Could you really listen to only four musical artists for the rest of your life? Of course not, but it’s fun to think about. Everyday is a new opportunity to fall in musical love. A single song is all it takes. I fell for Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, and Grace Jones one song at a time.
The first time I knew I was listening to Carmen McRae’s voice was when her death was announced on National Public Radio (NPR). The report featured a snippet of her singing “It’s The Good Life” and I was instantly and forever hooked. I was in college at the time. Later the same day, I walked into my African American History class to the sound of a crisp, elegant voice filling the room. It was Carmen McRae. The professor was playing one of her records on a turntable he’d brought to class. He mourned and celebrated Ms. McRae by introducing her to his students.
My devotion to Nina Simone began with “Mississippi Goddamn.” I’d never experienced a singer who made every note count the way she did. Nina Simone’s ability to break down a song to its emotional essence is unparalleled. Carmen McRae and Nina Simone tap into what I’m feeling or carry me to where I want to be. Grace Jones takes me places I never knew were possible. Her 1985 album “Slave To The Rhythm,” is audacious. It is an autobiography told in a wonderland of spoken word, dance, and new wave. “La Vie En Rose” was a classic twice over before Jones sped up the tempo and added a dance beat. Her version maintains the longing of Edith Piaf’s original and takes its playfulness from Louis Armstrong’s version.
Grace Jones’ body of work is in part the expression of a radical and maximal mixing and matching of genre and tone all wrapped in a velvety alto voice. Her approach to music is almost sartorial, like a layered outfit of plaid on stripes on polka dots. The outcome is brilliant and only something she can pull off. The magic is that Grace Jones has been doing this all flawlessly for decades. So of course, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, and Grace Jones are my top three.
Right now, Yola is making a strong showing for the number four spot. Her latest album “Stand For Myself” is glorious. Yola’s first album “Walk Through Fire” and her EP “Orphan Offering” are unyielding in their gorgeousness. The debut album and EP have been a balm over the last 18 months of quarantine and lockdowns. Every song on “Walk Through Fire,” especially “Lonely The Night” possesses a richness of voice and production reminiscent of the listener enveloping harmonic universe of the 60s Wall of Sound. Even with all of that goodness, could I choose Yola instead of Big Maybelle or Joan Armatrading?
Big Maybelle is an icon for the ages. Her hits “My Country Man,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and “Candy” are foundational elements of the post World War II popular music landscape. Big Maybelle’s version of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” is a completely original rendition of the song worthy of resurrection and reverence. She recounts the tale of Eleanor and Father McKenzie with resigned commiseration. Her requiem for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Heaven Will Welcome You Dr. King” is a crushing expression of Black national grief. Big Maybelle was one of the original queens of popular music who never received her flowers.
Joan Armatrading is the enigma among the artists on my list. Her catalog is wide-ranging. She glides easily across genres, writing ballads and rock anthems like “I Really Must Be Going” and “Love And Affection.” Armatrading has a devoted international following and it’s not big enough. As a fan from the United States, I am both astonished and not surprised that she came into my life by accident. In my case it was sitting in traffic listening to her give an interview on a Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) radio show played on my local NPR station. Black women whose music can’t be neatly stuffed into pre-approved genres of what Black people are supposed to like are hard to find. And when you find them, or at least when I do, I go deep. Joan Armatrading’s songs are the epitome of cool we all deserve to experience.
Entertaining the idea of listening to four musical artists for the rest of my life has taken me to the real and digital record crates. I have listened to songs I love again and again with an ear for description to share what they mean to me. I have found new angles and new stories, new spaces to explore. Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, and Grace Jones reign supreme. I still haven’t found my fourth, but I’ll keep looking.