January: Nina Simone records “I Put a Spell on You”

In January, Nina Simone recorded her album I Put a Spell on You. The title song peaked in the United Kingdom at No. 49 later in the year. Paul McCartney imitated Simone’s phrasing in “I Put a Spell on You” while singing the bridge of his own song “Michelle,” per John Lennon’s suggestion. The Beatles’ track won the Grammy for Song of the Year and was the 42nd most played song of the century, per BMI, even though it was never released as a single by the Beatles.

Unlike most of her musical contemporaries, Simone dared to tackle racial themes head-on in tracks such as her cover of Billie Holiday’s lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” which was why activist Stokely Carmichael called Simone the true singer of the civil rights movement.

She wrote in her autobiography, “I realized that what we were really fighting for was the creation of a new society. When I had started out in the movement, all I wanted were my rights under the Constitution. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that no matter what the President or the Supreme Court might say, the only way we could get true equality was if America changed completely, top to bottom. And this change had to start with my own people, with black revolution.”

The change had to start with her own view of herself. Simone recorded her composition “Four Women” in autumn 1965. Simone wrote, “The women in the song are black, but their skin tones range from light to dark, and their ideas of beauty and their own importance are deeply influenced by that. All the song did was to tell what entered the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair—straight, kinky, natural, which?—and what other women thought of them. Black women didn’t know what the hell they wanted, because they were defined by things they didn’t control. And until they had the confidence to define themselves, they’d be stuck in the same mess forever. That was the point the song made . . . The song told a truth that many people in the USA— especially black men—simply weren’t ready to acknowledge at that time.”

The “Black Is Beautiful” cultural movement was gathering steam in its fight against internalized self-hatred. The phrase was perhaps first introduced in 1962, when the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios put on a fashion event in Harlem called the Grandessa Models Naturally—“The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride & Standards.” The movement celebrated dark skin, African facial features, and natural, unstraightened hair. Simone replaced her wig and gown with an Afro, African dresses, turbans, and hoop earrings.

Diana Ross’s favorite wig, on the other hand, was modeled on Annette Funicello’s coif. Motown’s mogul Gordy even secured a deal with a Lansing, Michigan, company to produce the Supremes Special Formula White Bread, with the group’s image on the package.

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