Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Wild Is The Wind: The Life & Music of Nina Simone

Nina Simone
Image courtesy of: http://daily-songs.com

“Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music.

Her proud voice, it has been insinuated, is an acquired taste: you either love it or you hate it. As a Southerner, her lyrics were laced with the bitterness of unjust insults and persecution of racism. Her independent spirit, never shy of expressing exactly how she felt, was matched by her vitriolic temper and mercurial temperament. Throughout her career, she knew the triumphs of success as well as the defeat of loss. Still, she could be gracious and generous when she wanted to be.

But whatever you may feel about Nina Simone, one thing is for certain: her integrity was resolute and she fearlessly stood by the principles she believed in; she was a staunch ally of those whom she supported in the struggle against inequality. She used her songs as a platform from which she addressed and protested the social injustices of the day, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s - she wrote Old Jim Crow and Mississippi Goddam, for instance, in response to the death of four black children in a church bombing in 1963.

More than a child-prodigy-turned-chanteuse, Nina Simone was a social activist.

The former Eunice Kathleen Waymon
Image courtesy of: http://www.morethings.com/

The sixth of eight children, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born on February 21st, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. The daughter of Mary Kate Waymon (a strict Methodist minister who lived into her nineties) and John Divine Waymon, who, in spite of ill health also worked as a handyman and sometime barber, as a child, Eunice, along with some of her other sisters, sang  in her mother's choir at their local church and, from an early age, showed a prodigious musical talent with an aptitude for the piano. (Although the family lived in poverty, nonetheless, Eunice's mother encouraged  her musical inclinations.)

Mary Kate Waymon, her mother, worked as a maid and it was Mrs. Waymon's employer who, hearing of Eunice's talent (it is alleged that she was discovered playing God Be With You Till We Meet Again on the family organ - by ear and note-perfect in the F key - at the age of three) provided the necessary funds for the first piano lessons for her in 1939, when she was six years of age, in exchange for recitals at her library. (A local fund was eventually set up by her piano teacher to support the girl's continuing high school education and eventually through to the Julliard School of Music in New York City.) 

And it was there, at the town library, that Eunice's first public debut was held. It was a classical piano recital at which her parents, having sat at the front row to watch their daughter, were made to give vacate their seats and move to the back of the recital hall in order to make room for some White audience members just before the concert was to begin; an outraged ten-year-old Eunice reportedly refused to play until her parents were allowed to sit in the front row again. The experience of this racially-biased incident seared itself into Eunice's mind, never to be forgotten. (Simone rarely respected an audience thereafter: “I hate singing live,” she declared, “I only work in showbusiness for the money.”)
(Sources: last.fm, 2010; lyricsfreak.com, 2010; Hunter, K. D., solidarity-us.org, 2003; quote: telegraph.co.uk, April 23, 2003)

Nina Simone - Live at Ronnie Scott's in London ~ 1984
(Album Cover)
Image courtesy of: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/

After leaving the Julliard School of Music with an ambition to become the first Black classical concert pianist (her playing would always remain 'tinged' with traces of Bach), at the age of seventeen, Eunice decided to apply  for a scholarship at the equally prestigious Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music in Pennsylvania. When, however, Curtis Institute rejected her application, Eunice attributed it to racism: “When Curtis turned me down, I never got over it,” she was later quoted as saying. “I had never thought about being [B]lack before.” As a result of her failure to enter Curtis Institute, Eunice was obliged to become a piano teacher and accompanist for vocal students, whom she later referred to as “nasty little kids.” (Source & quote: telegraph.co.uk, April 23, 2003)

 Image courtesy of: http://www.smoothvibes.com/

In 1954, Eunice took a summer job (to support her schooling) at the Midtown Bar and Grill, a club on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, New Jersey, at which she thought she would be playing the piano. The owner thought he had hired a vocalist. After her first night, the club owner gave Eunice an ultimatum - either she sing at her next performance the following night or she would find herself out of a job. At the end of her performance, the audience response was so enthusiastic that Eunice decided to change her career from a solely piano performance to vocals. Now that she had embarked on a career as a nightclub singer-pianist, Eunice, out of fear of her mother's discovery and disapproval of her playing 'the devil's music,' adopted a new appellation for herself: Nina Simone. Nina, meaning 'little one,' was borrowed from a Hispanic boyfriend's nickname for her; Simone was taken from a French actress that Eunice admired, Simone Signoret, in the 1952 movie, Casque d'Or. (Incidentally, the indication is that Mrs. Waymon did not approve of her daughter's career in showbuisness - in forty years, she only came to two of her daughter's performances.)

It was in her new persona as Nina Simone that she was soon noticed, playing a mixture of jazz, blues and classical music at various clubs, creating a small but loyal fan-base for herself, which led her to record a rendition of I Loves You Porgy, a duet from the 1935 George and Ira Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess (learned from a Billie Holiday album and performed as a favour to a friend). In 1959, it turned out to be her first - and only - top 20 hit of her career. (Sources: telegraph.co.uk, April 23, 2003; Hunter, K. D., solidarity-us.org, 2003; lyricsfreak.com, 2010)

Image courtesy of: http://www.htbackdrops.com/

No profile on Nina Simone would be complete without mention of her involvement in the struggle for racial equality. Having grown up in the South and experiencing racism first-hand, Nina embraced the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and fully supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s platform. Simone was initially brought into the movement by her good friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun). It was because of her experiences with the movement that Simone wrote and recorded what is perhaps her most potent commentary on racism in America. As she conveyed in her 1993 autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, she was furious and  shaken to the core by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a heinous act which killed four innocent little Black girls. The attack - either ironically or deliberately - took place less than three weeks after Luther King's historic march on Washington and marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement as most of the movement's major figures, including Dr. King and SNCC's Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) were pushed closer to the radicalism advocated by Malcolm X. Simone, who purportedly wanted to go out into the streets and shoot some White folks - a reaction which is in complete opposition to the movement's non-violence stance - transformed her rage, instead, into the powerfully scathing Mississippi Goddam. (Source: Neal, M. A., seeingblack.com, June 4, 2003)

Video courtesy of: RdclBlkFmnst ~ YouTube


The song was recorded live at Carnegie Hall in March of 1964. Simone's career would be radically altered by the recording; it lent a harder edge to her musical repertoire as she increasingly utilized her music as a vehicle in her campaign for change. (The beginning of the song has Simone cryptically announcing to her audience, “The name of this tune is 'Mississippi Goddamn'... and I mean every word of it.”) The lyrics for Mississippi Goddam are embedded, deceptively, in a swingy show tune beat that belies Simone's seething, vitriolic hatred for White America's racially-motivated mistreatment of its Black citizens and denounces its reluctance to desegregation. “This is show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it... yet,” she quietly begins. 

Mississippi Goddam then meanders into lyrical imagery of what it must have been like to be a Black person living in the South, especially at that time, as seen through the eyes of someone who has lived through the sting of racism: “Hound dogs on my trail / School children sitting in jail / Black cat crossed my path, I think every day is gonna be my last / Lord have mercy on this land of mine / we all gonna get it in due time / I don't belong here, I don't belong there, I've even stopped believing in prayer.” Then, after the song crescendos with the verse, “Don't tell me, I'll tell you / Me and my people just about due / I've been there so I know / Keep on saying 'Go slow,'” Simone quietly admonishes her audience by asking, “Bet you thought I was kidding, didn't you?” The song then picks up again, her pent up anger and frustration made apparent with the lines, “Picket lines, school boycotts / They try to say it's a Communist plot /  All I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people and me / Yes you lied to me all these years / You told me to wash and clean my ears / And talk real fine, just like a lady / And you'd stop calling me 'Sister Sadie' / All of this whole country is full of lies / You all gonna die and die like flies / I don't trust you anymore / You keep on saying 'Go slow.'”

Simone would record other Black protest anthems such as Billy Taylor's I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, a long-time favourite of protest marchers, and Why? (The King of Love is Dead), her musical eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr. (Source: Neal, M. A., seeingblack.com, June 4, 2003)

Image courtesy of: http://www.morethings.com/

Following disagreements with her record label and feeling generally disenchanted with America, Simone left the United States in 1971 and flew to Barbados, expecting her husband and manager, Andrew Stroud, to inform her of her next performance. (Her marriage to Stroud was apparently fraught with violence.) Stroud, however, interpreted Simone's sudden disappearance (and the fact that she had left behind her wedding ring) as a signal for a divorce. As her manager, Stroud was also in charge of Simone's finances, which meant that after their separation, Simone had no knowledge about how her business was managed or what her financial worth was. Returning to the United States, she was dismayed to learn that she was wanted for unpaid taxes, the knowledge of which instigated her return to Barbados and her evasion of the Internal Revenue Service authorities and prosecution. Simone remained in Barbados for quite some time, and had a lengthy affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow.

In the 1980s, Simone performed regularly in England at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London. (To the astonishment of her audience, on one occasion she arrived for a performance on stage at Ronnie's wearing a mink coat and training shoes, with a plastic shopping bag in hand; in 1989, a live album, Live At Ronnie Scott's, was released.) A close friend, singer Miriam Makeba, persuaded her to go to Liberia and she lived there for about four years. After which, she lived in Switzerland and in Nijmegen, Holland; she finally settled in Aix-en-Provence, in the South of France, in 1995.
(Sources: lyricsfreak.com, 2010; last.fm, 2011; telegraph.co.uk, April 23, 2003)

Image courtesy of: http://www.last.fm/

Nina Simone has been recognised for her musical as well as humanitarian contributions. In 1974, On Human Kindness Day in Washington D.C., ten thousand people gathered to pay tribute to Simone, there to receive two honorary degrees in music and humanities from the University of Massachusetts as well as from Malcolm X College. After her degrees, Simone preferred to be adressed as 'Dr. Nina Simone.' More poignantly, in 2003, two days prior to her death, Curtis Institute of Music - the same college that had, decades ago, refused Eunice Waymon's application - awarded her an honorary diploma. (Source: lyricsfreak.com, 2010)

Throughout her career, Nina Simone recorded over forty live and studio albums. She wrote some songs and covered others. Some of her best-known numbers include: My Baby Just Cares for Me, I Put A Spell On You, Four Women, I Loves You Porgy, Feeling Good, House of the Rising Sun, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, Sinnerman, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Mississippi Goddamn, Ain't Got No/I Got Life and I Want a Little Sugar In My Bowl and Ne Me Quitte Pas. Many hip-hop artists and disc jockeys sample and remix her songs, introducing them to new audiences who may not necessarily be as aware of Simone's career and contributions to music.

Currently, some of her songs, such as the remixed version of Sinnerman, are used in television advertisements. Her music has also surfaced in such popular television series as Sex And The City as well as in movies, including: The Big Lebowski (1998), Point of No Return (also known as The Assassin, 1993) Notting Hill (1999), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Before Sunset (2004), Inland Empire (2006), Sex And The City (2008), Revolutionary Road (2008), and Watchmen (2009).

After battling breast cancer for a few years, Nina Simone, aged seventy, died at home in her sleep on April 21st, 2003, in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rôhne, France. Her ashes were reportedly scattered in several African countries. Her only daughter, Lisa Celeste, an actress/singer, took the stage name of 'Simone'. (Source: lyricsfreak.com, 2010)

The above three images are courtesy of: http://www.last.fm/

It would seem that there could not have been two more disparate entities than Nina Simone and the Parisian House of Chanel. But for a brief moment, the two converged and the result was a highly successful venture for both. My Baby Just Cares For Me, a snappy tune originally written by Gus Khan and Walter Donaldson in 1928 for a Ziegfeld musical Whoopee! and recorded by Simone for her 1957 debut album, Little Girl Blue, was a fairly obscure melody (Little Girl Blue was released in 1958 by Bethlehem Records); until, that is, 1987. It was in that year, thirty years after its original recording, that the song - with Simone on vocals and piano - was used as the cover for a television advertisement in the United Kingdom for Chanel's No. 5 perfume, featuring the French actress Carole Bouquet. (Source: lyricsfreak.com, 2010)

The commercial was a phenomenal success: it rejuvenated the image of No. 5 while at the same time it generated much new interest in Nina Simone. The popularity of this once-forgotten recording led to its re-release as a single; it debuted at number 5 on the U.K. singles chart. (However, due to the her decision to sell the rights to all the songs on  her Little Girl Blue  album when she signed with her record company at the time, Simone was not entitled to much of the profits made from the sale of the single: from the 175,000 copies sold, Simone reportedly received the paltry sum of $20,000 in royalties because Charly Records had 'licensed' the record from its American owners.) My Baby Just Cares For Me is still the most identifiable Nina Simone 'trademark' and one very closely associated with her name. 
(Sources: Hunter, K.D., solidarity-us.org, 2003; telegraph.co.uk, April 23, 2003)

Video courtesy of:  ~ YouTube

Subsequently, sixteen years after the success of the Chanel No. 5 advert, another venerable French House, that of Christian Dior, followed suit. In 2003, under Dior's then creative director, John Galliano, Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron (directed by Nick Knight and photographed by Michael Balhaus) starred in the sensuous J'Adore Dior perfume advertisement set to the score of yet another Nina Simone classic, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.
(Source: admusicdb.com, 2009)

Video courtesy of:  ~ YouTube

Photograph by Carol Friedman/Corbis ~ 1994

Photograph by Peter Williams/Corbis ~ 1997
The above two images are courtesy of: http://www.radio.ge/

In 2002, the groundbreaking Verve Remixed compilation series  was first  introduced. It ingeniously coupled today's most innovative disc jockeys together with some of the most popular archived hits from the Verve Records' catalogue by yesteryear's greatest crooners. Featuring luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Shirley Horne, Dinah Washington, Anita O'Day and others, over the years, the Verve Remixed series established itself as one of the most ground-breaking and successful series in music. In each edition of the series - 1 through 4 (2002-2008), along with the Verve Remixed Deluxe Box Set (2005) - a couple of Nina Simone's timeless songs have always been featured (and cleverly remixed), including  the Joe Claussell/Thievery Corporation smooth urban remix of Feeling Good.
(Source: ververemixed.com, 2009)

Video courtesy of:
[Joe Claussell/Thievery Corporation Remix]

Video courtesy of:
[Felix Da Housecat Heavenly House Vocal Remix]
The  above  two videos are both courtesy of YouTube

Image courtesy of: http://www.gplondon.com/

Nina Simone's life will soon be brought to the silver screen. Written and directed by Cynthia Mort, Nina (Ealing Studios) stars Mary J. Blige and David Oyelowo in a biographical film which revolves around Nina Simone's relationship with her assistant, Clifton Henderson. (Source: imdb.com, 2010)

But Nina is not the first film to be made of Simone's life. Nina Simone: La Légende (1992) is a television documentary made by Frank Lords - produced in association with La Sept (La 7), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and System TV. The film is a personal portrait of the legendary vocalist and musician which included interviews with Nina as well as with members of her intimate circle of friends, relatives and colleagues - all chronicling Simone's life and musical journey. In one touching scene, the film follows an emotional Simone on her visit - the first in many years - with her mother and siblings at her childhood home in North Carolina. (Source: imdb.com, 2011)

Video courtesy of: 

Video courtesy of:

Video courtesy of:

Video courtesy of: Monke96ify

Video courtesy of:

Video courtesy of:

Video courtesy of:

Video courtesy of: LucaC1993Production

Video courtesy of:
The above nine videos are all courtesy of YouTube

“I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about... Now it was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important.”

Image courtesy of: http://cache1.bigcartel.com

Suggested readings:

I Put A Spell On You (1993, 2003), by Nina Simone & Stephen Cleary: Da Capo Press

Nina Simone: Break Down & Let It All Out (2004), by Sylvia Hampton & David Nathan: Sanctuary

Nina Simone (2004), by Kerry Acker: Chelsea House Publishers

Nina Simone - Black Is The Color (2005), by Andy Stroud: Xlibris Corporation

You're The Voice (2006), by Nina Simone & Anna Joyce: Faber Music Ltd. 

Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (2010), by Nadine Cohodas: Pantheon

No comments:

Post a Comment