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Nina Simone: 1933-2003
Nina Simone
Singer, piano, songwriter

Born: February 21, 1933 in Tyron, North Carolina
Died: April 21, 2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, France

Obituary

Appreciation


Singer dubbed The High Priestess of Soul

by Kenny Mathieson
Copyright © 2003 Kenny Mathieson

The Scotsman

Simone

Nina Simone genuinely earned the epithet unique. Although she was once dubbed The High Priestess of Soul, she fitted no precise musical pigeon-holes, and her genius was tempered by an unpredictability which made every concert an adventure for her audience.

She could be a wildly inconsistent performer, given to ludicrously overdramatic delivery, abbreviated sets, and berating her paying customers for being insufficiently attentive. At the other extreme, she was a powerful, emotive singer who successfully bridged the gap between blues, soul, pop and jazz, and appealed to a broad and adoring audience.

Although she recorded many jazz tunes with many jazz musicians, her vocal delivery and unorthodox interpretations seemed most effective in the blues and soul field, underpinned as they were by a strong and very overt gospel influence.

Her outspoken support for civil rights in the ferment of the 1960s was typical of her politicised stance against racism and inequality in society at large (especially American society), and the inequitable nature of the music business in which she found herself enmeshed.

The unpredictable and at times unstable traits in her character led her into several brushes with the law, ranging from arrest for unpaid taxes in America to a court appearance in France after discharging a scattergun in the general direction of two noisy teenagers next door (she was given a suspended jail sentence after a psychological evaluation found that she had been incapable of evaluating the consequences of her act due to depression).

She was born Eunice Waymon, and grew up singing in a church choir. She studied piano avidly as a child, and later wrote in her autobiography I Put a Spell On You (1991) that she “studied music six to eight hours a day from when I was five years old -- by the time I finished high school, I could play anything.”

Her mother encouraged her dream of becoming the first black classical concert pianist, and she was good enough to receive a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York 1950, although she had to accompany singers and teach piano to support herself.

Her ambition to be a concert pianist was thwarted when she applied for a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at the age of 17, and came face-to-face with what she always regarded as institutional racism in the City of Brotherly Love.

“I was too good not to get that scholarship,” she claimed later, “but they turned me down because of my colour. Back in those days, black people were not supposed to be concert pianists.”

It is impossible at this distance to gauge the accuracy of that claim, at least in terms of Simone’s genuine potential as a concert pianist, but if it was a loss to the classical stage, it was popular music’s gain.

She left Juilliard when her money eventually ran out, and always professed regret that a classical career had not been open to her. She regarded herself as a Diva in the tradition of a Maria Callas rather than a jazz singer in the Billie Holiday mould.

She adopted her familiar performing name in 1954 when she began working at a bar and grill in Atlantic City, a job which required her to sing as well as play. It was here that she first began mingling popular song with her classical piano playing and began to evolve the singular, passionate style which became her hallmark.

Her music was an individual compound of pop, blues, jazz, folk, gospel and classical music (including the European art song), mixed and matched to her own potent recipe, and delivered with a passionate conviction when she was in the mood.

When not, she could seem indifferent, even distracted on stage, meandering through songs in almost absent-minded fashion, or repeating a single section over and over, as if looking for something she had mislaid in the music.

When on full song, though, she was a law unto herself, and it was easy to see why she inspired such devotion in her followers. She developed a large and loyal audience over the years, and although she had few real chart successes, she wrote some of the most memorable songs of the era.

They included the powerful civil rights protest Mississippi Goddam, a caustic response to the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evans, and Young Gifted and Black, a much-recorded song which became something of an anthem for black consciousness.

Other hits in her career included her version of the Gershwin brothers’ I Loves You, Porgy, which provided her with her only American Top Twenty hit in 1959, and My Baby Just Cares For Me, an infectious pop tune she cut in 1957, which won her a whole new audience when it was used in a television commercial for a famous perfume 30 years later.

Her range of expression was notably wide, stretching from a sweet, light-hued pop approach through to a dark, primitive blues power, and all shades in between.

Her resentment over racism led her to abandon America in 1973, living in Liberia and Barbados before settling in Holland, and ultimately France. Her reputation for clashing head on with promoters and managers grew ever more fearsome, but she always did business at the box office, and was thus ever forgiven.

The later part of her career was marked by ill-health and punctuated with cancelled tours, but she was still capable of riveting an audience with her spell-binding artistry.

She was twice married and divorced. He survivors include a daughter, Lisa, who sings under the name Simone.


Kenny Mathieson
Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland.

E-mail: kenmat@dircon.co.uk

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An Appreciation

by Mike Zwerin
Copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin

International Herald Tribune

Paris -- After Nina Simone died last week, Raymond Gonzalez, her personal manager for 16 years, recalled how they met. He laughed and shook his head with wonder and said: "You know what she did? She pulled a knife on me." It did not seem to be an unpleasant memory.

It was 1981, he was the artistic director for a music festival in the Spanish city of Pamplona, which had engaged Simone for a concert. She was having personal problems. Her reputation was in shreds. Based in Geneva, she was working small clubs around Europe. Pamplona was a rare good gig for her. Simone made promoters nervous. She said it was because they did not know how to relate to a creative black woman. They said it was because she was undependable and prone to violence.

Either way, the festival couldn't reach her and Gonzalez was sent to Geneva to bring her back. When he took her to the airport early in the morning, she was already drinking from a bottle of cognac. She disappeared while he was checking in. He finally found her back in town. She pulled the same knife on the taxi driver. Then she insisted on a wheelchair, said she was tired. In the end, she delayed the twice-weekly flight for an hour. Gonzalez, a Parisian of Puerto Rican ancestry, was telling this Nina Simone horror story (there are others) with an unbelievably loving smile. "It was a love-hate thing," he explained. "I was the only one who would tell her to buzz-off and she respected me for that." Being a star had never been easy for her.

Simone's ambition had been to be the first female African-American concert pianist. She won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but then she was turned down after an audition by Julliard. She was sure it was because of her race and sex and not her ability. Continuing to study classical piano privately, she began to sing in clubs at night to pay for the lessons. She listened to Bach ("Bach and I hit it off marvelously"), read James Baldwin, saw French movies. Born Eunice Waymon, she took her stage name from Simone Signoret. Her mother was a devout Methodist who thought that show business was just an evil business -- period. No matter how successful she became, one part of Simone always agreed with that. The trip to Pamplona was like the Marx Brothers but not really. Gonzalez continued: "Wouldn't you know it, they lost her baggage. This was the time of Basque terrorism; there were a lot of people with guns in the airport. They could be really aggressive. She was beginning to lose it. I tried to keep her calm. Once we got through customs, she said she wouldn't leave for the hotel unless she got a case of champagne. I talked her into half a case." Three bottles were already empty by the time he picked her up for the sound check. She said she would not perform unless she was paid cash in advance. "The promoter was flipping out and I was trying to reason with her. After a big argument she ended up being paid. Then she said to me: 'Now that I have the money, I'm not going to do the concert.'"

It ended up being a nasty concert. She was obviously loaded and she went out of her way to insult the audience. In the confusion, nobody had asked her for a receipt and when the promoter found that out, he fired Gonzalez. The police arrived. There had been complaints of public abuse from the audience. Gonzalez signed the receipt in return for being allowed to get out of town. He rented a car and he and Simone did not speak to each other during the three-hour drive to Biarritz. As Gonzalez was putting her on a train, she turned to him and said: "You were great. I love you." "Well, I don't love you," he replied. "You got me fired." Whether he knew it or not, he was about to become Nina Simone's manager.

Simone sang songs she liked the way she liked and, despite a bumpy ride, she ended up being successful on her own terms. She had hits with George Gershwin's "I Love You, Porgy;" Jacques Brel's "Ne me Quitte Pas" (in French), and Kurt Weil's "Pirate Jenny." Her protest songs "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" and "Mississippi Goddam" became civil rights anthems. When Chanel revived her 30-year old version of "My Baby Just Cares For Me" for a perfume commercial in 1987, she began to perform in prestigious venues once more.

"On stage, her presence was magic," Gonzalez said. "She had such charisma. She almost didn't have to sing. The way she held herself, her energy, her majesty. She was a queen up there. Everyone felt it. Performing on stage, she forgot everything else. What a voice. I'd say at least three-quarters of her concerts were absolute triumphs. During the last few years, she began to go down. She was mentally unbalanced. Looking back, I think it had been getting worse for a long time. When she took her medication, she was Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. When she didn't take it she was Mr. Hyde."

Simone's life was tumultuous, disorderly and alienated. Over the years, she moved from Liberia to Barbados, New York, Geneva, Nijmegen in the Netherlands, Paris and eventually the Cote d'Azur, where she died. Along the way, there were tax problems with the IRS. The strident edge of her political militancy was always close to the surface and it turned some people off. Still, she had close music-based relationships with three white men -- Gonzalez, Art d'Lugoff, owner of the Village Gate club in New York, and her guitarist Al Schackman.

In her memoir I Put A Spell On You, she describes first meeting Schackman: "I called the title of the first song, 'Little Girl Blue.' What happened next was one of the most amazing moments in my entire life. Al was right there with me from the first moment, as if we had been playing together all our lives. It was more than that even; it was as if we were one instrument split in two. We played Bach-type tunes and inventions for hours, and all the way through we hardly dared look at each other for fear that the whole thing would come tumbling down and we wouldn't be able to pick it up again."

Reached at his Martha's Vineyard home, Schackman said, "One of the greatest blessings in my life was to have been intimately connected to Nina Simone for over 40 years. We never had to worry where the music was taking us. We both had perfect pitch and never had to explain where the music was taking us. We had a telepathic spirit connection that I never experienced outside our relationship. She and I communicated on another plane. Nina knew I would always be there for her, even through trials and tribulations. There were so many glorious moments. I will miss my sister beyond words."


Mike Zwerin
Mike Zwerin is the longtime jazz correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, and author of Swing Under The Nazis, Cooper Square Press.

E-mail: mzwerin@compuserve.com

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With 3 reader comments, latest December 13, 2005