SOUL MISTRESS NINA SIMONE

Nina Simone became popular thanks to her varied talent, her complete dedication to her art and her inimitable style, as well as her complicated and contradictory character. It was quite difficult to socialize with her because of her peculiar character. Nina Simone was talented in so many areas, she was such an outstanding singer, piano player, composer and arranger that at some points it hampered her career, because audiences did not easily accept the fact that the singer travelled in so many different directions. Nina Simone worked in different directions, styles and genres: jazz, rock, pop, fusion, folk, blues, soul, gospel, classic and Broadway musicals. She wanted to be a multilayered musician, now and immediately, which is why she used different styles in her career, sometimes even on the same album. She was absolutely determined to conquer the life of a too versatile, too paradoxical, even too eclectic and sometimes too impulsive pop-star. Her fans called Nina the Priestess of Soul. And she will be remembered as such…

Nina Simone

If Nina Simone created the impression of a fighter, a woman who would not hesitate to use her fists when necessary to prove her point, there were reasons – she had to overcome so many obstacles on the way to popularity and fame. Nina Simone was the stage name that Eunice Kathleen Waymon invented at the beginning of her career.

Eunice was born on 21 February 1933 in Tryon, a city in South Carolina. She had four brothers and three sisters. At a very young age all the girls sang in the church choir led by their mother. The future star was only six when she started taking piano lessons. Eunice dreamt of becoming a classical pianist and she practised so hard that she gave her first solo concert in the city library after just four years, when she was only ten. She remembered that day not only for her first applause, but also for a humiliating display of racism.

They did not let Eunice’s parents sit in the front row at that concert: those places were reserved for the white audience. This is one of the events from her childhood which the little girl would remember throughout her life and which would influence her development as a citizen.

With the support of friends of the family, Eunice managed to get an education at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, New York, also attended by Miles Davis. It was very unusual to see a black girl in the college at that time. She earned money by accompanying her vocals teacher so that she could pay for college tuition. In 1953, she won a hearing at one of the night clubs in Atlantic City and started working there as resident pianist. That is when her stage name, Nina Simone, appeared (Nina – girl in Spanish, Simone – a sign of her love for the French actress Simone Seniora). At this time she started working hard on vocals and came to an agreement with her employers that she would sing and accompany herself on the grand piano, and improvise when necessary. So, Nina Simone’s career as a vocalist started almost by coincidence and later it earned her a reputation as a magnificent performer of jazz and pop standards.

At the end of the 50s, Simone laid the foundations for her discography and recorded albums for a small label of the King Company. This company played a crucial role in the foundation of rhythm-n-blues and rock-n-roll at that time. She was lucky at first. Her record “Little Girl Blue”, produced at the end of 1957, was a huge success. She accompanied herself on the grand piano, had double bass and drums and proved herself to be an original performer and inspirational pianist by choosing a very emotional and delicate repertoire of jazz and pop standards. First she conquered Philadelphia and New York and later music lovers across America began to admire Nina Simone. The single “I Loves You Porgy”, by George Gershwin, became a national hit and reached 13 in the pop-charts, selling a million copies. This song was probably the only famous hit of her career. However, Simone

Nina Simone

never aspired to be famous. She was not one of those singers who would do anything to entertain a stadium of thousands of fans. The pathos of a rock star did not really fit the nature of her talent. She sang mainly for an older audience, those who knew real music, those who enjoyed good vocals.

Nina Simone was a productive artiste. By the end of the 50s, her discography included nine records – jazz, pop, blues, and a record of her performance at the Newport festival. In the early 60s, Nina Simone started working with the Colpix (Columbia Pictures Records) Company and recorded ten albums, as well as four concert albums. She proved to be an all-rounder onstage as well as in the studio. Sometimes the audience believed there was nothing the artiste couldn’t do. She was very interested in trying out different directions and interpreting different, colourful material. For example, during that period, she compiled a music album of compositions by Duke Ellington, blues ballads from Broadway musicals and Israeli folk melodies. Her records always stood out for their colourful arrangement and the eclecticism of style. To be honest, she had some odd moments in her life as well. She did not stay with her first husband, whom she had married in 1958, for even a year. Her second husband was a man far removed from art, detective Andy Stroud from New York. They married in 1961 and had a daughter after one year.

Nina Simone produced her best records in the mid 60s. She was working with the Philips label at the time. Here again, the singer worked without a break. She produced seven albums in three years. Other recording companies she used to work with were also issuing her records. In 1966 just three different companies released five albums by Nina Simone. One of the highpoints of that time was her album “High Priestess of Soul”. The record was named for the title that Nina Simone’s fans had given her. As was traditional, this album was a compilation of particular songs, somewhat eclectic: jazz, soul, pop music, gospel and

blues, and it was recorded with a big orchestra. The singer was always attracted by the extreme and by contrasts. She would turn beautiful ballads from the repertoires of Jacques Brel and Billie Holiday into instrumental piano compositions and would then make carefree pop music or harsh, political attacks out of them. She knew how to “sting” people, but also knew how to be attractive. Simone’s studio works were reminiscent of children: dressed according to the fashion of the time, but the singer’s catalogue includes many songs that have still not lost their relevance. The elegant vocals of the singer, the passion that suited her singing so well, her independence, her temper and her delicacy that conquered all remained her main tools. And sincere feelings never bow to the times.

Like most Afro-American women in the 60s, Nina Simone was also very concerned about the fight of the black population of America for citizens’ rights and their striving for dignity. She personally met Martin Luther King (the FBI had extensive information in their files about this). Of course, this sore point found its reflection in Simone’s works. She knew how to express her opinion with her distinctive resolution, frankness and sharpness. Perhaps none of her contemporaries could have done this. The most famous of her many political opuses are probably “Old Jim Crow” and, especially “Mississippi Goddam”, which she wrote in 1963 after the death of 1 adult and 4 black children who were fighting for Afro-Americans’ rights. Simone wrote these classic compositions independently. Listening to these songs, one always regrets that Nina did not write all her repertoire. She always looked for materials from different, sometimes less interesting sources.

The character of Nina Simone’s albums depended mostly on the policies of the recording companies who dictated their conditions. Towards the end of the 60s, the artiste began working with the “RCA Records” Company. They did not always appreciate Simone’s independence that was so much part of her. The contract was organized by Simone’s husband, Andy Stroud. By that time, Stroud had shifted careers, from detective to music manager. He even tried to influence the search and choice of materials for Nina’s records and her entire creative process, however, Nina kept the right to make the final decision.

Compared with previous works in the singer’s discography, she produced 9 albums that were less eclectic and less predictable. Her sound was shifting more and more towards pop soul.

Even if Nina Simone was not among the most popular women in her motherland, her first song “Ain’t Got No” (the theme for this song was taken from the musical “Hair”) and a cover version of the song “To Love Somebody” by the Bee Gees, made the top five in the British hit parade. Following this she acquired many fans in Europe. Moreover, the singer twice went on major concert tours in Europe – in 1965 and 1968.

The 70s saw the beginning of a complicated period in the artiste’s life. Simone divorced her husband and started managing herself. Later on, her brother Sam Waymon helped her out. However, Simone wasn’t always capable of solving her financial problems. She was even arrested, suspected of not paying taxes. She

Nina Simone

couldn’t stand still and could not live in America because of the scourge of racism. The singer moved from one country to another, but did not stay long in any of them. She tried living in Switzerland, Liberia, Barbados, France, the Netherlands, Trinidad and Great Britain. Her catalogue of studio records hardly increased, compared with earlier periods.

From 1970 to 1978 she released seven studio albums, as well as the song collection “Nina Simone and Piano” to her own accompaniment. Even if the mass audience was rather indifferent, the music media were very keen on the “Baltimore” album, released in 1978. The rare releases under different labels in the 80s mainly included concert records and went almost unnoticed, except by a limited number of old and loyal fans.

In 1987, the world unexpectedly recalled Nina Simone, as one of her first compositions, “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, recorded in 1959, was heard in a “Chanel” commercial. The single was re-released and was a huge success – it entered the British top five. In 1991, the artiste published her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You”. The book was first published in London, later in New York, and was translated into French and German after a year. Interest in her music revived after several of her songs were included on the “Point of No Return” soundtrack. The main hero of the film somehow reminded us of Nina Simone. In 1993 the singer returned to a major label, which resulted in the release of an album of completely new material “A Single Woman”. This was Simone’s last studio work. She gave preference to mainly sad love songs and romantic ballads on her album and her attractive vocal shone again.

Until the end of the 90s all the changes in Nina Simone’s life were negative ones. Her health was getting worse with every year. In 1994 she had to cancel a number of concerts in Germany following a nervous breakdown. She was no longer working in a studio and rarely appeared onstage. She was giving 10 to 20 concerts a year. In this time she released only one disc of two live concerts. One of the concerts was in Newport, one in Paris. Someone had to hold her hand when she appeared onstage at Carnegie Hall in 2001. For the last year and a half of her life she was so sick that she rarely appeared in public.

Nina Simone died on 21 April 2003 in a little house near Marcel, in the south of France, where she had been living for the past eight months. She was 70 years old.

In her 40-year career, Nina Simone released

Nina Simone

170 studio and concert albums and singles. Her music catalogue includes more than 120 compositions. She is considered to be one of the most influential singers of the 20th century. Her colleagues said, in talking about her: “Nina Simone was ahead of her time. A first class concert piano player, she was a great singer, wrote great songs and shared her feelings generously from deep within her heart”.

Viktoriya Prokopovich