- Of all the major singers of the late 20th century, Nina Simone is one of the hardest to classify. She’s recorded extensively in the soul, jazz, and pop idioms, often over the course of the same album; she’s also comfortable with blues, gospel, and Broadway. It’s perhaps most accurate to label her as a “soul” singer in terms of emotion, rather than form. Like, say, Aretha Franklin, or Dusty Springfield, Simone is an eclectic, who brings soulful qualities to whatever material she interprets. These qualities are among her strongest virtues; paradoxically, they also may have kept her from attaining a truly mass audience. The same could be said of her stage persona; admired for her forthright honesty and individualism, she’s also known for feisty feuding with audiences and promoters alike.
If Simone has a chip on her shoulder, it probably arose from the formidable obstacles she had to overcome to establish herself as a popular singer. Raised in a family of eight children, she originally harbored hopes of becoming a classical pianist, studying at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music – a rare position for an African-American woman in the 1950s. Needing to support herself while she studied, she generated income by working as an accompanist and giving piano lessons. Auditioning for a job as a pianist in an Atlantic City nightclub, she was told she had the spot if she would sing as well as play. Almost by accident, she began to carve a reputation as a singer of secular material, though her skills at the piano would serve her well throughout her career.
In the late ’50s, Simone began recording for the small Bethlehem label (a subsidiary of the vastly important early R&B/rock & roll King label). In 1959, her version of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” gave her a Top 20 hit — which would, amazingly, prove to be the only Top 40 entry of her career. Nina wouldn’t need hit singles for survival, however, establishing herself not with the rock & roll/R&B crowd, but with the adult/nightclub/album market….
Her official site also has an extensive bio by Roger Nupie:
- Even from the beginning of her career on, her repertoire included jazz standards, gospel and spirituals, classical music, folk songs of diverse origin, blues, pop, songs from musicals and opera, African chants as well as her own compositions.
Combining Bachian counterpoint, the improvisational approach of jazz and the modulations of the blues, her talent could no longer be ignored. Other characteristics of the Simone art are: her original timing, the way she uses silence as a musical element and her often understated live act, sitting at the piano and advancing the mood and climate of her songs by a few chords.
Sometimes her voice changes from dark and raw to soft and sweet. She pauses, shouts, repeats, whispers and moans. Sometimes piano, voice and gestures seem to be separate elements, then, at once, they meet. Add to this all the way she puts her spell on an audience, and you have some of the elements that make Nina Simone into a unique artist.
When four black children were killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham in 1963, Nina wrote Mississippi Goddam, a bitter and furious accusation of the situation of her people in the USA. The strong emotional approach of this song and the others on her first Philips record (“Nina Simone In Concert”), would become another characteristic in her art. She uses her voice with its remarkable timbre and her careful piano playing as means to achieve her artistic aim: to express love, hate, sorrow, joy, loneliness – the whole range of human emotions – through music, in a direct way.
One moment, she is the actress who turns a Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht song as Pirate Jenny into great theater, then, after a set of protest songs, she will sing Jacques Brel’s fragile love song Ne Me Quitte Pas in French.
Although Nina was called “High Priestess of Soul” and was respected by fans and critics as a mysterious, almost religious figure, she was often misunderstood as well. When she wrote Four Women in 1966, a bitter lament of four black women whose circumstances and outlook are related to subtle gradations in skin color, the song was banned on Philadelphia and new York radio stations because “it was insulting to black people…”
The High Priestess would walk different paths to find the adequate music to spread her message. Her first RCA album, “Nina Simone Sings The Blues”, includes her own I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl, Do I Move You, a haunting version of My Man’s Gone Now (again 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, capturing the tragedy of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Brown Baby, Images (based on a Waring Cuney poem), Go Limp, Old Jim Crow, … One song, To be Young, Gifted and Black, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s play with the same title, became the black national anthem in the USA….
- Her 1968 album, “‘Nuff Said,” contained tracks as various as “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life,” a medley from the ’60s musical “Hair,” the spiritual “Take My Hand Precious Lord” and her own “Backlash Blues,” taken from the poetry of Langston Hughes.
The next year the album “To Love Somebody” was released with the title song by Barry and Robin Gibb. It made the British Top 10. The album had three Bob Dylan covers including “I Shall Be Released,” as well as songs by Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger, along with “Revolution,” a protest song co-written by Simone and Weldon Irvine Jr. “To Love Somebody” was my introduction to Simone, and I’ll never forget the way she berated her musicians during the intro to “Revolution.” She harshly tells them, “Hold it! This is louder than usual. Let it groove on its own thing.” Cool. I thought. This woman can kick butt …
The increased militancy of the late ’60s, along with the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the general decentralization of the civil rights movement, drove Simone away from the United States. What she and so many had believed could be achieved she felt had failed; she fled to Barbados for the first break in performing in years. In 1971 she and her husband divorced and she returned to Barbados, becoming the “kept” woman of the married prime minister, Earl Barrow. It was the year she recorded “Here Comes the Sun,” with Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” Stan Vincent’s “O-o-h Child,” Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Jacques Revaux’s “My Way.” It is a collection that speaks more of personal than political freedom.
In 1974, she cut her ties with RCA and in so doing with America for good. Simone would never return to the States permanently, but moved to Africa and throughout Europe, settling in France. She saw the States as a place where blacks weren’t getting what they deserved. She felt that America and the recording industry had deserted her.
She told Interview magazine in January 1997, “I think it’s hopeless for the majority of black people. I think the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. I don’t think the black people are going to rise at all; I think most of them are going to die.”
….in 1992, the movie “Point of No Return,” starring Bridget Fonda as a female assassin obsessed with Simone, featured her music. As dull and obvious as that movie is, Simone’s music represents for the heroine (whose code name is what? Nina!) longing and loss, and at the same time freedom. Simone’s own “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” plays on her headphones as Fonda, jonesing for a fix, is the only person left alive during a pharmacy shootout. A liberating moment, yes, but at the same time, a moment fraught with peril and sadness. Everyone in the film who listens to Simone’s music is touched by this overall sensation, which is the double-edged quality of Nina Simone’s music.