Let’s all begin the roaring NEW YEAR of 2015 celebrating a real immortal GIANT--Ms. Nina Simone--who I was extremely blessed enough to actually see and hear perform LIVE many times in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Oakland, California from 1967-1977. The rather smug white chick who wrote the following piece in the New Yorker typically gets a lot of the “facts” about Simone and her work confused and clumsily conflated with her own personal writerly “interpretation” of what those very complex and complicated “facts” MEAN. But all that is indeed par for the course in a society and culture that refuses to acknowledge the sheer depth, complexity, dynamism, and creative innovation that so often characterizes the most highly accomplished and profound African American art and artists. Thankfully, the powerful legacy of Nina Simone is much too complex, dynamic, “deep”, lucid, and boundlessly imaginative for any cavalier middlebrow analysis by pseudohip critics who simply don’t know or understand enough about American vernacular art and culture generally (let alone the elusive specificities of African American art and culture in particular) to make any lasting intelligent or meaningful commentary about black art and artists (and I ain’t talking about any phony, shallow, or reductive notions of so-called “ethnicity” here). So thank the gods that govern such matters that NINA SIMONE and nearly everything she did and tried to do in her extraordinary life and career is far beyond all that. Don’t believe me? Go get any “greatest of” recording collection or peruse any still available performance videos by this incredible genius and and simply LISTEN. I GUARANTEE you will HEAR very clearly what I mean…In the meantime: HAPPY NEW YEAR YALL...
Nina Simone: "That Blackness"
(From 1968 interview)
Released by the Estate of Nina Simone:
Nina Simone: That Blackness
Released by the Estate of Nina Simone: Recording session and Interview
Mix - Nina Simone: "That Blackness"—50 + videos” (YouTube):
American Annals August 11, 2014 Issue
A Raised Voice
How Nina Simone turned the movement into music.
By Claudia Roth Pierpont
The New Yorker
Simone with James Baldwin in the early sixties. Her intelligence and restless force attracted African-American culture’s finest minds. Credit Courtesy New York Public Library.
“My skin is black,” the first woman’s story begins, “my arms are long.” And, to a slow and steady beat, “my hair is woolly, my back is strong.” Singing in a club in Holland, in 1965, Nina Simone introduced a song she had written about what she called “four Negro women” to a young, homogeneously white, and transfixed crowd. “And one of the women’s hair,” she instructed, brushing her hand lightly across her own woolly Afro, “is like mine.” Every performance of “Four Women” caught on film (as here) or disk is different. Sometimes Simone coolly chants the first three women’s parts—the effect is of resigned weariness—and at other times, as on this particular night, she gives each woman an individual, sharply dramatized voice. All four have names. Aunt Sarah is old, and her strong back has allowed her only “to take the pain inflicted again and again.” Sephronia’s yellow skin and long hair are the result of her rich white father having raped her mother—“Between two worlds I do belong”—and Sweet Thing, a prostitute, has tan skin and a smiling bravado that seduced at least some of the eager Dutch listeners into the mistake of smiling, too. And then Simone hit them with the last and most resolutely up to date of the women, improbably named Peaches. “My skin is brown,” she growled ferociously, “my manner is tough. I’ll kill the first mother I see. ’Cause my life has been rough.” (One has to wonder what the Dutch made of killing that “mother.”) If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger.
A lot of black women have been openly angry these days over a new movie about Simone’s life, and it hasn’t even been released. The issue is color, and what it meant to Simone to be not only categorically African-American but specifically African in her features and her very dark skin. Is it possible to separate Simone’s physical characteristics, and what they cost her in this country, from the woman she became? Can she be played by an actress with less distinctively African features, or a lighter skin tone? Should she be played by such an actress? The casting of Zoe Saldana, a movie star of Dominican descent and a light-skinned beauty along European lines, has caused these questions—rarely phrased as questions—to dog the production of “Nina,” from the moment Saldana’s casting was announced to the completed film’s début, at Cannes, in May, at a screening confined to possible distributors. No reviewers have seen it. The film’s director, Cynthia Mort, has been stalwart in her defense of Saldana’s rightness for the role, citing not only the obvious relevance of acting skills but Simone’s inclusion of a range of colors among her own “Four Women”—which is a fair point. None of the women in Simone’s most personal and searing song escape the damage and degradation accorded to their race.
Ironically, “Four Women” was charged with being insulting to black women and was banned on a couple of radio stations in New York and Philadelphia soon after the recording was released, in 1966. The ban was lifted, however, when it produced more outrage than the song. Simone’s husband, Andrew Stroud, who was also her manager, worried about the dangers that the controversy might have for her career, although this was hardly a new problem. Simone had been singing out loud and clear about civil rights since 1963—well after the heroic stand of figures like Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr., but still at a time when many black performers felt trapped between the rules of commercial success and the increasing pressure for racial confrontation. At Motown, in the early sixties, the wildly popular performers of a stream of crossover hits became models of black achievement but had virtually no contact with the movement at all.
Simone herself had been hesitant at first. Known for her sophisticated pianism, her imperious attitude, and her velvety rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” (which, like Billie Holiday before her, she sang without the demeaningly ungrammatical “s” on “loves”), she had arrived in New York in late 1958, establishing her reputation not in Harlem but in the clubs of hip and relatively interracial Greenwich Village. Her repertoire of jazz and folk and show tunes, often played with a classical touch, made her impossible to classify. In these early years, she performed African songs but also Hebrew songs, and wove a Bach fugue through a rapid-fire version of “Love Me or Leave Me.” She tossed off the thirties bauble “My Baby Just Cares for Me” with airy insouciance, and wrung the heart out of the lullaby “Brown Baby”—newly written by Oscar Brown, Jr., about a family’s hopes for a child born into a better racial order—erupting in a hair-raising wail on the word “freedom,” as though registering all the pain over all the years during which it was denied. For a while, “Brown Baby” was as close to a protest song as Simone got. She believed it was enough.
And then her friend Lorraine Hansberry set her straight. It speaks to Simone’s intelligence and restless force that, in her twenties, she attracted some of African-American culture’s finest minds. Both Langston Hughes and James Baldwin elected themselves mentors: Simone, appearing on the scene just as Holiday died, seemed to evoke their most exuberant hopes and most protective instincts. But Hansberry offered her a special bond. A young woman also dealing with a startling early success—Hansberry was twenty-eight when “A Raisin in the Sun” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, in 1959—she had a strongly cultivated black pride and a pedagogical bent. “We never talked about men or clothes,” Simone wrote in her memoir, decades later. “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk.” A milestone in Simone’s career was a solo concert at Carnegie Hall—a happy chance to show off her pianism—on April 12, 1963, which happened also to be the day that Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested with other protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, and locked up in the local jail. The discrepancy between the events was pointed out by Hansberry, who telephoned Simone after the concert, although not to offer praise.
Two months later, Simone played a benefit for the N.A.A.C.P. In early August, she sang “Brown Baby” before a crowd gathered in the football stadium of a black college outside Birmingham—the first integrated concert ever given in the area—while guards with guns and dogs prowled the field. But Hansberry only started a process that events in America quickly accelerated. Simone watched the March on Washington, later that August, on television, while she was preparing for a club date. She was still rehearsing when, on September 15th, news came of the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young African-American girls who had just got out of Bible class. Simone’s first impulsive act, she recalled, was to try to make a zip gun with tools from her garage. “I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone,” she wrote. “I didn’t yet know who, but someone I could identify as being in the way of my people.”
This urge to violence was not a wholly aberrant impulse but something that had been brewing on a national scale, however tamped down by cooler heads and political pragmatists. At the Washington march, John Lewis, then a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was forced to cut the word “revolution” from his speech and to omit the threat that, absent immediate progress, the marchers would go through the South “the way Sherman did” and “burn Jim Crow to the ground.” James Baldwin, in a televised discussion after the bombing, noted that, throughout American history, “the only time that nonviolence has been admired is when the Negroes practice it.” But the center held. Simone’s husband, a smart businessman, told her to forget the gun and put her rage into her music.
It took her an hour to write “Mississippi Goddam.” A freewheeling cri de coeur based on the place names of oppression, the song has a jaunty tune that makes an ironic contrast with words—“Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee made me lose my rest”—that arose from injustices so familiar they hardly needed to be stated: “And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddam!” Still, Simone spelled them out. She mocked stereotypical insults (“Too damn lazy!”), government promises (“Desegregation / Mass participation”), and, above all, the continuing admonition of public leaders to “Go slow,” a line that prompted her backup musicians to call out repeatedly, as punctuation, “Too slow!” It wasn’t “We Shall Overcome” or “Blowin’ in the Wind”: Simone had little feeling for the Biblically inflected uplift that defined the anthems of the era. It’s a song about a movement nearly out of patience by a woman who never had very much to begin with, and who had little hope for the American future: “Oh but this whole country is full of lies,” she sang. “You’re all gonna die and die like flies.”
She introduced the song in a set at the Village Gate a few days later. And she sang it at a very different concert at Carnegie Hall, in March, 1964—brazenly flinging “You’re all gonna die” at a mostly white audience—along with other protest songs she had taken a hand in writing, including the defiantly jazzy ditty “Old Jim Crow.” She also performed a quietly haunting song titled “Images,” about a black woman’s inability to see her own beauty (“She thinks her brown body has no glory”)—a wistful predecessor to “Four Women” that she had composed to words by the Harlem Renaissance poet Waring Cuney. At the time, Simone herself was still wearing her hair in a harshly straightened fifties-style bob—sometimes the small personal freedoms are harder to speak up for than the larger political ones—and, clearly, it wasn’t time yet for such specifically female injuries to take their place in the racial picture. “Mississippi Goddam” was the song of the moment: bold and urgent and easy to sing, it was adopted by embattled protesters in the cursed state itself just months after Simone’s concert, during what they called the Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer, and what President Johnson called “the summer of our discontent.”
There was no looking back by the time she performed the song outside Montgomery, Alabama, in March, 1965, when some three thousand marchers were making their way along the fifty-four-mile route from Selma; two weeks earlier, protesters making the same attempt had been driven back by state troopers with clubs, whips, and tear gas. The triumphant concert, on the fourth night of the march, was organized by the indefatigable Belafonte, at the request of King, and took place on a makeshift stage built atop stacks of empty coffins lent by local funeral homes, and in front of an audience that had swelled with twenty-five thousand additional people, drawn either by the cause or by a lineup of stars that ranged from Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis to Joan Baez. Simone, accompanied only by her longtime guitarist, Al Schackman, drew cheers on the interpolated line “Selma made me lose my rest.” In the course of events that night, she was introduced to King, and Schackman remembered that she stuck her hand out and warned him, “I’m not nonviolent!” It was only when King replied, gently, “Not to worry, sister,” that she calmed down.
Simone’s explosiveness was well known. In concert, she was quick to call out anyone she noticed talking, to stop and glare or hurl a few insults or even leave the stage. Yet her performances, richly improvised, were also confidingly intimate—she needed the connection with her audience—and often riveting. Even in her best years, Simone never put many records on the charts, but people flocked to her shows. In 1966, the critic for the Philadelphia Tribune, an African-American newspaper, explained that to hear Simone sing “is to be brought into abrasive contact with the black heart and to feel the power and beauty which for centuries have beat there.” She was proclaimed the voice of the movement not by Martin Luther King but by Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, whose Black Power philosophy answered to her own experience and inclinations. As the sixties progressed, the feelings she displayed—pain, lacerating anger, the desire to burn down whole cities in revenge—made her seem at times emotionally disturbed and at other times simply the most honest black woman in America. She recalled that racial anger first arose in her when she was eleven. Born Eunice Waymon, in 1933, she was the sixth of eight children of John and Kate Waymon, who were descendants of slaves and pillars of the small black community of Tryon, North Carolina. Her mother was a Methodist preacher, a severely religious woman who made extra money by cleaning house for a white Tryon family; her father, who had started off as an entertainer, worked at whatever the circumstances required. Even during the Depression, the Waymons made a good home. Simone’s earliest memories were of her mother singing hymns, and both the house and the church were so filled with music that no one noticed little Eunice climbing up to the organ bench until, at the age of two and a half, she played “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” straight through.
Yet as rare as the little girl’s musical gifts is the way that, in that time and place, those gifts were encouraged. She began playing for her mother’s sermons before her feet could reach the pedals, and was soon accompanying the church choir and Sunday services. She especially enjoyed playing for visiting revivalists, because of the raptures she discovered that she could loose in an audience with music. At the other end of the spectrum, she was five years old when the woman for whom her mother cleaned house offered to pay for lessons with a local piano teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich. The British-born Miz Mazzy, as Eunice called her—and also, later on, “my white momma”—inspired her love of Bach and her plans to become a great and famous classical pianist. Giving a recital in the local library, at eleven, Eunice saw her parents being removed from their front-row seats to make room for a white couple. She had been schooled by Miz Mazzy in proper deportment, but she nevertheless stood up and announced that if people wanted to hear her play they’d better let her parents sit back down in the front row. There were some laughs, but her parents were returned to their seats. The next day, she remembered, she felt “as if I had been flayed, and every slight, real or imagined, cut me raw. But, the skin grew back a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black.”
Her skin was very black, and she was made fully aware of that, along with the fact that her nose was too large. The aesthetics of race—and the loathing and self-loathing inflicted on those who vary from accepted standards of beauty—is one of the most pervasive aspects of racism, yet it is not often discussed. The standards have been enforced by blacks as well as by whites. Even Harry Belafonte wrote, in his memoir, about his mother’s well-intentioned counsel to “marry a woman with good hair,” and he added, in unnecessary clarification, “Good hair meant straight hair.” (Reader, he married her.) But Nina Simone, strong and fierce and proud Nina Simone? “I can’t be white and I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise,” she wrote in a note to herself, not during her adolescence but in the years when she was already a successful performer. “If I were a boy, it wouldn’t matter so much, but I’m a girl and in front of the public all the time wide open for them to jeer and approve of or disapprove of.”
Countering the charge of physical inferiority, in her youth, was the talent that her mother assured her was God-given. Music was her salvation, her identity. Thanks to a fund established by a pair of generous white patrons in Tryon, she was sent to board at a private high school—she practiced piano five hours a day, and graduated valedictorian—and then to a summer program at Juilliard, all with the unwavering aim of getting into the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, where admission was terrifically competitive but tuition was free. Her destiny seemed so assured that her parents moved to Philadelphia before she took the Curtis exam. The fact that she was rejected, and believed that this was because of her race, was a source of unending bitterness. It was also a turning point. In the summer of 1954, in need of money, Eunice Waymon took a job playing cocktail piano in an Atlantic City dive—the owner demanded that she also sing—and, hoping to keep the news of this unholy employment from her mother, turned herself into Nina Simone, feeling every right to the anger that Nina Simone displayed forever after.
At times, it seemed that she could outdistance her feelings. In 1961, after a brief marriage to a white hanger-on at the Atlantic City club, she married Stroud, a tough police detective on the Harlem beat whom she initially sized up as “a light-skinned man,” “well built,” and “very sure of himself.” The following year, she gave birth to a daughter, Lisa Celeste, and Stroud left his job to manage Simone’s career; they lived in a large house in the leafy Westchester suburb of Mount Vernon, complete with a gardener and a maid. Although she complained of working too hard and touring too much—of being desperately exhausted—her life was not the stuff of the blues. And then, before a concert in early 1967, Stroud found her in her dressing room putting makeup in her hair. She didn’t know who he was; she didn’t quite know who she was. She later remembered that she had been trying to get her hair to match her skin: “I had visions of laser beams and heaven, with skin—always skin—involved in there somewhere.”
The full medical facts of Simone’s mental illness became public only after her death, in 2003, thanks to two British fan-club founders and friends of Simone’s, Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan, whose account of the singer’s career was aptly titled, after one of Simone’s songs, “Nina Simone: Break Down & Let It All Out” (2004). Subsequent biographies—the warmly overdramatizing “Nina Simone,” by David Brun-Lambert (2009), and the coolly meticulous “Princess Noire,” by Nadine Cohodas (2010)—have filled in terrible details of depression and violence and long-sought but uncertain diagnoses: “bipolar disorder” appears to be the best contemporary explanation. Excerpts from Simone’s diaries and letters of the nineteen-sixties, published by Joe Hagan (who got them from Andrew Stroud) in The Believer, in 2010, added the news that Simone’s personal hell was compounded by regular beatings from Stroud. The marriage dissolved in 1970, but it was many more years before she received any helpful medication.
All the more remarkable, then, the strength that Simone projected through the sixties. As the decade wore on, she began to favor bright African gowns and toweringly braided African hair styles; she became the High Priestess of Soul, and though the title was no more than a record company’s P.R. gambit—Aretha Franklin was soon crowned the Queen of Soul—she bore it with conviction. It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that her songs were mostly about civil rights. Stroud, with his eye on the bottom line, was always there to keep her from going too far in that direction. In concert, she even pulled back on “Mississippi Goddam,” singing “We’re all gonna die, and die like flies” in place of the gleefully threatening “You’re all gonna die . . .” Although she did record the classic anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit,” in 1965, and she could give the most unexpected songs an edge of racial protest (listen to her harrowing version of the Brecht-Weill “Pirate Jenny”), she had a vast and often surprising musical appetite. By the late sixties, she was so afraid of falling behind the times that she expanded her repertory to include Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, and, covering all bases, the Bee Gees. One of her biggest hits of the era was the joyously innocuous “Ain’t Got No—I Got Life,” from the musical “Hair”—which, in her hands, became a classic freedom song.
But womanly strength was in everything she sang: in the cavernous depths of her voice—some people think Simone sounds like a man—in her intensity, her drama, her determination. It’s there in the crazy love song “I Put a Spell on You,” in which she recasts the crippling needs of love (“Because you’re mine! ”) into an undeniable command. It’s there in the ten-minute gospel tour de force “Sinnerman,” when she cries out “Power!” like a Southern preacher and her musicians shout back “Power to the Lord!,” and especially when she takes the disapproving voice of the Lord upon herself: “Where were you, when you oughta been praying?” If you’d never before thought of the Lord as a black woman, you did now.
The civil-rights songs were nevertheless what she called “the important ones.” And the movement is where she gained her strength. It’s also where her private anger took on public dimensions, in the years when patience gave way entirely and the anger in many black communities could no longer be tamped down. Onstage in Detroit, on August 13, 1967—two weeks after a five-day riot had left forty-three people dead, hundreds injured, and the city in ruins—Simone, singing “Just in Time,” added a message to the crowd: “Detroit, you did it. . . . I love you, Detroit—you did it!” She was met with roars of approval, which one Detroit critic said he presumed had come from “the arsonists, looters and snipers in the audience.” Another critic, however, wrote that her show let white people know what they had to learn, and learn fast. Was she the voice of national tragedy or of the next American revolution?
And then King was shot, on April 4, 1968. Sections of Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, and more than a hundred smaller cities went berserk. Despite her rhetoric, Simone was profoundly shaken, and her views of what might be accomplished in this country only grew more bleak. At an outdoor concert in Harlem, the following summer—it’s available on YouTube—she went for broke.
Majestically bedecked à l’africaine, she opened with “Four Women,” singing now before a crowd where an Afro was the norm. After several other stirring, politically focussed songs—“Revolution,” “Backlash Blues”—she closed with something so new that she had not had time to learn it, a poem by David Nelson, who was then part of a group called the Last Poets and is now among the revered begetters of rap. She read the words from a sheet of paper, moving across the stage and repeatedly exhorting the crowd to answer the question “Are you ready, black people? . . . Are you ready to do what is necessary?” The crowd responded to this rather vague injunction with a mild cheer, prompted by the bongos behind her and the demand in her voice. And then: “Are you ready to kill, if necessary?” Now a bigger, if somewhat incongruous, cheer rose from the smiling crowd filled with little kids dancing to the rhythm on a sunny afternoon. It had been five years since the Harlem riot of 1964, the granddaddy of sixties riots; New York had largely escaped the ruinations of both 1967 and 1968. “Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings, are you ready?” she cried. “Are you ready to build black things?”
Despite her best efforts, Simone failed to incite a riot in Harlem that day in 1969. The crowd received the poem as it had received her songs: with noisy affirmation, but merely as part of a performance. People applauded and went on their way. There are many possible reasons: no brutal incident of the kind that frequently set off riots, massive weariness, the knowledge of people elsewhere trapped in riot-devastated cities, maybe even hope. Simone had her unlikeliest hit that year with a simple hymn of promise, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” based on the title of a play that had been put together from Lorraine Hansberry’s uncollected writings. Hansberry, who died in 1965, had used the phrase in a speech to a group of prize-winning black students, and Simone asked a fellow-musician, Weldon Irvine, to come up with lyrics that “will make black children all over the world feel good about themselves forever.” Indeed, it is a children’s song (or it was, until Aretha took it over). Simone’s most moving performance may have been on “Sesame Street,” where she sat on the set’s tenement steps wearing an African gown and lip-synched her recording to four enchanting if slightly mystified black children, who raised their arms in victory toward the end.
It was not a victory she could believe in or a mood she could sustain. By the end of the sixties, both Simone’s career and her marriage were in serious trouble. Pop-rock did not really suit her, and the jazz and folk markets had radically shrunk; the concert stage still assured her income and her stature. And if the collapse of her marriage was in some ways a liberation she was also now without the person who had managed her finances and her schedule, and who had kept her calm before she went onstage (by forbidding her alcohol, among other means), and got her offstage quickly when the calm failed. She was left to govern herself in a world that suddenly had no rules and, just as frightening, was emptied of its larger, steadying purpose. “Andy was gone and the movement had walked out on me too,” she wrote, “leaving me like a seduced schoolgirl, lost.”
Looking back on the historic protests and legislative victories of the sixties, one may find it easy to assume a course of inevitable if often halting racial progress, yet this was anything but apparent as the decade closed. When, in 1970, James Baldwin set out to write about “the life and death of what we call the Civil Rights movement,” its failure seemed to him beyond contention. As for the black leaders who had “walked out” on Simone, they were in cemeteries (Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, King, Fred Hampton), in jail (Huey Newton, Bobby Seale), or in Africa (Stokely Carmichael), or else had “run for cover,” as she put it, “in community or academic programmes.” White liberals had diverted their efforts to Vietnam; this was now the war being fought on televisions in living rooms every night. According to Simone, “The days when revolution really had seemed possible were gone forever.”
She left the country in 1974. Travelling to Liberia with her twelve-year-old daughter, she stayed for two years, during which she performed hardly at all. She left Liberia for Switzerland in order to put her daughter in school there. Eventually, she moved to France, alone. It seems to have been only the recurrent need for money that spurred her to perform again in the United States, although she took great pride in an honorary doctorate that she received from Amherst, in 1977, and insisted ever after on being called “Doctor Nina Simone.” Meanwhile, her concerts tended increasingly toward disaster. As she now sang in “Mississippi Goddam,” “the whole damn world’s made me lose my rest.”
The remainder of her life, some twenty-five years, is a tale of escalating misery. At the worst, she was found wandering naked in a hotel corridor brandishing a knife; she set her house in France on fire, and once, also in France, she shot a teen-age boy (in the leg, but that may have been poor aim) in a neighbor’s back yard for making too much noise—and for answering her complaints with what she understood as racial insults. Yet the ups of her life could be almost as vertiginous as the downs. In 1987, just a year after she was sent to a hospital in a straitjacket, her charmingly upbeat 1959 recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” was chosen by Chanel for its international television ad campaign. Rereleased, the record went gold in France and platinum in England. In 1991, she sold out the Olympia, in Paris, for almost a week.She toured widely during her final years. In Seattle, in the summer of 2001, she worked a tirade against George W. Bush into “Mississippi Goddam,” and encouraged the audience to “go and do something about that man.” She was already suffering from breast cancer, but it wasn’t the worst illness she had known. She was seen as a relic of the civil-rights era, and on occasion she even led the audience in a wistful sing-along of “We Shall Overcome,” although she did not believe her country had overcome nearly enough. Once she became too sick to perform, she did not return to what she called “the United Snakes of America.” She died in France, in April, 2003; her ashes were scattered in several African countries. The most indelible image of her near the end is as a stooped old lady reacting to the enthusiastic cheers that greeted her with a raised, closed-fisted Black Power salute.
Thirty-four years after Simone released “Young, Gifted and Black,” Jay Z reused the title for a song that describes the fate of many of those gifted children—“Hear all the screams from the ghetto all the teens ducking metal”—in twenty-first-century America. The rap connection with Simone is hardly surprising, since rap is where black anger now openly resides. Simone disliked the rap she knew, however, in part for displacing so much anger onto women—or, as she put it, for “letting people believe that women are second class, and calling them bitches and stuff like that.” Back in 1996, Lauryn Hill rapped an anything-you-can-do retort to a male counterpart, “So while you imitatin’ Al Capone / I be Nina Simone / And defecatin’ on your microphone,” but no one has really taken up the challenge of Simone’s example. There was a minor uproar last year over Kanye West’s sampling of phrases from Simone’s recording of “Strange Fruit” (with her voice speeded up to an unrecognizable tinniness) in “Blood on the Leaves,” in which Simone’s evocation of lynched black bodies is juxtaposed with West’s personal concerns about “second string bitches,” cocaine, and the cost of paying off a baby mama versus a new Mercedes. Some people have seen a social statement here, but one can’t help recalling Simone’s broader reaction to rap: “Hell, Martin and Malcolm would turn in their graves if they heard some of this crazy shit.”
As for jazz, Simone was largely excluded from the history books for decades. Will Friedwald’s seminal “Jazz Singing,” of 1990, mentioned her only in passing, as “off-putting and uncommunicative” and as the center of a cult “that only her faithful understand.” But Simone’s eclecticism has slowly widened the very definition of jazz singing. And, ever since Presidential candidate Obama listed her version of “Sinnerman” as one of his ten favorite songs of all time, in 2008, the cult has gone mainstream. There’s now a burgeoning field of what may be called Simone studies—Ruth Feldstein’s “How It Feels to Be Free” and Richard Elliott’s “Nina Simone” offer two highly intelligent examples—and Friedwald’s even more authoritative volume of 2010, “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers,” includes a lengthy entry on Simone that pronounces her “more important than anyone” in her influence on twenty-first-century jazz singing.
Last year, two Broadway shows depicted Simone as an inspiration for a couple of unexpected figures: in “A Night with Janis Joplin,” she helped to provide her white soul sister with the gift of fire, and, even stranger, in the crude but enthusiastic “Soul Doctor”—which reopens Off Broadway this winter—she was the force behind the “rock-and-roll rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach. Nutty as it seemed onstage, Simone’s acquaintance with the rabbi appears to have some basis in fact, and helps to explain the Hebrew songs she performed at the Village Gate (where he also performed) in the early sixties. While it may be a show-biz exaggeration to suggest that the rabbi and the jazz singer had an affair—the show featured an Act I curtain clinch that, on the night I saw it, had its largely Orthodox audience literally gasping—the point was the universality of Simone’s message about persecution, the search for justice, and the power of music.
Back in 1979, at a concert in Philadelphia, Simone followed a performance of “Four Women” by scolding the black women in the audience about their changes in style: “You used to be talking about being natural and wearing natural hair styles. Now you’re straightening your hair, rouging your cheeks and dressing out of Vogue.” In 2009, the comedian Chris Rock made a documentary titled “Good Hair” because, he explained, his young daughter had come to him with the question “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” For an African-American child, nothing had changed since Harry Belafonte’s mother’s advice, more than half a century earlier. (According to one contented businessman in Rock’s film, African-Americans—twelve per cent of the population—buy eighty per cent of the hair products in this country.) As for skin tone, the cosmetic companies have been expanding their range ever since Iman established a line of darker foundations, in 1994, although in March, 2014, a former beauty director of Essence, Aretha Busby, complained to the Times,“The companies tend to stop at Kerry Washington. I’d love to see brands go two or three shades darker.”
The question of skin tone and hair and their meaning for African-American women exploded on the Internet with the announcement of the casting of Saldana in the Hollywood bio-pic about Simone. When the idea for such a film was initially floated, in the early nineties, Simone herself gave the nod to being played by Whoopi Goldberg. When, in 2010, the present film was announced in the Hollywood Reporter, Mary J. Blige—the reigning Queen of Hip-Hop Soul—was announced for the lead. Once Blige was replaced with Saldana, however, a woman whose skin tone is more than two or three shades lighter than Simone’s, the cries for boycotting the film on the basis of misrepresentation—on the basis of insult—were instantaneous. Why not cast Viola Davis? Or Jennifer Hudson? Production photographs showing Saldana on the set with an artificially broadened nose, an Afro wig, and—inevitably, but most unfortunately—dark makeup that is all too easily confoundable with blackface rendered any hope of calm discussion futile. It’s been suggested that the filmmakers might as well have cast Tyler Perry in full “Madea” drag.
Simone’s daughter has come out against the film because its story focusses on an invented love affair as much as for the casting of Saldana, although she is quick to point out how much her mother’s appearance shaped her life. (Lisa once told an interviewer that her mother would sometimes “traumatize” her because she is light-skinned—“and I’d remind her that she had chosen my father, I didn’t.”) The fight over the film ultimately extended to a lawsuit filed by the director, Cynthia Mort, against the British production company, Ealing Studios Enterprises, on the very eve of the screening at Cannes. Since then, though, the suit has been dismissed, so “Nina” may yet show up in a theatre near you. And Saldana may give a compelling performance—may well prove that she can play not only women who are sci-fi blue (as in “Avatar”) or green (as in “Guardians of the Galaxy”) but real-life black. Still, there is no escaping the fact that her casting represents exactly the sort of prejudice that Simone was always up against. “I was never on the cover of Ebony or Jet,” Simone told an interviewer, in 1980. “They want white-looking women like Diana Ross—light and bright.” Or, as Marc Lamont Hill writes in Ebony today, “There is no greater evidence of how tragic things are for dark-skinned women in Hollywood than the fact that they can’t even get hired to play dark-skinned women.” Well beyond Hollywood, these outworn habits of taste reverberate down the generations, infecting all of us.
Simone’s favorite performer in her later years was Michael Jackson. She brought cassettes of his albums with her everywhere, and recalled having met him on a plane when he was a little boy, and telling him, “Don’t let them change you. You’re black and you’re beautiful.” She anguished over his evident failure to believe what she’d said: the facial surgeries, the mysterious lightening of his skin, the fatality of believing, instead, what the culture had told him, and wanting to be white. Simone appeared onstage with him just once, amid a huge cast of performers gathered for Nelson Mandela’s eightieth birthday, in Johannesburg, in the summer of 1998. She was sixty-five years old, and photographs of the event show her standing between Mandela and Jackson, overweight yet glamorously done up, her hair piled in braids and her strapless white blouse a contrast to the African costumes of the chorus all around. But she was also very frail. In one photograph, Jackson—in his glittering trademark military-style jacket, hat, and shades—holds her left hand in both his hands, in a gesture of affection. But in another shot he has put one steadying arm around her, and she is grasping his hand for support. Few people seem aware of what is happening. The stage remains a swirl of laughter and song, a joyous African celebration. And at its center the two Americans stand with hands clasped tight—one hand notably dark, the other notably fair—as though trying to help each other along a hard and endless road. ♦
Claudia Roth Pierpont has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1990 and became a staff writer in 2004.
I hope you enjoyed the ninth week issue (December 27-January 2) of SOUND PROJECTIONS, the new online quarterly music magazine which featured the outstanding guitarist, composer, singer, songwriter, and ensemble leader GARY CLARK, JR. Week #10 began yesterday on Saturday, January 3, 2015 @10AM PST which is @1PM EST.
The featured artist for the upcoming week (January 3-January 9, 2015) is the legendary and iconic pianist, composer, singer, songwriter, social activist, and ensemble leader NINA SIMONE. So enjoy this week’s musical entry in SOUND PROJECTIONS, the online quarterly music magazine and please pass the word to your friends, colleagues, comrades, and associates that the magazine is now up and running at the following site. Please click on the link below:
Thanks. For further important details please read below…
A sonic exploration and tonal analysis of contemporary creative music in a myriad of improvisational/composed settings, textures, and expressions.
I'm your host Kofi Natambu. This online magazine features the very best in contemporary creative music in this creative timezone NOW (the one we're living in) as well as that of the historical past. The purpose is to openly explore, examine, investigate, reflect on, studiously critique, and take opulent pleasure in the sonic and aural dimensions of human experience known and identified to us as MUSIC. I'm also interested in critically examining the wide range of ideas and opinions that govern our commodified notions of the production, consumption, marketing, and commercial exchange of organized sound(s) which largely define and thereby (over)determine our present relationships to music in the general political economy and culture.
Thus this magazine will strive to critically question and go beyond the conventional imposed notions and categories of what constitutes the generic and stylistic definitions of 'Jazz', 'classical music', 'Blues', 'Rhythm and Blues', 'Rock 'n Roll', 'Pop', 'Funk', 'Hip Hop' etc. in order to search for what individual artists and ensembles do creatively to challenge and transform our ingrained ideas and attitudes of what music is and could be.
So please join me in this ongoing visceral, investigative, and cerebral quest to explore, enjoy, and pay homage to the endlessly creative and uniquely magisterial dimensions of MUSIC in all of its guises and expressive identities.
Saturday, January 3, 2015
Nina Simone (1933-2003):
Legendary and Iconic pianist, composer, singer, songwriter, ensemble leader, and social activist
AN ONLINE QUARTERLY MUSIC MAGAZINE
EDITOR: KOFI NATAMBU
VOLUME ONE NUMBER ONE
Featuring the Musics and Aesthetic Visions of:
November 29-December 5
GARY CLARK, JR.
December 27-January 2
January 3-January 9
January 10-January 16
*[Special bonus feature: A celebration of the centennial year of musician, composer, orchestra leader, and philosopher SUN RA, 1914-1993]
She earned the moniker ‘High Priestess of Soul’ for she could weave a spell so seductive and hypnotic that the listener lost track of time and space as they became absorbed in the moment. She was who the world would come to know as Nina Simone.
When Nina Simone died on April 21, 2003, she left a timeless treasure trove of musical magic spanning over four decades from her first hit, the 1959 Top 10 classic “I Loves You Porgy,” to “A Single Woman,” the title cut from her one and only 1993 Elektra album. While thirty-three years separate those recordings, the element of honest emotion is the glue that binds the two together – it is that approach to every piece of work that became Nina’s uncompromising musical trademark.
By the end of her life, Nina was enjoying an unprecedented degree of recognition. Her music was enjoyed by the masses due to the CD revolution, discovery on the Internet, and exposure through movies and television. Nina had sold over one million CDs in the last decade of her life, making her a global catalog best-seller.
No one website can fully explore the many nuances and flavors that made up the more than 40 original albums in the Nina Simone library. This site and accompanying radio station contain many of Nina’s finest works. However, we might not have had the chance to witness the breathtaking range of material Nina could cover if she hadn’t taken the path she did.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21st, 1933, Nina’s prodigious talent as a musician was evident early on when she started playing piano by ear at the age of three. Her mother, a Methodist minister, and her father, a handyman and preacher himself, couldn’t ignore young Eunice’s God-given gift of music. Raised in the church on the straight and narrow, her parents taught her right from wrong, to carry herself with dignity, and to work hard. She played piano – but didn’t sing – in her mother’s church, displaying remarkable talent early in her life. Able to play virtually anything by ear, she was soon studying classical music with an Englishwoman named Muriel Mazzanovich, who had moved to the small southern town. It was from these humble roots that Eunice developed a lifelong love of Johann Sebastian Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert. This website captures milestones in a career that has had more than its share of peaks and valleys.After graduating valedictorian of her high school class, the community raised money for a scholarship for Eunice to study at Julliard in New York City before applying to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her family had already moved to the City Of Brotherly Love, but Eunice’s hopes for a career as a pioneering African American classical pianist were dashed when the school denied her admission. To the end, she herself would claim that racism was the reason she did not attend. While her original dream was unfulfilled, Eunice ended up with an incredible worldwide career as Nina Simone – almost by default.
To survive, she began teaching music to local students. One fateful day in 1954, looking to supplement her income, Eunice auditioned to sing at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Word spread about this new singer and pianist who was dipping into the songbooks of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and the like, transforming popular tunes of the day into a unique synthesis of jazz, blues, and classical music. Her rich, deep velvet vocal tones, combined with her mastery of the keyboard, soon attracted club goers up and down the East Coast. In order to hide the fact that she was singing in bars, Eunice’s mother would refer to the practice as “working in the fires of hell”, overnight Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone by taking the nickname “Nina” meaning “little one” in Spanish and “Simone” after the actress Simone Signoret.
At the age of twenty-four, Nina came to the attention of the record industry. After submitting a demo of songs she had recorded during a performance in New Hope, Pennsylvania, she was signed by Syd Nathan, owner of the Ohio-based King Records (home to James Brown), to his Jazz imprint, Bethlehem Records. The boisterous Nathan had insisted on choosing songs for her debut set, but eventually relented and allowed Nina to delve in the repertoire she had been performing at clubs up and down the eastern seaboard. One of Nina’s stated musical influences was Billie Holiday and her inspired reading of “Porgy” (from “Porgy & Bess”) heralded the arrival of a new talent on the national scene. At the same mammoth 13 hour session in 1957, recorded in New York City, Nina also cut “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” previously recorded by Nate King Cole, Count Basie, and Woody Herman. The song was used by Chanel in a perfume commercial in Europe in the 1980’s and it became a massive hit for Nina, a British chart topper at #5, and thus a staple of her repertoire for the rest of her career.
Nina Simone’s stay with Bethlehem Records was short lived and in 1959, after moving to New York City, she was signed by Joyce Selznik, the eastern talent scout for Colpix Records, a division of Columbia Pictures. Months after the release of her debut LP for the label (1959‘s The Amazing Nina Simone), Nina was performing at her first major New York City venue, the mid-Manhattan-located Town Hall. Sensing that her live performances would capture the essential spontaneity of her artistry, Colpix opted to record her September 12, 1959 show. “You Can Have Him,” a glorious torch song previously cut by Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, was one of the highlights of the evening. The song opened with a dazzling keyboard arpeggio that would become her signature for decades. So momentous was the Town Hall performance that it inspired some of the same musicians, featuring the vocals of Nina’s only daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, to do a tribute to a sold out audience over forty five years later.
As Nina’s reputation as an engaging live performer grew, it wasn’t long before she was asked to perform at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival. Accompanied on the June 30th,1960 show by Al Schackman, a guitarist who would go on to become Nina’s longest-running musical colleague, bassist Chris White, and drummer Bobby Hamilton, the dynamic show was recorded by the Colpix. The subsequent release in 1961 of the old blues tune “Trouble In Mind” as a single gave Nina her third charted record.
Her stay with Colpix resulted in some wonderful albums – nine in all – included Nina’s version of Bessie Smith’s blues classic “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.” Issued as a single in 1960, it became Nina’s second charted Pop and R&B hit and one of two Colpix tracks to achieve such a feat during her five year stint with the label. Other stand out tracks from that era were the soulful song “Cotton Eyed Joe,” the torch tune “The Other Women,” and the Norwegian folk rendition of “Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair” – all beautiful examples of Nina Simone at her storytelling best, painting a vivid picture with her skill as a lyrical interpreter. During this time with the label, Nina recorded one civil rights song, Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Brown Baby,” which was included on her fifth album for the label, At The Village Gate.
“Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing,” writes Nina in her 1991 autobiography I Put A Spell On You, “and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in. It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz. On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.” Clearly Nina Simone was not an artist who could be easily classified.
Nina’s Colpix recordings cemented her appeal to a nightclub based U.S. audience. Once she moved to Phillips, a division of Dutch owned Mercury Records, she was ready to expand her following globally. Her first LP for the label, 1964’s In Concert, signaled Nina’s undaunting stand for freedom and justice for all, stamping her irrevocably as a pioneer and inspirational leader in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Her own original “Mississippi Goddam” was banned throughout the South but such a response made no difference in Nina’s unyielding commitment to liberty; subsequent groundbreaking recordings for Philips like “Four Women” (recorded September 1965) and “Strange Fruit” continued to keep Nina in the forefront of the few performers willing to use music as a vehicle for social commentary and change. Such risks were seldom taken by artists during that time of such dramatic civil upheaval.
For years, Nina felt there was much about the way that she made her living that was less then appealing. One gets a sense of that in the following passage from I Put A Spell on You where she explains her initial reluctance to perform material that was tied to the Civil Rights Movement.
“Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like [Civil Rights activist] Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”
Nina was deeply affected by these two events. In 1962, she had befriended noted playwright Lorraine Hansberry and spoke often with her about the Civil Rights Movement. While she was moved by her conversations with Hansberry, it took the killing of Medgar Evers and the four girls in Birmingham to act as catalysts for a transformation of Nina’s career.
There were many sides to Nina Simone. Among her most amazing recordings were the original and so-soulful version “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “I Put A Spell On You” (which had reached to #23 in the U.S. charts), eerily moody, unrestrained, drama to the max; “Ne Me Quitte Pas” tender, poignant, filled with melancholy; and with gospel-like fervor, the hypnotic voodoo of “See-Line Woman.” In her own unrivaled way, Nina also loved to venture into the more earthy side of life. After she signed with RCA Records in 1967 (a deal her then husband/manager Andy Stroud had negotiated), her very first recordings for the label included the saucy “Do I Move You?” and the undeniably sexual “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl” which were from the concept album entitled Nina Sings The Blues. Backed by a stellar cast of New York CIty session musicians, the album was far and away Nina’s most down-home recording session. By this time, Nina had become central to a circle of African American playwrights, poets, and writers all centered in Harlem along with the previously mentioned Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. The outcome from one of the relationships became a highlight of the LP with the song “Backlash Blues,” a song that’s lyrics originated from the last poem Langston Hughes submitted for publication prior to his death in May, 1967 and gave to Nina.
Nina’s seven years with RCA produced some remarkable recordings, ranging from two songs featured in the Broadway musical “Hair” (combined into a medley, “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life,” a #2 British hit in 1968) to a Simone-ified version of George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun,” which remained in Nina’s repertoire all the way through to her final performance in 2002. Along the way at RCA, songs penned by Bob Dylan (“Just Like A Woman”), the brothers Gibb (“To Love Somebody”), and Tina Turner (“Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter”) took pride of place alongside Nina’s own anthem of empowerment, the classic “To Be Young, Gifted, & Black,” a song written in memory of Nina’s good friend Lorraine Hansberry. The title of the song coming from a play Hansberry had been working on just prior to her death.
After Nina left RCA, she spent a good deal of the 1970’s and early 1980’s living in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. In 1978, for the first time since she left RCA, Nina was convinced by U.S. jazz veteran Creed Taylor to make an album for his CTI label. This would be her first new studio album in six years and she recorded it in Belgium with strings and background vocals cut in New York City. With the kind of “clean” sound that was a hallmark of CTI recordings, the Nina Simone album that emerged was simply brilliant. Nina herself would later claimed that she ”hated” the record but many fans strongly disagreed. With an eighteen piece string section conducted by David Mathews (known for his arrangements on James Brown’s records), the results were spectacular. The title track, Randy Newman’s evocative “Baltimore,” was an inspired Nina Simone choice. It had a beautifully constructed reggae-like beat and used some of the finest musicians producer Creed Taylor could find including Nina’s guitarist and music director, Al Schackman.
Aside from 1982’s Fodder On My Wings that Nina recorded for Carrere Records, two albums she made of the independent VPI label in Hollywood (Nina’s Back and Live And Kickin’) in 1985, and a 1987 Live At Vine Street set recorded for Verve, Nina Simone did not make another full length album until Elektra A&R executive Michael Alago persuaded her to record again. After much wining and dining, Nina finally signed on the dotted line. Elektra tapped producer Andre Fischer, noted conductor Jeremy Lubbock, and a trio of respected musicians to provide the suitable environment for this highly personal reading of “A Single Woman,” which became the centerpiece and title track for Nina Simone’s final full length album.
With two marriages behind her in 1993 she settled in Carry-le-Rout, near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. She would continue to tour through the 1990’s and became very much ‘the single woman’ she sang about on her last label recording. She rarely traveled without an entourage, but if you were fortunate enough to get to know the woman behind the music you could glimpse the solitary soul that understood the pain of being misunderstood. It was one of Nina’s many abilities to comprehend the bittersweet qualities of life and then parlay them into a song that made her such an enduring and fascinating person.
In her autobiography, Nina Simone writes that her function as an artist is “…to make people feel on a deep level. It’s difficult to describe because it’s not something you can analyze; to get near what it’s about you have to play it. And when you’ve caught it, when you’ve got the audience hooked, you always know because it’s like electricity hanging in the air.” It was that very electricity that made her such an important artist to so many and it will be that electricity that continues to turn on new people all over the world for years to come.
Nina Simone died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rout, Bouches-du-Rhone on April 21, 2003. Her funeral service was attended by Miriam Makeba, Patti Labelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis and hundreds of others. Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message, “You were the greatest and I love you”. And the legacy continues…
Contributions by: David Nathan (RCA’s ‘Nina Simone Anthology’, ‘Simone On Simone’), Ed Ward & Richard Seidel (RCA/Legacy ‘To Be Free-The Nina Simone Story’), Rob Bowman (Jazz Icons), Aaron Overfield (L’hommage: Nina Simone), additional editing by Sarah Epler