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Nina Simone

Maverick singer with forthright political views

ONE OF the many songs that Nina Simone introduced was "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", whose very title sums up her unorthodox and troubled life. Was Nina Simone a soul singer, a jazz singer, a folk singer, a blues singer, a pop singer or, in her own words, "a diva"? She said, "It's always been my aim to stay outside any category. That's my freedom. However, freedom, to me, is the definition of what jazz is, so I can't say that I'm not a jazz performer."

Eunice Kathleen Waymon (Nina Simone), singer and songwriter: born Tryon, North Carolina 21 February 1933; married 1958 Don Ross (marriage dissolved), 1961 Andrew Stroud (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1971); died Carry-le-Rouet, France 21 April 2003.

One of the many songs that Nina Simone introduced was "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", whose very title sums up her unorthodox and troubled life. Was Nina Simone a soul singer, a jazz singer, a folk singer, a blues singer, a pop singer or, in her own words, "a diva"? She said, "It's always been my aim to stay outside any category. That's my freedom. However, freedom, to me, is the definition of what jazz is, so I can't say that I'm not a jazz performer."

Simone was a deeply political performer, confronting both interviewers and audiences with her forthright views on civil rights. Her all-embracing theme was honesty – she believed in everything she was singing and if, at times, she did not carry the public with her, then so be it.

In 1998, some previously unreleased performances were issued on the album Sugar in My Bowl and they included Judy Collins's song "My Father". Simone tackles the first line superbly, "My father always promised me that we would live in France", but then she breaks off and says, "I don't want to sing this song. My father always promised me that we would be free, but he did not promise me that we would live in France." She chuckles and says, "They're going to take me away again."

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933, the sixth of eight children. Her father, an entertainer, became a barber and church deacon while her mother was a Methodist minister. Both were pianists and, when she was only three years old, Eunice Waymon was playing hymns in church. She yearned to be a classical pianist; she was rejected by the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (she believed on racial grounds), but she did study at the famed Juilliard School in New York.

To pay for tuition, she accepted a residency at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City. She played 45 minutes an hour for six hours a night for $90 a week and, after the first night, the proprietor told her, "Tomorrow you sing or you're out of a job." In order that neither the Juilliard School nor her parents should know of her moonlighting, she adopted the name Nina Simone: Nina, meaning "little one", came from a Hispanic boyfriend and Simone was from the French actress Simone Signoret.

She befriended and married a beatnik who worked as a fairground barker, Don Ross, but quickly regretted their marriage. Moving to Greenwich Village, Nina Simone became a popular club act and recorded for the small label Bethlehem Records. Her first session included "I Loves You Porgy", which was a Top Twenty hit in America and was inspired by Billie Holiday's interpretation. Simone was sometimes compared to Holiday but, she commented in 1997:

They only compared us because we were black – they never compared me to Maria

Callas, and I'm more of a diva like her than anybody else. She was tempestuous. She could make the rules and break them whenever she pleased, and the whole world would listen because she was Callas.

Right from the start, Simone showed the eclecticism of her repertoire, but her mainstay at the time was the Great American Songbook. Her 1957 album Little Girl Blue included the 1928 song "My Baby Just Cares for Me", to which she added a genial shuffle beat. In 1959 she moved to Colpix Records, a division of Columbia Pictures. The most successful of her nine Colpix albums was Nina at Newport (1961), which appeared on the US album charts. Her album Nina at Town Hall (1959) includes two versions of "Summertime", once as a vocal and once as an instrumental, and the folk song "Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair".

In 1961, Nina Simone married a Harlem detective, Andrew Stroud, who had been married three times before. He beat her up on the day of their engagement but she went ahead with the wedding. He left the police force and became her manager, writing "Be My Husband" for her 1965 album Pastel Blues. Their daughter, Lisa Celeste, was born in 1962.

In 1964 she began another productive period – seven albums in three years for the Philips record label. The key tracks include "I Put a Spell on You", a UK Top Thirty hit that was covered by Alan Price, and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", which became a hit for the Animals. Eric Burdon of the Animals said in 2002,

Nina Simone is an original and she will always be a favourite of mine but she is a terrifying lady. She was uptight that I had recorded her song, and, when Linda Eastman introduced me to her, she said, "Oh, you're the white honky that stole my song." I said, "I am, but what about the songs that you recorded that were written in Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana by guys who are incarcerated for life?" She stopped right there and said, "Sit down, what would you like to drink?"

Simone's material increasingly reflected her defiant personality and she became an advocate for civil rights. Prompted by the deaths of the campaigner Medgar Evers in 1963 and of four children in the bombing of a Sunday school, she wrote the vitriolic "Mississippi Goddam". In 1965 took part in a rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and called America "a country full of lies".

In 1967 she moved to RCA and recorded nine albums for the label starting with the excellent Nina Simone Sings the Blues and Silk and Soul. Her sultry, moody performance of Buddy Johnson's ballad from the 1940s "Since I Fell for You" reveals her brilliance as an interpreter of classic love songs. "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl" is a witty, sexual blues, and the playwright Langston Hughes wrote the campaigning lyrics for "Backlash Blues", which Simone set to music:

Mr Backlash, Mr Backlash, just who do you think I am,

 

You raise my taxes, freeze my wages and send my son to Vietnam.

You give me second-class houses and second-class schools,

Do you think that us poor folks are just second-class fools?

Simone was twice nominated for Grammys – in 1967 for the song "(You'll) Go to Hell" and in 1970 for the album Black Gold, losing both times to Aretha Franklin.

She had recorded live albums for Colpix and there was a plan to record a new album at the Westbury Music Fair on 7 April 1968. Its theatre in the round in Westbury, New York, was perfect for an intimate evening. Everything was in place and then, on 4 April, the civil-rights leader and Nobel prizewinner Martin Luther King was assassinated. There was talk of cancelling the concert but Simone went ahead with both the concert and the recording. She included an 18-minute tribute to King which was only released in full on the album Saga of the Good Life and Hard Times in 1997. She says, "We really didn't expect anybody here tonight" and adds tearfully, "They're shooting us down one by one."

In 1968, to everyone's surprise, Simone reached No 2 on the UK charts with her insidious combination of two songs from the hippie musical Hair, "Ain't Got No – I Got Life". Its key line, "I got my freedom", was in keeping with Simone's philosophy and the B-side again summed up her life, "Do What You Gotta Do", a love song written by Jimmy Webb. Simone followed "Ain't Got No – I Got Life" with a poignant Bee Gees ballad, "To Love Somebody", which made No 5. "To Love Somebody" was also the title track of an excellent album, arranged by the jazz musician Jimmy Wisner. It included three Bob Dylan songs – the mystical "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" as well as "I Shall Be Released" and "The Times They Are a-Changin' ".

The playwright Lorraine Hansberry, whose A Raisin in the Sun (1959) was the first drama by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, had died in 1965 whilst working on a new play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Simone and her musical director, Weldon Irvine Jnr, used the title for a tribute song, which appeared on Black Gold. The song became a hit for the reggae duo Bob and Marcia, and has also been recorded by Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Donny Hathaway. The Congress of Racial Equality named it "the black national anthem".

By now Simone was being called the "High Priestess of Soul" and she reworked both rock and pop hits. She added her cool, jazz-tinged spin to a version of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun", the title track of her seventh RCA LP, released in 1971. The album includes Jerry Jeff Walker's vignette of a down-and-out in New Orleans, "Mr Bojangles", which became a concert favourite, Chip Taylor's "Angel of the Morning" and a hit song from the young soul band the Five Stairsteps, "O-o-h Child", to which she adds a poignancy missing from the original.

In 1971 Simone was divorced and, escaping from heavy work schedules, moved to Barbados with her daughter. She fell in love with a hotel porter and had an affair with the Prime Minister, Earl Barrow, who was married and not prepared to sacrifice his career. She also had to contend with a sick father, a flood at her American home and a brutal burglary. Her friend the singer Miriam Makeba suggested that she should move to Africa and in Liberia she almost married a plantation owner. When he broke off the relationship, she found solace with a writer. Another man promised to resolve her business affairs. When she challenged him about large hotel bills he ran up in London, he beat her. She was so despondent that she took an overdose of sleeping pills.

In 1977 Nina Simone caused a sensation at the Midem international music trade show in Cannes when she lectured record executives, saying, "I am a genius. I am not your clown. Most of you people out there are crooks. I am an artist, not an entertainer, and five record companies owe me money." She was booed and walked off the stage in silence. Returning to America, she was arrested for tax evasion and this nightmare took 10 years to resolve.

Her performances became sporadic and unpredictable. She tested one audience's patience at the Royal Festival Hall in London in the 1970s and asked the more sympathetic fans to leave their telephone numbers so that she could call them if she was feeling low. One song was called "I Sing Just to Know I'm Alive". She lived in Switzerland, then Israel and then Paris, where she claims she was locked in a recording studio and forced to make the 1978 album Baltimore, for which she at last recorded "My Father".

In 1987, "My Baby Just Cares for Me", was used in a commercial for Chanel perfume and when released as a single it was a hit across Europe. Designer living was the order of the day and this joyous track captured the feel of sophisticated brasseries and clubs. Apart from making an appearance on Top of the Pops, Simone did not capitalise on its success and only performed the song with reluctance in concert appearances.

Her autobiography, I Put a Spell in You, was published in 1991 and a new album, A Single Woman, followed. Its promotion was stopped after she insisted on receiving her performance fee up front on America's Tonight show. In 1992 Simone had settled in Bouc-Bel-Air, near Aix-en-Provence, tending her garden and going sailing. This idyllic life style should have had a settling effect, but in July 1995 she complained of noise from two teenagers in her neighbour's swimming pool. When they refused to be quiet, she fired rounds of buckshot across the hedge and one of the boys later had 11 pieces of metal removed from his legs. That August she received a suspended prison sentence and was ordered to take psychiatric counselling. She was in court two months later for failing to stop her car after injuring two motorcyclists. She was fined and given another suspended sentence.

In 1997, somewhat frailer, Simone returned to performing, and would close her set with "My Way", an ideal song as she never bowed to social or political pressures. She derived little satisfaction from her performances, saying, "People resent artists. They're jealous of them – they want to be artists themselves – and the only way they can relate to their hatred is to put you down in any way they can."

Nina Simone was a maverick in the best sense of the word and, because she was such a remarkable talent, few people held her behaviour against her. She has said, "I want to be remembered as a diva who never compromised in what she felt about racism and how the world should be, and who consistently stayed the same."

Spencer Leigh

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