy bluesy vibe. Nina accompanies her vocal lead with a like minded piano as the refrain builds back into itself. The horns,strings,guitar and Nina’s piano all provide alternating call and response bars of melody to each other-including the backup vocals on the choruses that bring in a more funky,danceable rhythm. After Gale takes an extended guitar solo on the bridge,that call and response refrain/chorus extends itself for the remainder of the song until it fades.
Written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins ,”The Family” actually reminds me of exactly the type of song that suited Nina Simone in the late 70’s environment. It possessed the down home bluesy jazz/funk sound of the Crusaders with the orchestral elements that CTI brought in. The gospel vibe of the lyrics,plus Simone’s curtly soulful delivery of them,add to the tale of poverty and the conditions it can bring upon human beings can negatively impact on family relations. It was a fine example of Nina Simone in a studio setting during a time that may not have been personally good for her. But still creatively potent.