Now on a rare tour of the U.S., she's been the "High Priestess of Soul" for decades, making music that's an eloquent blend of joy, sorrow and anger.
It was less than a decade ago that I first heard Nina Simone sing. It was Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and though I’d heard countless vocalists cover Dylan’s songs, never before had I experienced such a complex rendition as hers. There was something about the heaviness in the timbre of Simone’s voice and the lightness of her fingers on the piano keys that produced a sound of tremendous joy and tremendous sorrow — simultaneously. Since that day, I haven’t gone a week without listening to her.
Simone’s admirers have found their way to her from a range of places, and that diversity is reflected in her music. She plays blues, jazz, protest songs, gospel, pop, hymns and folk tunes. She covers the songs of the Beatles, Jacques Brel, Leonard Cohen, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Duke Ellington and the Bee Gees, and yet every song she sings is her own.
She was trained as a classical pianist, and her playing is infused with the Bach of her childhood; her youth spent in church tinges her sound with traces of gospel. Though she didn’t begin to sing until after she’d developed her skills as a pianist, her voice demonstrates these influences as well, mirroring her playing. When Simone sings the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” its dreadful sadness and enormous ecstasy make it seem like it could never have been anyone else’s song. Beneath the complex layers of her voice and her playing are longing, loss and happiness laid bare. As Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins has said, “I mostly listen to Nina Simone when I am feeling raw. The more I feel raw, the more I relate to her.”
Simone was born in 1933 as Eunice Waymon, the sixth of eight children in the segregated town of Tryon, N.C. Her mother was a minister who also worked as a maid and her father was a handyman. Eunice was involved with music from the time she was old enough to crawl onto the piano bench. Her parents couldn’t afford piano lessons, so her mother’s employer paid for the child’s training, and soon the entire town rallied together to create a fund for her instruction.
She was the pride of Tyron, and in 1950 she won a scholarship to Juilliard. After her first year in New York, she applied for a fellowship to the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and was denied. She then became an accompanist for a singer and started teaching music to make enough money for her own weekly lessons. When one of her students got an engagement playing Atlantic City, N.J., making more money in a summer than she made in a year, Eunice went to the Midtown Bar and Grill on Pacific Avenue and, in 1954, got a gig of her own.
Already her mother disdained any music that was not in praise of God, and Eunice knew she wouldn’t be pleased that her daughter was playing in a bar, so she changed her first name to Nina — a nickname from a Hispanic boyfriend meaning “little one” — and her last name to Simone for the French actress Simone Signoret. When she was told that she would not be paid if she didn’t sing, the pianist used her voice for the first time. And Eunice Waymon transformed herself into Nina Simone.
In three summers performing at the Midtown she played a combination of classical and popular music, developing her complex amalgamation of voice and piano, and began a relationship with her audience that has endured: Talk during a performance, and Simone will stop playing. She might even leave the stage. Claiming that it broke her concentration, at the bar she’d wait until the loud drunks were thrown into the street to resume her playing.
At the Midtown, Simone met her first husband, a white beatnik whom she would leave a year after they were married. She also met her first agent, who promised her more money by playing New York and Philly clubs. He kept his agreement, signing her with the Bethlehem label and, in 1958, when Simone was 25 years old, she recorded her first album, “Little Girl Blue.”
As was the case with nearly every album that followed, “Little Girl Blue” had an array of pieces ranging from her own “Central Park Blues” to the traditional “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” to the title song written by T.B. Harms. But it was Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” from “Porgy and Bess,” that became a hit, selling over a million copies. That the first single was also a song made famous by the jazz vocalist Billie Holiday made critics group the two together, a comparison Simone found insulting from the start. “She was a drug addict,” says Simone in a January 1997 Details magazine interview. “I’m more of a diva, like Maria Callas.”
It wasn’t fame but money for piano lessons that drove Simone. Even with a hit record, living in New York a year after it was released she had to work as a maid for a white family to maintain her piano instruction. When it seemed Bethlehem had no interest in promoting Simone and was making her little money, she switched to Colpix — Columbia Pictures Records — in her first of many record company shifts. She would record 10 albums with Colpix, the first being “The Amazing Nina Simone.” Before it was even released, though, Bethlehem put out a rival record without Simone’s knowledge, called “Nina Simone and Her Friends,” which contained three songs recorded in the studio and not used on “Little Girl Blue.” Everyone but Simone seemed to be making money off of her.
Though she had developed a staunch following, it wasn’t until she played New York’s Town Hall on Sept. 12, 1959, that Simone became a star. Released as “Nina Simone at Town Hall,” the concert placed her alongside the many writers and musicians hanging out in Greenwich Village such as Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, Odetta, Lorraine Hansberry and Joan Baez. In the liner notes to the album, Roger Caras writes, “No song that Nina sings has ever been sung before, at least as the same work. Nina brings to each number a special quality that comes from brilliant musicianship with an almost philosophical understanding of the words. When Nina sings the word ‘love,’ it isn’t a word combined from four letters out of the alphabet but an emotional experience you can feel.”
It was a time when folkies were discovering jazz and blues and the jazz players were listening for influence. Simone’s style of mixing things up, defying category, made her perfect for the scene. Once the critics alighted on Simone, however, they felt the need to classify her music and referred to her as a jazz singer.
In her 1991 autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You,” she discusses how the term was simply a box critics put all black performers in. “Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn’t fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be,” she writes. “It was a racist thing.” Simone eventually became a “jazz-and-something-else singer” in the press, but, she says, she identified mostly as a folk singer. There was more of a folk-and-blues foundation than jazz in her playing.
In 1961 Simone married Andy Stroud, a New York cop. He became her manager, handling all her bookings and deals. Some say he deserves credit for many of her compositions during the near decade of their marriage. When she posed for the record jacket of the album “Nina Sings Ellington” in 1962, she was eight months pregnant. After Lisa Celeste Stroud’s birth it seems Simone put her dreams of being a classical pianist behind her, resigning herself to incidental popular fame.
When Medgar Evers was shot and four schoolchildren were killed in a church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in a white heat and found herself smack in the middle of the civil rights movement. Having initially shied away from protest songs as she found them simple and unimaginative, insulting to the very people they were supposed to uplift, Simone realized she had to be involved in the black struggle. Soon she counted Stokely Carmichael, Miriam Makeba, Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry among her close friends.
A teacher of mine, whose uncle dated Simone, saw her at the Village Vanguard with his father during the early ’60s. He told me that before she began to sing, she asked if there were any black people in the audience. Only he and his father stood up, somewhat uncomfortably, and Simone said, “I’m singing only to you. I don’t care about the others.” It was a time when such a remark made the white audience clap madly.
Her protest music, along with her famed “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” were recorded on the Philips label, a Mercury Records subsidiary, where Simone recorded seven albums from 1964 to 1967. In 1965, she released the album “I Put a Spell on You,” with the title song by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. During her association with Philips, Simone would release, among others, “Pastel Blues,” “Let It All Out” and “High Priestess of Soul,” all with her predicable blend of the completely unpredictable, containing traditionals like “Sinnerman,” “Strange Fruit,” Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” and Irving Berlin’s “This Year’s Kisses.” But it was infused with a new level of consciousness, mirroring the state of the country.
In 1966 Simone switched to RCA records where she recorded nine albums and some of her most famous songs. Her 1968 album, “‘Nuff Said,” contained tracks as various as “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life,” a medley from the ’60s musical “Hair,” the spiritual “Take My Hand Precious Lord” and her own “Backlash Blues,” taken from the poetry of Langston Hughes.
The next year the album “To Love Somebody” was released with the title song by Barry and Robin Gibb. It made the British Top 10. The album had three Bob Dylan covers including “I Shall Be Released,” as well as songs by Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger, along with “Revolution,” a protest song co-written by Simone and Weldon Irvine Jr. “To Love Somebody” was my introduction to Simone, and I’ll never forget the way she berated her musicians during the intro to “Revolution.” She harshly tells them, “Hold it! This is louder than usual. Let it groove on its own thing.” Cool. I thought. This woman can kick butt …
The increased militancy of the late ’60s, along with the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the general decentralization of the civil rights movement, drove Simone away from the United States. What she and so many had believed could be achieved she felt had failed; she fled to Barbados for the first break in performing in years. In 1971 she and her husband divorced and she returned to Barbados, becoming the “kept” woman of the married prime minister, Earl Barrow. It was the year she recorded “Here Comes the Sun,” with Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” Stan Vincent’s “O-o-h Child,” Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Jacques Revaux’s “My Way.” It is a collection that speaks more of personal than political freedom.
In 1974, she cut her ties with RCA and in so doing with America for good. Simone would never return to the States permanently, but moved to Africa and throughout Europe, settling in France. She saw the States as a place where blacks weren’t getting what they deserved. She felt that America and the recording industry had deserted her.
She told Interview magazine in January 1997, “I think it’s hopeless for the majority of black people. I think the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. I don’t think the black people are going to rise at all; I think most of them are going to die.”
In that same interview she expressed strong opinions on everything from Michael Jackson’s freakish skin-whitening to the separation of the races. “I do not believe in mixing of the races,” she said. “I don’t believe in it and I never have. I’ve never changed. I’ve never changed my hair. I’ve never changed my color, I have always been proud of myself, and my fans are proud of me for remaining the way I’ve always been. I married a white man one time, but he was a creep.”
Simone continued making music on various labels, releasing albums like “Baltimore,” covering Daryl Hall’s “Rich Girl” and Judy Collins’ “My Father,” in 1978. In 1982 she released the album “Fodder on My Wings,” consisting mostly of her own songs including “I Sing Just to Know That I’m Alive,” and in 1985 she recorded “Nina’s Back and Live and Kickin’.” In 1987, 30 years after the Bethlehem release, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” another selection from “Little Girl Blue,” became the theme for an ad campaign for Chanel No. 5 perfume in Britain. The song reached No. 5 on the English pop charts and brought Nina back from relative obscurity.
And in 1992, the movie “Point of No Return,” starring Bridget Fonda as a female assassin obsessed with Simone, featured her music. As dull and obvious as that movie is, Simone’s music represents for the heroine (whose code name is what? Nina!) longing and loss, and at the same time freedom. Simone’s own “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” plays on her headphones as Fonda, jonesing for a fix, is the only person left alive during a pharmacy shootout. A liberating moment, yes, but at the same time, a moment fraught with peril and sadness. Everyone in the film who listens to Simone’s music is touched by this overall sensation, which is the double-edged quality of Nina Simone’s music.
In “Point of No Return,” you’re a fool if you don’t know who Nina Simone is: You haven’t suffered and you certainly haven’t lived. The year after the movie, Simone released “A Single Woman,” with stunning tracks like the title song and “Love’s Been Good to Me.” On the album her voice is deeper with far less range than the voice heard in her earlier work and in the many compilations and best of’s constantly being released. (There are three — “The Legend at Her Best,” “Misunderstood” and “Nina Simone’s Finest Hour” — to be released this summer.) And yet her voice had grown fuller, as if it expanded to accommodate the accumulation of her life.
Just two weeks ago I saw Simone play live in New York. I had never seen her perform before — her dislike for the States doesn’t bring her here often, so catch her now if you can — and she walked onstage (more like shuffled) with assistance. She wore a bright blue African dress and her arm cut the air with a straw fly-swatter. The audience soon learned that when she moved the swatter, we were to applaud. We did so willingly. The audience was a reflection of Nina — as diverse in age, color and choice of footwear (always a good indicator of class) as I have seen.
When she sang Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” after the line “but she breaks just like a little girl” Simone added, “I’m not a little girl.” She kind of chuckled at that. And she wasn’t kidding: For a 67-year-old woman, she moved, almost losing her balance, as if she were in her 80s.
Countless celebrities have become captive of their own persona — look at Mae West — and in many ways it seems this has happened to Simone, the person. But as much bitterness as she has for racist America, the record companies that have ripped her off, the failure of the civil rights movement and for audiences who talk while she is playing, Simone, the artist, defies that persona.
Beneath the complex layers of anger and isolation and bitterness lies a fan. In New York, when she sang her first hit and what has come to be her swan song, “I Loves You, Porgy,” and in the middle segued into “Falling in Love Again,” it was as if Billie Holiday had never sung a note of the former and Marlene Dietrich had never belted out the latter. And yet, as it was Nina Simone’s song, it was also a song of admiration.
Who cares if we were expected to clap for 20 minutes — with much coaxing from her band — for her to come out and zip through “My Baby Just Cares for Me”? We were all willing to work for her, willing to wait as an assistant adjusted her head wrap in midsong. Plain and simple, those who listen to Nina Simone can’t live without her music. She brings us both into and out of ourselves as we experience the best and worst of our lives at the exact same moment.
Jennifer Gilmore is the author of "Golden Country" and "Something Red." Her new novel, "The Mothers," is being published by Scribner in April 2013. You can follow her on twitter @jenwgilmore. More Jennifer Gilmore.
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