Judging by its original album cover, Nina Simone’s 1985 record “Nina’s Back” might as well have been called “Talk to the Hand.” It featured a photo of Simone relaxing by a pond – except the singer is facing away from the camera. We just see, literally, Nina’s back – and the back of her head. 

Nina’s Back: the original cover for the 1985 record.

The visual pun reflected her situation, and her increasing ambivalence with the business of music. By then, the Juilliard-trained Simone had released more than 20 albums, performed worldwide to capacity crowds and jumped from label to label – all without earning a single gold record in her birth country or otherwise becoming a major commercial presence.

After being a prodigious classical pianist turned jazz singer in the 1950s (“I didn’t get interested in music; it was a gift from God,” she once said), an incendiary activist singer in the ‘60s and a RCA-signed major label artist in the ‘70s, by the time Simone entered the ‘80s she was tired of the whole song and dance. She’d released 22 albums between 1959 and 1970. In the fifteen years between then and “Nina’s Back,” she only released five. In the interim, she’d moved from America to Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland and, finally, France. 

Until Verve Records announced this new Nina’s Back reissue campaign – with a better, pun-free cover – the album never received much attention. By 1985, Simone had no patience or money for the kind of major PR campaigns she’d once received with more established labels. An article that year with the Guardian to promote Simone’s week-long residency at famed jazz club Ronnie Scott’s didn’t mention the existence of her new album at all. 

Nina Simone. Photo: Ferrandis/Dalle/Cache Agency courtesy of Verve Records.

“I was trying to settle down,” she said in that interview, of a semi-retirement that started in the mid-1970s. She added that she was also working “to get out of the music business, because it’s too hard … and it’s not fair.” Simone was characteristically blunt that same year in a TV interview: “I’m tired of begging for it. I’m too old to keep asking for love from the industry.”

Although that industry likely stopped loving her because she didn’t sell records, the studio still pulled her back. Specifically, in 1985 Simone and producer Eddie Singleton booked a session band into Rock Steady Studios in West Hollywood, which had recently hosted successful projects for Patti Labelle, the Temptations and Thelma Houston. Simone also tracked at the Power Station in New York. 

She’d dabbled with synths and contemporary sounds on 1982’s “Fodder on My Wings,” but Simone fully committed to new sounds and ‘80s-style production for “Nina’s Back.” Her acoustic piano is often buried in the mix, regularly overwhelmed by the Waters Family’s backing vocals and accented by jazz and blues guitarist Arthur Adams. A horn trio – Ray Brown on trumpet, Allan Barnes on saxophone and George Bohanon on trombone – injects Stax-like accents.

“It’s cold out here,” Simone sings on the opening track, a sonic shock that transports the artist’s piano, voice and songs into a glistening 1980s dance club. A mid tempo R&B protest song with splashy 1980s snares and synth washes, it finds Simone bellowing in her rich contralto about a life in which “You have to roll like thunder/Just to keep from going under.” Her voice drenched in reverb, the singer across the record’s nine songs fully embraces the sound of commercial R&B and soul of the time, while imbuing it with her own insistent, urgent contralto. 

By the conclusion of “Nina’s Back,” Simone seems to have stepped away from the microphone by a few feet so she could dance and gesticulate for “You Must Have Another Lover.” Her voice teeming with echo, she barks at her suspiciously late man like she’s in her nightgown at the top of the stairs shouting down at the front door. With production that grooves as if Simone were being backed by the Gap Band or Cameo, it’s a far cry from the acoustic clarity of singer’s righteous protest song “Mississippi Goddam” or the best of her classic Colpix, Philips and RCA records. At the same time, it illuminates a genius interpreter from a whole other perspective, one uninterested in the past and eager to push forward.    

“I have enormous will. I live on my will,” she told DJ Tom Schnabel in 1987. By then, Simone had fully rejected the notion of “genius,” or that her life was necessarily more fulfilling than it would have been had she not been born with the gift. “I serve God with my music, and I’m very, very, very happy to be given these gifts. But as far as I’m concerned, my being a human being – and an imperfect human being – has made me ill-equipped to deal with the talent that God gave me.”

Randall Roberts is an award-winning music and culture journalist, and a former music editor at the Los Angeles Times.

Header image: Illustration of Nina Simone. ‘Nina’s Back’ album cover. Courtesy of Verve Records.