Nina Simone: a voice for emancipation

The High Priestess –

Eunice Waymon was born in Tryon, North Carolina, the sixth of seven children in a poor family. The child prodigy began playing the piano at the age of four. Thanks to the help of her music teacher, who created the “Eunice Waymon Fund”, she was able to continue her general and musical education. She studied at the Julliard School of Music in New York.

To support her family financially, she began working as an accompanist. In the summer of 1954, she took a job in an Irish bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The bar owner told her she had to sing too. Without having time to realize what was happening, Eunice Waymon, who had been trained to become a classical pianist, entered show business. She changed her name to Nina (“little”) Simone (“after the French actress Simone Signoret”).

In the late ’50s, Nina Simone recorded her first songs for the Bethlehem label. These were still remarkable demonstrations of her talents as a pianist, singer, arranger and composer. Songs like Plain Gold Ring, Don’t Smoke In Bed and Little Girl Blue quickly became standards in her repertoire.

One song, I Loves You, Porgy, from the opera “Porgy and Bess”, became a hit and the nightclub singer became a star, performing at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival. From the start of her career, her repertoire included jazz standards, gospel and spirituals, classical music, folk songs of various origins, blues, pop, songs from musicals and operas, African songs and her own compositions.

Combining Bachian counterpoint, the improvised approach of jazz and the modulations of the blues, his talent could no longer be ignored. Other characteristics of Simone’s art are her original timing, her use of silence as a musical element and her often discreet stage presence, sitting at the piano and changing the mood and climate of her songs with a few chords.

At times, her voice shifts from dark and raw to soft and gentle. She pauses, shouts, repeats, whispers and moans. At times, piano, voice and gestures seem to be separate elements, then, all at once, they come together. Add to this the way she mesmerizes an audience, and you have some of the elements that make Nina Simone such a unique artist.

When four black children were killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963, Nina wrote Mississippi Goddam, a bitter and angry indictment of the situation of her people in the United States. The strong emotional approach of this song, and the others on her first Philips record (“Nina Simone In Concert”), would become another hallmark of her art. She used her remarkably timbred voice and meticulous piano playing to achieve her artistic goal: to express love, hate, grief, joy, loneliness – the whole gamut of human emotions – through music, in a straightforward way.

One moment, she’s the actress who transforms a Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht song as Pirate Jenny into grand theater, then, after a series of protest songs, she’ll sing Jacques Brel’s fragile love song Ne Me Quitte Pas in French.

Although Nina was dubbed the “high priestess of soul” and respected by fans and critics alike as a mysterious, almost religious figure, she was also often misunderstood. When she wrote Four Women in 1966, a bitter lament about four black women whose circumstances and perspectives are linked to subtle gradations of skin color, the song was banned from Philadelphia and New York radio stations because “it was insulting to black people…”.

The high priestess took different paths to find the right music to spread her message. Her first RCA album, “Nina Simone Sings The Blues”, includes her own songs I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl, Do I Move You, a haunting version of My Man’s Gone Now (still from “Porgy & Bess”) and the protest song Backlash Blues, based on a poem written for her by Langston Hughes.

Her repertoire includes more civil rights songs: Why? The King of Love is Dead, which evokes the tragedy of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Brown Baby, Images (based on a poem by Waring Cuney), Go Limp, Old Jim Crow, … One song, To be Young, Gifted and Black, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s play of the same title, became the black national anthem in the United States.

She surprised even her most devoted fans with an album on which she sang and played alone. “Nina Simone And Piano!”, an introspective collection of songs about reincarnation, death, loneliness and love, remains a highlight of her recording career.

Her gift for adding new, deeper dimensions to songs resulted in remarkable versions of Ain’t Got No / I Got Life (from the musical “Hair”), Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, Bee Gees songs like To Love Somebody, the classic My Way done in a tempo doubled on bongos, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and four other Bob Dylan songs. This gift culminates on her album “Emergency Ward”: she sets an atmosphere that leaves no illusion and no escape, performing two long versions of George Harrison songs: My Sweet Lord (to which she adds a poem by David Nelson, Today is a Killer) and Isn’t it a Pity.

But Nina still tried to escape. She felt she had been manipulated. Disgusted by record companies, show business and racism, she left the U.S. in 1974 for Barbados. Over the next few years, she lived in Liberia, Switzerland, Paris, the Netherlands and finally the South of France, where she still resides. In 1978, a long-awaited new album was released, “Baltimore”, containing the definitive interpretation of Judy Collins’ My Father and a hypnotic Everything Must Change.

The next album, “Fodder On My Wings”, recorded in Paris in 1982, was based on her “exile” from the USA. More determined than ever to make her own music, Nina writes, adapts and arranges the songs, plays piano and harpsichord and sings in English and French. The CD reissue of this album in 1988 included a number of bonus tracks, such as her extraordinary version of Alone Again Naturally, evoking the death of her father.

In 1984, one of his concerts at Ronnie Scott’s in London was filmed, resulting in a captivating video, with Paul Robinson on drums. A song from her very first record, My Baby Just Cares For Me, became a huge hit and “Nina’s Back” was not only the title of a new album; her concerts would again take her all over the world.

In 1989, she contributed to Pete Townsend’s musical “The Iron Man”. In 1990, she recorded with Maria Bethania; in 1991, with Miriam Makeba. The same year, her autobiography, “I Put A Spell On You”, is published. It was translated into French (“Ne Me Quittez Pas”), German (“Meine Schwarze Seele”) and Dutch (“I Put A Spell On You, – Herinneringen”).

1993 saw the release of a new studio album. “A Single Woman” includes several songs by Rod McKuen, Nina’s own song Marry Me, her version of the French standard Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux and a very moving Papa, Can You Hear Me?

No fewer than five songs from her repertoire were used in the soundtrack to the 1993 film “Point Of No Return” (also called “The Assassin, code name: Nina”). Many other films feature her songs (for example, “Ghosts of Mississippi”, 1996: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, “Stealing Beauty”, 1996: My Baby Just Cares For Me and “One Night Stand”, 1997: Exactly Like You).

Her music continues to enthrall new and younger listeners alike. Ain’t Got No / I Got Life was a big hit in 1998 in the Netherlands, just as it had been 30 years earlier…

With her regular accompanists, Leopoldo Fleming (percussion), Tony Jones (bass), Paul Robinson (drums), Xavier Collados (keyboards) and musical director Al Schackman (guitar), she continues to thrill audiences worldwide. At London’s Barbican Theatre in 1997, she sang Every Time I Feel The Spirit in tribute to one of the first American leaders in the cause of civil rights, peace and brotherhood, singer and actor Paul Robeson. Other spirituals and “blood songs” followed: Reached Down And Got My Soul, The Blood Done Change My Name and When I See The Blood.

Nina was the highlight of the Nice Jazz Festival in France in 1997, and of the Thessaloniki Jazz Festival in Greece in 1998. At the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin, Ireland, in 1999, her daughter Lisa Celeste, introducing herself as “Simone”, sang a few duets with her mother. Simone has toured the world, sung with Latin superstar Rafael, participated in two Disney theater workshops, playing the title role in Aida and Nala in The Lion King. She is currently working on her first album, “Simone Superstar”.

On July 24 1998, Nina Simone was the special guest at Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday party. On October 7, 1999, she received a Lifetime Achievement in Music Award in Dublin.

In 2000, she received Honorary Citizenship in Atlanta (May 26), the Diamond Award for Excellence in Music from the Association of African American Music in Philadelphia (June 9) and the Honorable Musketeer Award from the Compagnie des Mousquetaires d’Armagnac in France (August 7).

Dr Simone passed away after a long illness at her home in her villa in Carry-le-Rouet (South of France) on April 21, 2003. As she had wished, her ashes were scattered in various African countries.

The Diva, who also held an honorary doctorate in music and humanities, enjoys unrivalled legendary status as one of the last “griots”. She is and will forever remain the ultimate singer and storyteller of our time.

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