Cover Story for October 12, 2007
Subject - Nina Simone – Let It Be Me – released in 1987 on Verve/Polygram Records, with cover photography by Sherry Rayn Barnett.
My wife and I had the good fortune of seeing Nina Simone at the Vine Street Bar & Grill in Hollywood a number of years ago, and so when I was going over the details of my interview with photographer Sherry Barnett, some vivid memories flooded into my head about my experience there. It was a small – very small – club that had room for perhaps 80 people (including those crammed in at the bar), and yet Ron (the owner) managed to book some of the best and biggest acts to come and play there. The place was “cool”, and it had a vibe that musicians and club patrons both just wanted a part of.
What makes this Cover Story so special for me is that it is the first one that is about an artist and a time and place that I have personal experience of. Of course, I’ve seen some of the other musical acts that have been featured on other covers, but in most cases it was after the fact (like seeing Pink Floyd well after they had released Dark Side of the Moon). In this case, I was part of that scene, going in to the Vine Street venue (after seeing a performance at the nearby temporary Ahmanson Theater) for a cocktail and to hear who was playing (and, often times, it was Nina Simone).
The music industry loves to tag its most-interesting artists, and singer Nina Simone had two of them – the “High Priestess of Soul” and the “Queen of African Rooted Classical Music”. I attribute this to the fact that the industry loves to try and categorize artists so that retailers know where on the shelves to put an artist’s music but, in this case, that was the most disrespectful approach as it is that Ms. Simone could sing so many different styles of music so well. She was best-known to fans for her amazing cabaret shows, best enjoyed in intimate venues (although she could make even large venues feel intimate). Verve Records released this gem of a recording in the late 80’s that showcased her ability to work her magic with both traditional cabaret tunes and the works of songwriters such as Janis Ian, Randy Newman and Bob Dylan. Sherry Barnett was asked to produce a suitable cover image for this immense talent, and the details of this assignment are now yours for the reading in today’s unique Cover Story….
In the words of the photographer, Sherry Rayn Barnett (interviewed October, 2007) –
"I was approached by Verve Polygram Records during a time in the mid-80’s when they were releasing a series of recordings titled, Live at The Vine St. Bar & Grill. The Vine St. venue in Hollywood was relatively small in size, but had the ambiance of an elegant jazz club in its heyday. Located close to the heart of what was becoming a dilapidated intersection at Hollywood & Vine, it sat directly across from The Huntington Hartford Theatre, where it drew a cross-section of theatre goers and jazz aficionados. A recording deal was struck with owner Ron Berenstein and frequent performer Miriam Cutler to produce a series of live recordings featuring 'the best of' Verve/Polygram’s current roster of artists.
I was brought into the mix to shoot portraits of the performers, sometimes incorporating the elements of the club itself. One cover in particular, 'I Thought About You' by Shirley Horn, pictured the singer at its deco-styled bar. Another cover, 'It Is Love' of stellar jazz/blues singer Marlena Shaw, pictured her in one of the corner booths, surrounded by a colorful array of flowers. This one bore a stronger resemblance to a studio setting than a club. But Nina Simone, however, was the piece-de-resistance.
Her record was to be titled Let It Be Me and I would be shooting it at my home studio in the Hollywood Hills. It would be me with the 'High Priestess of Soul', along with a stylist and my favorite lighting assistant. Coincidentally, I had photographed Nina once before in concert in 1971, 15 years prior to this Verve Polygram shoot. I’d been assigned to photograph her at The Village Gate in NYC. One of the shots was published in Rock Magazine, the first publication where I appeared on the masthead as Staff Photographer. It was early in my photographic career, and ironically this shot was the very first photograph that I’d printed myself in my own darkroom. I knew that this new session would be both an honor and a challenge, as I’d heard stories of her fluctuating temperament, and I was determined to be prepared for anything …
We had prepared a choice of backdrops, lighting options, and even had a piano on hand should Ms. Simone choose to grace us with her playing. My crew of two arrived early and we readied ourselves for the soul diva’s arrival. Well, we waited … and waited … and waited. To offset our mounting anxieties, we played & sang, making our own good use of the piano. Finally, several hours past the original ETA, the record company called to confirm her impending arrival and specified that Nina wished to be clad in nothing more than a simple white sheet – and that would be the ONLY set up she would approve of.
After a hasty white sheet scramble, Ms. Simone arrived & time flew from that moment on. What was to happen next remains an incomparable moment in my memory bank. Nina, the diva herself, began to disrobe directly in front of my living room window. As one by one, the garments fell to the floor, she began to wrap herself solely in the white sheet. We did our best not to bat an eye, as she then proceeded to go to make-up without missing a beat. In all my years of photographing the most eccentric rock performers, I thought that nothing would surprise me. But this time, it did!
The ensuing photo session was relatively short – at least compared to the hours spent waiting – and moved along quite quickly. Her concept of the simple white sheet worked beautifully, and required no background or lighting changes. We were on a tight schedule when, all of a sudden, we nailed the shot. The resulting photographs were simple, direct and elegant. All of the elements “worked” and everyone was pleased. Just before Nina left, I asked her to autograph a classic LP I had of hers … something I’d never done before. She obliged, signing it 'Thank you. Signed, Dr.Nina Simone'.
When the record company’s art department came around to packaging Let It Be Me, they wanted a “live” shot to grace the back of the LP. Ironically, of all the photos considered, the Village Gate shot from 1971 was the one chosen. Both photos were included in the 2005 Let It Be Me CD re-issue as well.
A final note to the story … Apparently, Ms. Simone was quite pleased with the work I’d done - so much so that, in the early 90’s, I received a phone call from her longtime friend and associate, Roger Nupie, requesting that I do another shoot for Ms. Simone at her Hollywood apartment. This commissioned work was to be a B&W portrait to be used for a poster in conjunction with her upcoming performance at The Olympia Music Hall in Paris. This time around, Nina was prompt, up-tempo and easy to please. I actually took the liberty of asking her about her change of spirit from the time we’d met previously. She looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I’m a happy woman. I finally got the IRS off my back and I’m free at last!' Whew … what a difference in her vibe. This shoot too, moved quickly, and with great success. She had a concept chosen for what she wanted and all I had to do was capture it on film. This diva had a deep sense of self and knew exactly what was right for her. She was her own direction & I had no one to please except the High Priestess herself.
Though I never saw the finished photograph reproduced in poster form, in 1992 Nina wrote her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You and chose the portrait for her book. A paperback version was issued again in 2003. The album cover photograph continued to be used by Nina throughout the 90’s to promote her live performances, until her passing in 2003. Let It Be Me, the CD, has been reissued, and I Put A Spell On You, the paperback version, remains in print. Yet another photo, from the original Village Gate performance, resurfaced as a full page photo as part of writer Michele Kort’s 2004 feature on Nina in Ms. Magazine.
There have been many career highlights in my experience of photographing the musicians and events that have changed our lives. From my earliest shoots of political protests and marches spearheaded by some our major musical commentators, to being at the right time, right place … photographing both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin each in one of their final concerts, Joni Mitchell recording Court & Spark, Peter, Paul & Mary warming up backstage, The Manhattan Transfer rehearsing with Ella Fitzgerald, Mark Knopfler playing solo acoustic guitar for me as I photographed him alone ... these are some of the most memorable. But the opportunities to photograph Nina Simone and capture her essence on film in the way that I did, stand out as photographs that I am honored to have done. And these photos continue to find their way over time."
All Nina Simone portrait photographs were shot on film with a medium format Bronica SQ-AM camera, using a Dynalite power pack and strobes. The Village Gate performance photographs were shot on 35mm Kodak Tri-X film exclusively with Nikon cameras and lenses.
Nina Simone’s Web site - http://ninasimone.com/welcome.html
About the photographer, Sherry Rayn Barnett –
Sherry began taking pictures as soon as she was able to hold her first pint-size Kodak Brownie box camera (OK, not a true "Brownie" - it was turquoise blue). She began to focus on the things around her that caught her eye … beginning with her B&W cat, her friends and anything in her small, but great outdoors.
Growing up in a creative & musical suburban Forest Hills (NYC) household, she simultaneously began a love affair with music. Fortunately, she quickly moved on from an early obsession with the accordion to a lifelong love of the guitar. She attended The High School of Performing Arts as a classical guitar major and began photographing the music - and the musicians around her. While still in high school she had her first magazine cover published by a national dance magazine and became the photo editor for the Performing Arts yearbook. She alternately began photographing concerts and then escaping the city to seek out anything that appeared to be non-urban and connected to nature.
As part of the New York "underground press" of the late 60's & early 70's that developed, she began to be photograph the culture and the musicians that provided the soundtrack for it. Relocating to Southern California (L.A.) in the mid 70's provided a new landscape of musical inspiration that Sherry continues to draw on.
Today, she's still focused on photography that includes musicians, cats, and nature - as well as anything eccentric, from roadside attractions to people and pets of extraordinary personality. Her extensive music photography archive now spans 3 decades, during which she has captured 100's of live performances of artists ranging from Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix to Sting and David Bowie. She continues to add to the subject list by shooting both newer and classic folk, rock, jazz and acoustic music artists.
Most recently, she has continued to photograph both eclectic and iconic performers, licensing her work for books, magazines, television & electronic media. She's been inspired by the "instant gratification" of digital photography, although she continues to shoot on assignment in both B&W and color in 35mm and 2 1/4" formats also. Her work can often be seen in music publications including ACOUSTIC GUITAR MAGAZINE, GOLDMINE, GUITAR PLAYER, COUNTRY MUSIC MAGAZINE, and GUITAR WORLD ACOUSTIC.
Sherry is also represented by Getty Images for select images. An overview of her work can be seen at: www.sherrybarnettphotography.com. Limited edition prints will soon be available.
To see more examples of iconic album/CD cover artwork in the RockPoP Gallery collection, please visit
All images Copyright 1987 & 2007 Sherry Barnett www.sherrybarnettphotography.com
Except as noted, All other text Copyright 2007 - Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery (www.rockpopgallery.com) - All rights reserved.