Sixty years ago, Nina Simone was not yet quite an icon. The legendary singer, pianist, songwriter, and civil-rights activist—who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April—turned 25 in 1958. Her debut album, Little Girl Blue, had just been released on Bethlehem Records, an up-and-coming jazz label. Among Bethlehem’s alumni were Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and a promising young saxophonist from Miles Davis’s band named John Coltrane. Simone, on the other hand, had been signed as more of a pop-jazz artist; the label, after all, was also the home of Mel Tormé. Relatively unknown, Simone was a fresh face to find success by safely interpreting the standards of the day, albeit by using her uniquely husky voice and bluesy yet classically informed piano playing.
Little Girl Blue kicked off a run of singles Simone made between 1958 and 1963 for both Bethlehem and another New York label, Colpix Records. The singles she released during that period, many of them drawn from the Great American Songbook, have been collected on two anthologies out this month: Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles (via BMG Records) and Nina Simone: The Colpix Singles (via Stateside Records). These early singles have often been overlooked in favor of her original, historically important compositions such as 1964’s “Mississippi Goddam” and 1970’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” both of which became rallying cries for the civil-rights movement. But viewed together, her pop-oriented output on Bethlehem and Colpix form a charismatic portrait of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists in the first flush of her prowess.