Observations at the intersection of two American music giants
At the start of 1978 High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone had just performed to a full house in Jerusalem’s concert hall: Habima. And Woodstock star, Richie Havens, was promoting his song supporting peace. As International A&R Manager in Israel for an American music company, part of my job description was showing hospitality to visiting musicians and singers.
Naturally, I contacted Richie and Nina, inviting them to meet for dinner in L’Entrecote, a quiet French restaurant at the north end of Tel Aviv.
I was in my 20s, and the dinner was one of the first put together without my senior managers present. Richie Havens’ reputation was friendly, peaceful, and easy to be with. Nina Simone, on the other hand, traveled with a reputation of being hard on her audiences, even confrontational. My plan was by having both of them at the same dinner, Richie Havens would keep our conversation flowing. Although I loved her music, I was feeling apprehensive and anxious about meeting Nina in person and carrying on a conversation.
I shouldn’t have been. Nina was warm and charming. She put us all at ease, even discussing motherhood with my American wife who was expecting. Richie Havens told stories, and our meals were perfect. When a thunderstorm took out the power halfway through we continued by candlelight, adding to the ambiance.
During dinner, neither Nina or Richie behaved as if they knew each other. After dinner, Nina surprised me saying she was leaving with Richie to his hotel.
I wondered about that in 1978. But now, after researching their lives, I know they were not strangers to each other. Their paths had crossed many times beginning in New York’s Greenwich Village. According to Richie Havens’ autobiography, Nina profoundly influenced Richie’s singing and playing. Once she called him to come on stage and accompany her performance. On November 22, 1963, touring together with several other bands, at a rest stop in North Carolina they heard on the radio of President Kennedy’s assassination. While at first, it seems odd to twin these two performers. In England, we’d say on the surface they were like “Chalk and Cheese.” The two internationally famous and unusual performers did have much in common. From their songs of Freedom, Civil Rights activism, partial American Indian ancestry and uniquely powerful deep throaty vocal styles and unusual musical approaches: the classical pianist and the open-tuning guitarist. They each covered George Harrison’s composition “Here Comes The Sun” differently yet commercially successfully.
Following is a very condensed version of Nina’s career which spanned six musical decades. She was a “child prodigy,” receiving special attention from a very young age, followed by sudden international celebrity status, creating an altered sense of reality. I believe she gradually lost her ability to cope with the deep ups and sky-high downs of her life. Being bipolar, it led to a destructive, sad and lonely ending. She reached into her soul, reaching out, but never finding lasting peace and love.
(Richie Havens will be next.)
“…so you’re the honky motherfucker who stole my song and got a hit out of it?” Nina shouted at lead singer Eric Burden when he casually introduced himself as a fan.
(The Animals version of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood buried Nina’s original, recording preventing it from becoming the hit – which was especially galling as the song was written for Nina!)
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Baby, you understand me now
If sometimes you see that I’m mad
Don’t you know no one alive can always be an angel?
When everything goes wrong, you see some bad
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.
Nina Simone, “The High Priestess of Soul,” was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. It was a time when whites and blacks “kept to their side of the tracks,” as Nina mentions in an interview. One of six children from a deeply religious family – her mother was a Methodist minister, and Eunice started playing piano by ear in the church at the age of three.
When she was seven, “a white woman heard me playing in a theatre and went to my mother with an offer to give me piano lessons.” Nina gave a slightly different version of this story later in life. She said a friend of the woman her mother worked for was a music teacher, and after hearing her play piano in church, decided there and then that Eunice should have classical piano lessons.
(Note: I’ve used the Best Likely Version method throughout. Some information in my article contradicts other stories about the life of Nina Simone. Many tell it leaving out details by saying she left and not mentioning she came back. Well, definitive details are tricky, but most of the versions about herself are similar enough to satisfy curiosity.)
Even at an early age, it was clear that she would not accept any inequality and when her parents were kept standing at the rear of a local concert hall when she was giving a recital to the white citizens, she refused to continue until her parents were sitting in the first pew to watch their daughter perform.
During her school years in Tyron, Eunice played piano at many functions for all the citizens, and a fund in her name was created enabling her to travel to New York and continue classical piano her studies after high school. Citizens from both sides of the divide contributed.
Eunice’s life ambition was nurtured by the people of her hometown, which included some of the white gentry, especially her music teacher. I found it surprising that in one of her signature songs, “Young Gifted and Black,” she included the words “And I am haunted by my youth.” Since it was a youth which seemed privileged, not haunted by any biographer’s account.
Young, gifted and black,
How I long to know the truth.
There are times when I look back,
And I am haunted by my youth.
© Nina Simone & Weldon Irvine
Eunice secured a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York City for the summer session in 1950 to prepare her for the scholarship examination to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Eunice was sure she passed the recital, but she was rejected for the limited number of openings for which many more applied than could be accepted. Eunice believed it was probably on account of her being a woman, and black.
However her personal classical piano tutor, Vladimir Sokoloff disagreed. “Oh no, it had nothing to do with her color or her background,” he told French TV reporters.” She wasn’t accepted because there were others who were better than she was.”
Many many years later, days before she died the Curtis Institute conferred on her an honorary Doctorate in Music. (She already had one from Amherst College and had taken to calling herself, Dr. Simone.)
Her family had moved to be near her in Philadelphia believing she would be studying in Curtis. She had to help support them now and began to give singing lessons. She said the kids who came to the studio were too restrained. She tried her best to explain that singing meant more than learning melody and lyrics. Singing needed feelings. Until she was giving those lessons, Eunice had never given much thought to her own voice. One day she had a revelation: she was earning money singing.
Eunice had shifted her life’s goal of becoming the first black female classical pianist to supporting her family. Eventually, she found that by playing music in nightclubs and bars in Atlantic City, she could earn significantly more per night. She was also asked to sing. With her gospel background and classical piano expertise, her vocal style stood out as she made the standard songs of the 1950s her own. Eunice was afraid that her growing popularity, advertised on billboards would shame her parents. They objected to her singing the “devils music.” So she adopted a stage name to keep them from finding out.
“I chose the name Nina because I had always been called Nina – meaning little one-as a child,” she told the Sunday Bulletin in 1960 though later that year she said it was a name a boyfriend had given her. She chose “Simone “as a fan of the French actress Simone Signoret.
Nina Simone’s singing style was as unique as her piano playing. Gospel music had surrounded her as a kid in church. “First you listen and when the fever hits you… then people pretty soon get into a maelstrom of emotions. It gives you a sense of power, and you never forget that.“ It made her a compelling electrifying stage presence … Anyone who heard her felt she was an Artist with a capital A. She could mold a song into an emotional injection and place it right into your soul.
Nina’s fame spread initially by word of mouth. She was widely admired for her unique voice and piano playing, mixing blues and jazz with gospel. She effortlessly covered ballads, show tunes and pop songs. With her voice, they were transformed into extraordinary timeless classics. “I Loves You Porgy” was the one that made me a personal fan.
Nina made the move to New York City from Atlantic City beginning to play at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. An album of recorded songs was released on jazz label Bethlehem Records. (“Little Girl Blue” aka also known as “Jazz As Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club in 1958”). Unfortunately she sold Bethlehem the rights for the recording for $3,000 (worth $26000 in 2019 dollars), thus missing out on the more than a million dollars of royalties the recordings garnered over the years. Among the recordings were the songs “I Loves You Porgy” which went to number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1959, plus “Love Me or Leave Me” and “My Baby Just Cares For Me” which was her biggest hit reaching Top 5 on the UK Singles Charts. It featured in a Chanel No. 5 perfume advertisement in Europe in 1987.
AUDIO: “I Loves You Porgy” by Nina Simone
After Nina left Bethlehem Records, she hired lawyer Max Cohen, who signed her to Colpix, the record arm of Columbia Pictures. There she recorded several albums of songs from 1959 through 1964 before she moved to Phillips for two years and then to RCA Records. Several more short recording deals followed, including one for Elektra Records in 1993. Most of the record companies could not contain or satisfy Nina’s requirements for support, or the person at the company who enticed Nina with promises was replaced, or the label or both no longer felt loyalty to her. However, impressively in total, she had 19 studio and 14 live albums to her credit.
Nina married Andy Stroud, a former NY vice detective. At first they were madly in love with each other. And despite his occasional abusive beatings, they had a daughter together whom they named Lisa Celeste Stroud. Andy proved to be good at organizing concerts and club dates across the country as well as appearances on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Penthouse TV program and at the Newport Jazz Festival. Additionally, Andy arranged for Nina to give a concert in Carnegie Hall which had been her greatest childhood ambition.
About those years, before she grew tired of the grueling traveling, she gave a radio interview in NY disclosing “For years I worked only on my music. I very nearly starved to death. It had a profound effect on me. I don’t want that to happen again. Sure there’s staging and commercialism now.“
Andy bought the family a 14 room home on 4 acres in Mount Vernon New York. It was next door to Malcolm X and his family. There, the two families were close, and Nina was introduced to the inner circle of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr, Langston Hughs, Mohammed Ali, and James Baldwin.
Here’s a quote from poet Langston Hughes describing Nina,
She has flair,
but no air.
She has class but does not wear
it on her shoulders.
She is unique.
You either like her or you don’t.
If you don’t – you won’t.
If you do – whee-ouuueu! You do!”
Barely two hours after President Kennedy’s televised speech on civil rights, filled her with optimism, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot to death on his front lawn. Nina recalled, “it was the match that lit the fuse.” “I suddenly realized what it is to be black in America in 1963…it came in a rush of fury, hatred, and determination.“
Her recording of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. When asked what “Freedom” meant to her, Nina’s reply to an interviewer was classic: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me…no fear.”
I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holding me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud say ’em clear
For the whole round world to hear”
© Billy Taylor & Danny Davis
An enraged Nina groped for a response to avenge the murder of her friend Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the bombing that killed four young black girls in a Birmingham Alabama church by the Ku Klux Klan. She demanded her husband’s gun. Andy reminded her that music was her most potent weapon. Then she sat down at the piano and in her own words, the music “erupted out of me faster than I could write it down.” Within an hour she had the song: “Mississippi Goddam.”
“You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam”
– © Nina Simone
It was the real beginning of Nina’s transformation into a civil rights activist. The song was recorded and released as a single. But her confrontational statements and musical stance affected record sales as the public, especially in the South, turned on her. The song was banned, and her records returned broken in half.
Nina was candid about her reputation. She knew many thought of her as “mean, evil, temperamental. I’m all those things, but that’s not all I am. I am no more mean or evil or temperamental than anybody else, the only thing is I’m more obvious. I’m a performer. I do it in public. I am in a business that feeds on emotion…When you have talent as big as mine, and I don’t say this with ego, it can overwhelm you sometimes”.
“Music chose me, “Nina told a reporter. “I’m learning to control this gift, but I hate it too. It’s a tremendous responsibility, and I find myself wondering why I was given something other people don’t have. Sometimes it makes me feel guilty.”
“I feel emotion is dying, what we feel is dying, everything is so orderly, “she told Doug McClelland editor of Record World, “Raising your voice has become a crime! I want to evoke joy, sadness, pain…”.
But despite all the controversies about Nina’s protest songs, she was asked to appear on a float during the annual Thanksgiving Day parade in Manhattan. The activist Nina Simone’s style of elaborate piano accompaniments, often with riffs from the classics and a throaty, husky singing voice with gospel overtones made each song uniquely her own. Her dedicated fanbase continued to want to hear her perform, identifying with her anger and rebellion during the troubling times of the late 1960s and 70s.
When she sang “Young, Gifted and Black” at Philharmonic Hall, she closed the show with the song. Nina said to the mostly white audience, “this song is not addressed primarily, to white people, though it does not put you down in any way. It simply ignores you. For my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get.” The song has inspired generations of African-Americans. It was adapted by Nina from the title of a play by her friend Lorraine Hansberry (who also wrote “A Raisin in the Sun”).
Michael Smith of Melody Maker acknowledged Nina’s focus on race and marveled how she could take “a predominately white and initially indifferent audience and by sheer artistry, strength of character and magical judgment drive them into a mood of ecstatic acclamation.”
“Why am I so insistent upon giving out to them that black Miss that black power that blacks pushing them to identify with Black. My job is to somehow make them curious enough or persuade them…, to get more aware of themselves and where they came from into and what is already there and just to bring it out this is to compel them and I will do it by whatever means necessary.“ said Nina in “Nina Simone & Me” with Laura Mvula, a BBC Documentary aired in 2016.
“…whatever you feel from my music is real, and it comes from me to you. Whatever it is, if it’s disturbing, eh, OK, but you’re part of that disturbance If it’s love, whatever it is, and you get if from the music, then you got it from me…you can get your answers about me from my music.”
My skin is black.
My arms are long.
My hair is woolly.
My back is strong.
Strong enough to take the pain.
inflicted again and again…
© Nina Simone
You give me second class houses.
And second class schools.
Do you think that all colored folks.
Are just second class fools.
© Nina Simone
Undiagnosed and untreated for most of her life, Nina was afflicted by bipolar disorder. She often stormed off stage, snapped at reporters, stinging her critics, even scorning her audiences. She often complained that the establishment had no place for outspoken black female performers.
In 1970 her husband Andy, “as usual refused to accept that I needed a rest and I realized he wasn’t even sure I meant it. So I walked out on Andy. I left my wedding ring on the bedroom dressing table and flew to Barbados.” She was surprised that Andy didn’t track her down. When I returned home, she found the house dark and empty.
In 1973 the IRS became more interested in looking at her tax returns.
With Lisa in tow, Nina retreated again to Barbados early in 1974. She had an affair with Prime Minister Errol Barrow while he was also married. He eventually ended the affair.
By the end of the summer of 1974, she had left Barbados behind, and was living in her New York apartment. Her friend Miriam Makeba insisted that Nina and Lisa join her in Liberia. While Nina loved being with “her people” in Africa, where she said everything was natural, there was no money coming in.
In 1976 Nina and Lisa moved to the relatively peaceful city of Geneva, Switzerland so that she would be nearer to European venues. Daughter Lisa eventually left after her mother’s relentless depressions, and beatings, to live with her father in the US.
Nina Simone still could awe her audiences her magic despite the emotional turmoil in her life. It was just after her performance on New Year’s Eve in 1977 when I the dinner with her and Richie Havens. The concert, in the middle of all Nina’s problems, is praised highly by the Jerusalem Post music critic. He defined what it meant to hear Nina Simone in person.
“… from her opening, when she recited a chilling cautionary lyric about deception and mortality, to her final rousing paean to Jerusalem, the audience was hers. She was showered with bouquets, handshakes, even a bottle of booze. The only thing she could do to displease them was to leave the stage.”
“Never playing a prepared program, Nina flows easily from song to song, inventing lyrics even as she extemporizes on the keys. The effect is very much a talking blues elevated to the level of poetry recital, with piano and voice playing coy counterpoint to each other.”— MATTHEW NESYISKY.
Nina’s financial problems were mounting. She skipped out on hotel and clinic bills. Was told by the IRS she owed taxes on income of about a million dollars for years 1971-1973. She could not return to the US without some assurance she would not be arrested. Her former lawyer Max Cohen worked out a deal with the IRS. Fortunately, the man in charge was a fan of Nina’s, and financial accommodation was found, which allowed her to return to the States.
She was hoarse and talked the songs as much as sang them, displaying edginess too. She was all but invisible over the next year in the USA and in Europe. She needed an infusion of energy, which she hoped to find in France. where in a cramped Parisian apartment she decided to book herself into third rate night clubs rather than work with a promoter.
“She was out of control.” according to her brother Sam. “She knew she needed help, but She resisted so much that she had to be put into a straitjacket to be taken to a hospital for treatment.” Among the diagnoses was multiple personality disorder. Anyone close to Nina had no trouble believing it.
Nina then moved to Bouc-Bel-Air in the south of France where she hit the son of a neighbor in the leg with buckshot. After agreeing to counseling and paying a fine, she was not jailed.
She then moved to an apartment in Los Angles, she had a nasty fight with a neighbor. Nina was, she said, “…in the hospital for my protection because my sister tried to kill me.” In the infirmary, she met caretaker Clifton Henderson, who eventually became her personal assistant and de facto manager. Nina, the 2016 film about this period in her life, is controversial, its story revolved around the relationship between Nina and Henderson. There is a question over the accuracy of the story and controversy about the choice of light-skinned African-American actress Zoe Saldana portraying very dark-skinned Nina Simone. The Nina Simone estate did not endorse it.
During the year 2000, with Nina stabilized on Bipolar medication she moved to her last home in Carry-le-Rouet west of Marseilles. The drug did control her anger, paranoia and mood swings well enough to allow her to successfully tour the east coast and manage her performances.
In 2001 Nina discovered she had breast cancer. She continued to tour after having the tumor removed. It is believed she developed an infection which led to a stroke. It was followed in 2003 by another stroke and she passed away on April 20.
Nina’s daughter, summed up her mother’s life: “…I hope I’ll get to die with a smile on my face surrounded by my family. My mother never got that. She passed away still in search of comfort and love. Perhaps if she had them, she might, in the end, have known peace.” – Lisa Simone (Kelly).
VIDEO: Nina Simone live in Holland 1965 and England 1968