Our weekly segment, Juxtapoz Sound and Vision, explores a piece of substantial album artwork every Sunday to look at one of the primary ways musicians and visual artists collaborate. Many popular album covers become iconic pieces of pop art, and they’re a great excuse for us to share some favorites along with the visual components that make an album memorable.
July 21, 2019: Nina Simone, Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967)
Cover photography by David Hollander
We were hesitant to put Nina Simone Sings the Blues so close to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on our Sound and Vision series, not only because of their closeness in years (Simone-1967, Coltrane-1965), but because of the composition on their covers. The intensity, the almost mythical sound of the music, the eyes peering off into the distance with purpose and intention. They feel like similar artists, too, in a way. Nina Simone in 1967 was at the peak of her powers, fresh off her classic 1966 album, High Priestess of Soul, and yet Blues was her debut with RCA and an instant classic that seemed to up the ante. I dont’ claim to have lived in 1967, but something tells me hearing “The House of the Rising Sun” in 1967 was revelation. As the tumultuous and enlightening years of Civil Rights, Vietnam and the Summer of Love all began to intersect, there was this voice, this soul, these blues. And over 50 years later, the album seems as vital as ever to contemporary America.
“Backlash Blues,” with Civil Rights-inspired lyrics by poet, Langston Hughes, feels the most traditional blues, rough around the edges even. Some have called the album “gritty,” but it just feels like Simone’s composed a tight, focused collection. The cover is sparse but hypnotic, like the music. It’s just her eyes: determined, intense, focused. If those eyes don’t tell you the story of the artist, I don’t know what will. David Hollander photographed the sessions for the album at RCA Studios in NY, which you can see documented via the Daily Beast above. That documentation led to the album’s photo cover, with a classic Jazz album typography treatment over the top. Nina Simone, to this writer, feels like a singular force in music, and this cover seems to exemplify that fact.
Nina Simone has found her way into more and more pop-culture contexts in recent years. Kanye West, in particular, has sampled Simone’s work, and more and more influential media writers are putting Simone in her rightful place as one of the great American artists on the last 100 years. Nina Simone Sings the Blues remains a special release in the Simone catalog, at the right crossroads of personal and international conflict, 13-songs of deep reflection and emotional depth. This album may be called the blues, but this was all about soul, and this collection captured the soul of a nation in transition. And still does.