Simone was a classically trained pianist whose repertoire covered a broad canvas of musical styles, which included classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, pop, and known as the 'High Priestess of Soul'. No matter what repertoire she sang, Nina Simone had a voice that was instantly recognisable and ranks alongside Afro-American female musical icons like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday.
Eunice Waymon commenced playing piano at the age of three, and the first song she learned was God Be With You, Till We Meet Again, which she performed at her local church. Her concert debut was a classical recital, given at the age of twelve, and when the theatre forced her parents to sit at the back of the hall to make way for white patrons, she refused to play until they returned to their seats.
Waymon had an innate ability to play music by ear and studied with Muriel Mazzanovich, an English classical music teacher. She aspired to be a classical concert pianist, and with support from her friends in Tryon, enrolled at the famous Juilliard School of Music in New York. (Wynton Marsalis, Teo Macero, Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Nigel Kennedy are alumni of this school). Following this, she applied for a scholarship to study at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and although the institute received her audition favourably, they rejected her application. For most of her life, Waymon thought this was due to her race, and ironically, two days after she died the Curtis Institute of Music bestowed on her an honorary degree.
To earn a living, Waymon began teaching music to local students, and in 1954, auditioned to sing at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, New Jersey. As she was singing the 'devil's music' in a bar, which Waymon wanted to hide from her father who was a preacher, she changed her name to Nina Simone. Nina means 'little one' in Spanish and Simone after the French actress Simone Signore, who she had seen in the French film Casque d'Or (1952).
French actress Simone Signore
At the age of 24, Simone came to the attention of Syd Nathan, who owned King Records (James Brown's label) and commenced recording for his jazz label, Bethlehem Records. During a marathon session in New City in 1957, she recorded fifteen titles, which included Mood Indigo, Little Girl Blue, Love Me Or Leave Me, I Loves You Porgy, and African Mailman. The session also included My Baby Just Cares For Me, which Chanel perfume used in a 1980's TV commercial in Europe, and the UK single went to number five on the charts. As Simone had sold her rights for $3,000, she never financially benefited from this hit record.
For many decades, the record companies ripped off their artists, paying them either a small fee or royalty. Milt Jackson of the MJQ lost out, most notably over the jazz standard and much recorded, ‘Bag’s Groove’, which he received the sum of $25. In January 1937, the Count Basie Orchestra made their debut on the Decca label, and they paid the Count the princely sum of $750 for twenty-four songs with no further royalties, which at a little over $31 a song was an absolute ‘steal’ for Decca. The tunes included some of Basie's most famous songs, and the recordings are still available today.
One has to realise how naive artists can be when it comes to signing contracts, and I speak from having worked in the music industry for three decades. Many of these musicians left school in their mid-teens, with only a rudimentary education, and the need to get their music recorded overrode any thought of what kind of contract they were signing. Many were unable to understand the capital letters never mind the small print, and for many years, the Mogul's that ran the music business mercilessly ripped off the artist.
Following Simone's short stay at Bethlehem Records, she was signed up to Colpix Records (the first recording company for Columbia Pictures now Sony), by their talent scout, Joyce Selznick, the niece of the film producer David O. Selznick. Simone recorded for this label from 1959 to 1964, before moving on to Mercury Records. During her time at Colpix, she recorded albums like The Amazing Nina Simone, Forbidden Fruit, Nina's Choice, and Broadway-Blues-Ballads.
When Simone moved on to Mercury Records, her albums included, Pastel Blues and High Priestess of Soul, and I Put a Spell on You, which contained Simone's haunting version of the 'Screamin' Jay Hawkins original. She then moved to RCA Records, where she recorded Nina Simone Sings the Blues, Silk & Soul, Nina Simone and Piano, To Love Somebody, and Here Comes the Sun. Her version of the Bee Gee's To Love Somebody took this pop song to another level, and her rendition is the superior version. She also recorded To Be Young, Gifted, & Black, written in memory of her friend Lorraine Hansberry, the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway. The title of the song coming from a play Hansberry had been working on just before her death.
As an Afro-American, Nina Simone suffered greatly and made a significant contribution to the Civil Rights movement in the USA. It would have been difficult for Simone to record protest songs during the fifties, as the record companies wouldn't have approved, although her repertoire did include songs about her origins like Brown Baby, and Zungo. In 1964, she moved to more liberal Dutch record company Philips, and things changed. On her first album, she recorded the song Mississippi Goddam, which was in response to the murder of Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963. As well as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963, which killed four young black girls and partially blinded a fifth girl.
Philips released Mississippi Goddam as a single, though some southern states boycotted the record, and one Carolina radio station smashed their promotional copies and returned the pieces to her record company. Simone later recalled how Mississippi Goddam was her 'first civil rights song' and that the song came to her, 'in a rush of fury, hatred, and determination.' She remarked that the title and the song itself (was), 'like throwing ten bullets back at them.' On the same album, Simone recorded Old Jim Crow, which addressed the Jim Crow laws (state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States). Following this album, and for the rest of her life, Simone included Civil Rights messages in her recordings and concerts. Unfortunately, these songs would have an adverse impact on her career, and as she became more politically motivated, her record releases became more infrequent, and Simone's catalogue is small compared to the likes of female singers with a long career.
Simone directly challenged the commonly held beliefs that race relations could change gradually and called for more immediate developments that Afro-Americans were due. She was a regular performer at the many civil rights meetings, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches, although she advocated revolution, rather than Martin Luther King's non-violent approach. Simone hoped that African Americans through armed combat could form a separate state, as advocated by
and the associates of the Black Nationalist Movement. Never a racist herself, Simone wrote in her autobiography that she and her family regarded all races as equal. She went on to record for different labels, recording albums like Fodder On My Wings, A Single Woman, Live at Ronnie Scott's, and Baltimore, which is when I had my close encounter.
From 1974 to 1978, I was Polydor's Jazz A & R manager and got to work with many great jazz artists, something I immensely enjoyed. However, every record company had dispensed with this position, combining jazz music into their MOR department, and I moved up into the world of pop and rock. There was one ray of sunshine as I would become label manager for Creed Taylor’s crossover jazz label CTI. Creed Taylor's artist roster included the likes of Freddy Hubbard, Grover Washington, Esther Phillips, Hank Crawford, Deodato, and Nina Simone. I was working on her latest album Baltimore when my secretary rang through to let me know Nina Simone wanted to speak with me. I knew she had a reputation for being cantankerous, and although intrigued by the unexpected call, I was more than a little wary. I picked up the phone and said; “Hi Nina, how are you?” She replied; “Fine, I want some money, when can I come in and collect?”
I was stunned by her demand, she was under contract to CTI, and it was up to them to advance her money. Subtly, I explained that Polydor would not comply with her wishes and she should talk to Creed Taylor regarding this problem. Nina didn’t take too kindly to this, and for the next couple of minutes gave me a real ear bashing, showering me with abuse that a ‘rapper’ would have been proud of and ended the call by slamming down the phone. Now, I can swear with the best, but I was amazed and a little shell-shocked to hear that kind of language from this great singer. Fifteen minutes later, the General Manager of Polydor entered my office, sat down, and told me he to had received a call from Nina Simone. Looking bewildered he said; “Dennis, I don’t believe the conversation I had with Nina Simone. I spent my national service in the Navy and the sailors I served with never cursed like that.”
Nina's manager called a couple of days later and asked me to attend a meeting to discuss the marketing of Baltimore. After the phone call, I was fascinated to find out what would happen when we met up and wondered if I should go tooled up. When I arrived, her manager explained; “Miss Simone is currently tied up, come back in thirty minutes, and she will see you.” I strolled round to the nearest pub to prepare for my audience and on returning, he informed me that she still wasn't ready. I was sent away several more times and decided that if he turned me away again, I would go home. Finally, and to my surprise, I was shown in and ushered into the lounge wondering what kind of entrance ‘Madame’ would make. Her manager served coffee and explained; “Miss Simone is in ‘repose’ and cannot leave the bedroom, and desires the meeting to be conducted through me.” For the next twenty minutes, we discussed the marketing of Baltimore, and he shuttled back and forth to Nina’s bedside, returning with her answers.
As we concluded the meeting, he asked; “Would you like to see the latest photos of Miss Simone?” Not knowing what was coming, I replied; “Yes, we may be able to use them in our marketing campaign.” He disappeared into the bedroom and returned with an album containing 10 X 8 glossy colour photos, which came as a surprise. Nina was stark naked, and I delicately pointed out that although they were of immense artistic value, we wouldn’t be able to include them in the campaign. I’d heard stories of Nina demanding sex from people she worked with, and fortunately spared her advances, and left the meeting with my virtue intact.
There's no doubt that Nina Simone was a problematical artist, prone to fits of temperament and often cut short engagements for no given reason. She made an appearance at Ronnie Scott's around the time of Baltimore, and I phoned Ronnie, who told me to catch her at the beginning of the engagement as it was unlikely she would fulfil the two-week stint. Simone's dominating performance that night was electrifying, and I was frightened to move just in case it upset her. She was one of the most intense artists that I have ever watched and true to form, didn't complete the engagement.
Throughout her life, there were behavioural problems, she shot at a neighbour’s son and fired a gun at a record company executive, claiming he’d ripped her off. Many blamed these incidents on her incendiary artistic temperament, which turned out to be erroneous. Simone was bipolar, and suffered from clinical depression and had to take serious medication for most of her life. Although the condition is treatable with chemicals, sadly, there is no cure for this cruel illness. This information was only made public in the 2004 biography, Break Down And Let It All Out, written by Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan With this malady, and the racial harassment Simone received during her life, it’s no wonder she was difficult, who wouldn’t be.
Nina Simone spent her remaining years living in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. In 1993, she settled in Carry-le-Rout, near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France, and toured throughout the 1990’s. Simone married twice, but both marriages failed, and she became very much ‘the single woman’, which she sang about on her records. On April 21, 2003, Nina Simone died in her sleep in Carry-le-Rout. Miriam Makeba, Patti Labelle, the poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis and hundreds of others attended her funeral service. Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message, 'You were the greatest, and I love you'. However, not many were fortunate enough to get to know the woman behind the music and see the solitary soul that understood the pain and misery of being misunderstood.
As I drove home from that meeting in 1978, I was more than a little bemused. It was indeed a close encounter, but not of the third kind, and although I saw Nina Simone in the flesh, I sadly never met the 'High Priestess of Soul'.
Ronchi Dei Legionari, Italy
Author of Shout To The Top - A bio on Paul Weller