Andra Day and Lauryn Hill paid tribute to Nina Simone with an emotional medley – including “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” “I Put a Spell on You,” “Feeling Good” and more – at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland on Saturday. Earlier in the evening, Simone had been welcomed into the institution.
There are many sides to Simone’s impressive catalog, and Day and Hill tried to show as many as possible during her performance in Cleveland. Day began the medley with an uplifting rendition of the hopeful Civil Rights Movement anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” which Simone recorded in 1967. She then pivoted to strike a very different tone with “I Put a Spell on You,” a maniacal Screamin’ Jay Hawkins track that Simone made her own hit in 1969. Day was backed by the Roots, with guitarist Captain Kirk ratcheting up the tension during “I Put a Spell on You” with an incendiary solo.
Hill handled the second half of the performance, tackling the devastating ballad “Ne Me Quitte Pas” before putting a contemporary spin on the old folk song “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” with some nimble rapping. Hill finished with an electrifying rendition of “Feeling Good,” ending the Simone tribute on a hopeful note: “It’s a new dawn/ It’s a new day/ It’s a new life for me.”
Andra Day – “I Put A Spell on You”
Simone has been eligible to join the Rock Hall since 1986. She was first nominated this year, and Mary J. Blige – who was once slated to portray her in a biopic – did the honors of formally inducting the late jazz, blues and R&B singer. Simone died in 2003 at her home in France after a battle with breast cancer.
Day previously paid tribute to the singer in 2015 when she sang a stirring rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” for the tribute album Nina Revisited. She also sang the song at the 2017 “Grammy Salute to Music Legends.” Nina Revisited also included numerous Simone covers from Hill.
Simone’s music has had a profound impact on Day’s life. “First of all, it started with her voice,” Day told Grammy.com last year. “I first heard ‘I Put A Spell on You.’ When I first heard her voice kind of creep through the radio, it was such a different sound. And her note choice was different, her phrasing was different. Between her and Billie Holiday, that was my introduction into jazz music.”
Andra Day – “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”
At the time, she also explained why she enjoyed singing “Mississippi Goddam” so much. “The reason that I choose that song always is because it was a fight song for Nina,” she said. “It ended up being an incredible anthem. She really rebelled against people who advised her against doing music like that. She was willing to say what was important at the time to the detriment of her own career. To me, that’s the definition of an artist.”
Additional reporting by Andy Greene