I never realised until now just how many times this song has been covered since its earliest recording in 1956. I always knew Sinner Man (or Sinnerman) as this tremendous song by Nina Simone, but the original was released a good ten years before her rendition even graced the world!
Originally composed as an African American traditional spiritual song, the lyrics describe a sinner attempting to hide from divine justice on Judgement Day. The first release was recorded by the Les Baxter orchestra in 1956, with vocals laid down by folk singer Will Holt (who shared the credit for writing the song with Baxter). It has been challenged, however, that the first recording of this track was issued two years before Baxter’s version, when gospel group The Sensational Nightingales released On the Judgement Day – this does have a lot of similarities, both with lyrics and melody! Some of the lyrics from this song can also be traced back to a 1928 spiritual, recorded by the Old South Quartette (“The rock cried out, ‘No hiding place‘”), so its origins go back a lot further than I ever appreciated!
There are so many versions out there, dating back from the early 1950’s, right up until very recently and I also didn’t know that Bob Marley covered this in 1966!! Nina Simone’s 1965 cover was arranged by herself after she had grown up with the song, learning the lyrics in her childhood when it was used at revival meetings by her mother (a Methodist minister) to help people confess their sins!!
Today’s version was released the same year as Les Baxter’s – 1956. It appeared on a album called Songs For A Lazy Afternoon, which was recorded by an American singer-songwriter, composer, musician and poet, Rod McKuen. McKuen was celebrated as one of the best-selling poets in the United States during the late 1960s and throughout his five-decade career he produced a wide range of recordings – which included music, spoken word poetry, film soundtracks and classical music! His lyrics/poetry often covered themes of love, the natural world and spirituality and his adaptation of Sinner Man is by far one of the most diverse I’ve heard! I love his earthy take on this song, but also marvel at the percussion; this is an element I hadn’t anticipated and when those bongos kick in, the whole feel changes, adding unexpected contrast…It’s an interesting take!! Check it out above.