I first heard it in 1985, while I was in a hotel packing for a trip home. (It's not often you remember hearing a song for the first time.) It was so good that when I got home I immediately got a album with this beguiling vocal and arrangement.
Nina Simone is a hard artist to categorize---in addition to jazz and blues, she also recorded covers of pop songs like The Animals Number One hit from 1964, "The House of the Rising Sun", The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" and The Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody".
She also recorded social protest songs, African and American folk music, and a multitude of original compositions.
Born in North Carolina, her earliest albums were recorded in New York City, where he began her career despite her mother's objection that she was singing "the devil's music". She was barred from training at the prestigious Curtis Institute because of her race, but was accepted to The Julliard School of Music in New York City in the mid-1950's. Her first albums were not as successful, beyond her cover of a "Porgy and Bess" song, so she sold her rights to many of the songs, including "My Baby Just Cares for Me", a 1928 Harry Warren tune written for a Broadway show called "Whopee". Ironically, the original tune was performed by white comedian and singer Eddie Cantor, who did the song "corked up" (in black-face, in the minstrel tradition offensive to black Americans.)
Like many other African-American artists and intellectuals, Ms. Simone went into voluntary exile to protest racial and other social and foreign policy matters. (First to Barbados and then France in the early Seventies.) She was later to return to America in the 1990's to receive the accolades and awards she richly deserved. She was something of an eccentric performer and had an uneasy relationship with some audiences, some people finding her haughty and regal in bearing. Later in her career she was apparently more friendly and willing to share anecdotes about her life with devoted fans.
Unfortunately, she never received any money directly from the revival of this song because she (or her manager) had sold her royalties for a few thousand dollars in the early 60's.
I love Ms. Simone's vocal here, of course, and the piano bridge in the middle is nothing short of fantastic. The claymation video was produced by Aardman Animations and directed by Peter Lord.
.And here's the lady herself, performing "If You Knew " at Ronnie Scott's in London: