Originally published in The Brattleboro Reformer Thursday, February 11, 2016.
By Dave Madeloni – Special to the Reformer
Vocalists Samirah Evans and Evelyn Harris in Putney
PUTNEY >> I suspect that I am not the only one who was mesmerized by the Oscar nominated documentary “What Happened Miss Simone.” The next day I went searching for any Nina Simone CDs I could get my hands on. But I knew in my soul, that all the discs in her catalogue could not make up for the fact that I never saw Nina perform while she was alive.
Evelyn Harris, the former member of Sweet Honey In The Rock, was fortunate enough to see the jazz/blues/soul/activist icon in the flesh. Her reaction was visceral and ultimately transformational. “When I went to Howard University in 1968, she performed there and I was transfixed by her very being”, recalled Harris in a recent email. “Her aura, her style, her confidence, her musicianship all enthralled me. I was putty in her hands and, after a few notes, I left my newfound girlfriends sitting near the auditorium and ran down the aisle all the way to the apron and stayed there for the remainder of the evening. My mouth open, agape with joy and wonder, I was breathing in and out in concert with her. I never once left her side until I was ushered out of the hall at the end.
Young Evelyn embraced and absorbed Simone’s inspiration into her being, then into her voice. “Her songs made sense to me and made me decide I, too, could put music to every Black liberation struggle for equality in this land that we built. With her music pulsating in the background, laying the foundation for my dreams and desires, she unknowingly guided my search for Sweet Honey In The Rock. She made sure I could carve out a place for myself and my voice”
So it was serendipitous, when a year ago Brattleboro’s First Lady of Soulful Jazz, Samirah Evans approached Harris, with an idea for a Nina Simone/Etta James tribute show at Next Stage Arts in Putney. At first, Harris was daunted by the prospect of inhabiting two of her biggest inspirations. “I was scared of it at first I had a lot to learn, a lot to remember, and I was afraid I would not do justice to the repertoire.”
However, Evans knew Harris was more than ready for the challenge.” Thanks to a declaration made by Samirah, I now know why I had never done any of these songs before”, recalled Harris. “As she so eloquently pointed out, I had not lived, loved and lost sufficiently in my life to find my own way, to find my voice, inside this repertoire. As Samirah reminded me at rehearsal on Sunday, I am now sufficiently “seasoned” to take the chance.”
Samirah Evans knew from the first time she encountered Harris that she had the goods and that a future Simone/James tribute had the potential to be transcendent. “I first heard Evelyn perform a concert a few years back. Her voice moved me to tears. Evelyn has a lot to say, and is very commanding in the way she says it when she sings or speaks to that matter, this is what I love about her. I had not heard a vocalist that moved me with the kind of intensity she did since I left New Orleans”
“I knew Etta and Nina would be right in her wheel house and there is no one else I could imagine pulling off this material with.”
Samirah was introduced to the power and soul of Etta James and Nina Simone during her stint as a blues radio programmer for WWOZ radio in New Orleans. “My career as a vocalist was expanding at this time and I was inspired to include their music in my repertoire. I have regarded performing their music as an extreme challenge and therefore an opportunity for growth. They are both very different but are immensely powerful women who confidently exudes intense emotions regardless how ferocious or vulnerable. Etta had such a greasy, salty, and sweet voice that was enormously huge with an amazing range. She knew how to rock the house incorporating playfulness and big time sass. All attributes that I longed for.”
“Nina is powerfully sophisticated and moves you to think. I have always been impressed by her messages to take stock in ourselves by acknowledging our past and present circumstances as African Americans and especially as an African American woman.”
Harris concurred, adding, “Etta filled me with soulful validation that with my song, with my voice, I could change the world. I felt better after her tunes rained down in me. I could be stronger, fiercer, unafraid, a defiant bad ass!! My voice, yes, my primal sound, could make this a better world!!”
“Rules thrown out, both Etta and Nina made their own way out of no way, knocking at the door of super stardom without a care for super recognition . Black folk loved and worshipped their artistry and made it clear by buying their records, coming to their concerts and showering them with praise and adoration. They both knew they were deeply and dearly a part of this global community of color. Their music was first made to save their own souls. If you happen, like me, to have been changed, strengthened, buoyed closer and closer to making magic happen on stage, rejecting mediocrity … then all the better.”
Evans added her vision for the tribute, “My mission is that those who know Nina and Etta will be moved to fall deeper in love with them and their music again and those who are just becoming acquainted will want to know more about them and purchase their music to share with generations to come in an effort to retain their legacy as part of our American history.”
Samirah Evans and Evelyn Harris pay tribute to Nina Simone and Etta James, takes place on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Next Stage Arts, 15 Kimball Hill Rd,, Putney. Vocalists Evans and Harris will be accompanied by local celebrity pianist Miro Sprague, bassist Dave Picchi and drummer Jon Fisher. Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online at nextstagearts.org. For more information call 802-387-0102.
Dave Madeloni writes music reviews for the entertainment section of the Brattleboro Reformer.