In Performance: Nina Simone – ‘I Loves You, Porgy’

Of all the standards comprising the Great American Songbook, few can have inspired such vital and diverse renderings as ‘I Loves You, Porgy’. From its embrace by jazz singers numbering Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, the piece went on to spur Nina Simone’s career in 1958. It played a prominent role in the music of Bill Evans: with an acclaimed performance at the Village Vanguard in 1961 later emerging on the CD version of the album Waltz for Debby; and another interpretation, released in 1968 on Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival, helping Evans and his trio to the 1969 Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group.

Keith Jarrett gave a stirring piano performance for Solo Tribute: Keith Jarrett – The 100th Performance in Japan, recorded live at Suntory Hall in Tokyo in 1987. And in 1994, at the height of her career, Whitney Houston sang ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ as the first part of a medley – followed by ‘And I Am Telling You’ and ‘I Have Nothing’ – at the year’s American Music Awards.

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‘I Loves You, Porgy’ was written with music by George Gershwin, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, for the opera Porgy and Bess. The opera was composed by George, while DuBose Heyward collaborated with Ira towards its libretto.

In 1925 Heyward had published his debut novel Porgy, about a disabled black beggar, living in the slum of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. The titular character takes in and falls in love with a woman named Bess, who is already involved in a relationship with the violent stevedore Crown. Passages in the novel depict its characters speaking in Gullah, a creole which combines English with aspects of West and Central African languages. Gullah is spoken by communities living on the Sea Islands, and across coastal South Carolina and Georgia.

By the following year, George Gershwin had read Heyward’s novel and had already broached the idea of turning it into on opera. In 1927 Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, herself a playwright, adapted the novel for the theatre. Porgy: A Play in Four Acts proved a resounding success. Starring a black cast, it opened at the Guild Theatre on Broadway on 10 October 1927, and over the course of the next few years completed fifty-five weeks in New York, two tours of the northern United States and Canada, and eleven weeks in London.

With its modified ending and increased focus on the character of Sportin’ Life, the play would serve as a close model for the eventual opera. George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward returned to the project in 1934, and Porgy and Bess premiered – after a private concert performance in New York – on 30 September 1935, at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. This initial run featured a full cast of classically trained black singers. George Gershwin would call Porgy and Bess a ‘folk opera’:

‘Porgy and Bess is a folk tale. Its people naturally would sing folk music. When I first began work in the music I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece. Therefore I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs. But they are still folk music – and therefore, being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess becomes a folk opera.’

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Written as a duet, Anne Brown and Todd Duncan – as Bess and Porgy – performed ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ in 1935 and again for the opera’s revival in 1942. But jazz vocalists including Billie Holiday soon began singing solo renditions; and Nina Simone’s recording from Little Girl Blue, her debut album released in June 1958, proved her biggest hit and provided a foundation for her career. In the autumn of 1959, her version of the song reached number 18 on the Hot 100, and number 2 on the R&B chart.

Another take on the song appears at the opening of the 1964 live album, Nina Simone in Concert. The performance displayed above was given in 1962. As the video lists in its opening credits, alongside Simone it showcases Paul Palmieri on guitar, Lisle Atkinson on bass, Warren Smith on percussion, and Montego Joe on conga drum.

‘I Loves You, Porgy’ features in Act 2, Scene 3 of Gershwin’s opera. In fact, at the beginning of her performance, Nina sings lines from the ‘Vendors’ Trio’ which appears earlier in the scene. This is a medley, with lyrics written primarily by Heyward, consisting of the parts ‘Here Comes the Honeyman’, ‘Crab Man’, and ‘Oh, Dey’s So Fresh and Fine’:

‘Crab Man’

CRAB MAN
I’m talkin’ about devil crabs
I’m talkin’ about devil crabs
I’m talkin’ about de food I sells

[…]

‘Oh, Dey’s So Fresh and Fine’

STRAWBERRY WOMAN
Oh dey’s so fresh an’ fine
An’ dey’s jus’ off de vine
Strawberries, strawberries, strawberries,
Oh, dey’s so fresh an’ fine
An’ dey’s jus off de vine,
Strawberries, strawberries, strawberries

Nina rearranges the order, singing the ‘Crab Man’ lines after those from ‘Oh, Dey’s So Fresh and Fine’. Either way, she thus begins the piece as a sales girl, calling out her wares. Her voice is disengaged and distant, plaintive but pure, and tremulous on the word ‘vine’. She brings out an aspect of the songwriting, ‘just off de vine’ homophonous with ‘just off divine’, establishing from the outset a discrepancy between hopes and ideals and a bitter reality.

The music slows and shifts as she repeats the phrase ‘devil crabs’. These crabs are a distraction from more pressing thoughts, but they evoke a memory, and now she swirls and segues from a recollection of her daddy to think of Porgy. ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ begins – ‘Porgy, don’t you know I love you / Don’t let him take me / Don’t let him handle me / And drive me oh so mad’ – and Nina’s voice at once deepens into a profound melancholy.

Nina had always considered herself a pianist. She began playing by ear at the age of three, and studied classical piano before applying to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Retaining the belief that her rejection had been made on the grounds of race, she only began singing when, playing the clubs of New York, she found that gigs and money were easier to come by if she committed to use her voice.

Her piano playing here is perfectly paced, steadily unfurling with the words of the song before an interlude. When she resumes singing, her voice is accompanied deliberately by the bass and percussion. Navigating blindly but resolutely – ‘But when he comes I know / I’m gonna have to go’ – her perseverance is rewarded by moments of calm.

Extending the first note, Nina returns to ‘Oh, Dey’s So Fresh and Fine’. She elaborates now a vision of a happier future with Porgy, replete with ‘Strawberries for breakfast / And devil crabs too’. And buffeted and sustained by the cymbal, the performance drives to a crashing affirmation.