“Sinner Man” or “Sinnerman” is an African American traditional spiritual song that has been recorded by a number of performers and has been incorporated in many other of the media and arts. The lyrics describe a sinner attempting to hide from divine justice on Judgment Day. It was recorded in the 1950s by Les Baxter, the Swan Silvertones, the Weavers and others, before Nina Simone recorded an extended version in 1965.
The earliest recording of the song to bear the title “Sinner Man” was by the Les Baxter Orchestra in 1956, as the B-side of the Capitol Records single “Tango of the Drums”. The lead vocal was by folk singer Will Holt, who shared the credit for writing the song with Baxter. However, the song clearly bears a close resemblance, in both melody and lyrics, to “On the Judgement Day”, which was recorded by gospel group The Sensational Nightingales in 1954 and released the following year on the Peacock label. The writing of The Sensational Nightingales’ song was credited to two of the group’s singers, Julius Cheeks and Ernest James. Some of the lyrics in “Sinner Man”, including “The rock cried out, ‘No hiding place'”, appear to derive from those in the spiritual, “No Hiding Place Down Here”, recorded in 1928 by the Old South Quartette.
A version of “Sinner Man” released in 1956, by Swedish-American folk singer William Clauson, credited Baxter, Holt, Cheeks and James as co-writers. Another gospel group, the Swan Silvertones, released their version of the song in 1957 on the Vee-Jay label, and folk singer Guy Carawan issued a version in 1958. Carawan wrote that he had learned the song in 1956 from Bob Gibson. Most modern recorded versions derive from the 1956 recording by Les Baxter. Further changes and additions were codified in 1959 by the folk music group the Weavers. The Weavers’ performance of the song appears on their compilation albums Gospel and Reunion at Carnegie Hall Part 2.
The Nina Simone recording
“Sinnerman” (spelled as one word) is one of Nina Simone’s most famous songs and she recorded her definitive 10-minute-plus version on her 1965 album Pastel Blues. Simone learned the lyrics of this English song in her childhood when it was used at revival meetings by her mother, a Methodist minister, to help people confess their sins. In the early days of her career during the early sixties, when she was heavily involved in the Greenwich Village scene, Simone often used the long piece to end her live performances. An earlier version of the song exists, recorded live at The Village Gate, but was not used on the 1962 Colpix album Nina at the Village Gate. It was added as a bonus track to the 2005 CD release.
Simone’s version of Sinnerman has been sampled by Kanye West for the Talib Kweli song “Get By”, by Timbaland for the song “Oh Timbaland”, and by Felix da Housecat for Verve Record’s “Verve Remixed” series. It has also been covered by 16 Horsepower on their album Folklore, and by Zegota on their self-titled single. French rapper Abd al-Malik sampled Simone’s version for the title track of his 2006 album “Gibraltar”. He also sampled Simone’s version of “See Line Woman” for the track “Le grand frère” from the same album. This version of the song is referenced on the 2018 Hozier track and EP Nina Cried Power. Simone’s “Sinnerman” has also been featured in various films and commercials, including the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinner_Man