To generations of British Television viewers, its complete-octave, syncopated piano chords and grooving bass are quickly recognisable as the theme tune to the BBC’s Film evaluation series. But to Americans, “I Want I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” has deeper resonances, getting very best identified as a civil rights anthem. When Nina Simone recorded it on her 1967 album Silk and Soul, nearly quickly it became a freedom song, up there with “A Alter is Gonna Come” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”.
But this irresistibly catchy 16-bar gospel-jazz tune started life an instrumental. Born in 1921 in North Carolina, composer Billy Taylor was a gifted pianist who had constructed an impressive jazz pedigree functioning in New York with bebop luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie, Artie Shaw and Charlie Parker. By the 1960s, he was also a broadcaster and civil rights campaigner, and had recorded numerous albums, largely with his trio.
Bucking that trend, the very first recording of “I Want I Knew” on Taylor’s 1963 album Correct Here, Proper Now had a big-band line-up of 19 musicians. With Ben Tucker on bass and Grady Tate on drums, Taylor’s eloquent piano solo is bookended by a complete horn chorus that is practically hymnal. (The version utilised by the BBC was recorded later, with a trio, in 1967.)
But the song had but to be performed or recorded with lyrics. Billy Taylor’s daughter Kim Taylor-Thompson, a law professor in New York, had initially spurred her father to write the song when she came house from college singing a spiritual.
Kim takes up the story (by way of e-mail) of how it acquired lyrics. “Dad initially recorded it as an instrumental. But, as I recall, he had written the first verse of the lyrics fairly early on. He got stuck at a single point and invited [lyricist] Dick Dallas to collaborate to aid him finish the lyrics and that’s when we got the later verses. I’ve always felt that there was a distinction among the first verse and the later ones. I believe you hear my dad’s voice most clearly in the initial verse.”
So, as quickly as Nina Simone sang, “I wish I could break all the chains holding me” on Silk and Soul, the floodgates had been open. Simone’s artistry and passion took the song to an additional level, a single that resonated not only with the civil rights movement but with concerns of identity and individualism.
Like Taylor, Simone was born in North Carolina, and church music played a huge element in her childhood like him she had a formal musical instruction like him she was an activist, and in her impassioned therapy of the song on Silk and Soul her voice is clear, sincere, with out irony.
Subsequent versions of the song were significantly less convincing. The following year, the song reached No 68 in the US charts in a recording by Solomon Burke that begins with the cheesy voiceover: “Have you ever wished upon a star/And all your hopes seem so far?” Folk singers John Denver and Mary Travers made earnest guitar-strumming versions.
In 2001, UK duo The Lighthouse Loved ones released a wistfully yearning version featuring the mellifluous voice of Tunde Baiyewu. Emeli Sandé’s 2013 rendition is full of soulful intent.
Meanwhile Coca-Cola capitalised on the song’s feelgood issue with a 2004 Tv advert featuring British singer Sharlene Hector, even though the lyrics had been changed to the schmaltzy “I wish I could share all the enjoy that is in my heart”, with Hector strolling down a US street handing out bottles of Coke to delighted passers-by.
All of which is a world away from the gutsy Simone. It was in live concerts that she really took possession of the song, providing it a powerful, private rawness. Like a gospel preacher, she improvised with the lyrics, turning their message of hope into positive affirmation: “I know how it feels/Not to be chained/to any race/to any face”. At Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 she put on a storming show, transporting the audience although simultaneously showing her effortless mastery of piano types from swing to baroque.
Above all, Simone gave herself entirely to the freedom of functionality, of becoming herself, carrying out and saying specifically as she felt at the time. In the film Nina directed by Joel Gold, she mentioned that freedom for her meant “no fear”. Her fearlessness is the legacy of the song.
Photograph: David Redfern