Monday, February 21, 2005

Nina Simone: She put a spell on us

Today, February 21st, is Nina Simone's birthday. In honor of that occasion, I'm reprinting the profile of the singer-pianist that I wrote for the June 2004 issue of Record Collectors' (Japan). This is the English language text; it was subsequently translated into Japanese.
Nina Simone's various contretemps, and lawsuits (in both directions) were the ongoing stuff of tabloid headlines almost from the beginning of her sudden ascendancy to stardom in 1958, till the day she died. It was reported in 1988, for example, that she had closed a business meeting by pulling a knife; and in 1995 she was given a suspended sentence by French magistrates for firing an air-rifle at "too noisy" boys playing in the swimming pool of a neighboring villa. Simone was especially infamous for canceling shows at the last moment, or else leaving audiences wildly applauding for encores, without satisfaction, after dismayingly brief performances.

Generally disgusted with record companies, show business and racism she left the U.S. in 1974 for Barbados. During the following years she lived in Liberia, Switzerland, Paris, The Netherlands and finally the South of France, where the '95 shooting incident occurred . . .and where she died on April 21, 2003 at age 70.

Take away all of the storm and sensationalism, though, and what remains is still one of the most daringly innovative artists of her generation. Simone was a jazz singer-pianist, folk, rock, blues, R&B, pop and gospel singer all rolled into one.

It was the music of the American stage and her haunting recording of Dubose Heyward George and Ira Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy" from Porgy and Bess that propelled her to stardom. The song was drawn from her first album, 1958's Little Girl Blue (Jazz as Played in An Exclusive Side Street Club), " recorded for a Bethlehem small east coast jazz label. In the history of U.S. Top Ten records, there has seldom been a hit from farther out- of-left-field. Or, a slower or lengthier one. Taken at a stately largo pace, over the course of its uncommon (for a doughnut of that era) 4:05 running time, Simone subtly shifts the mood of the song from one of lamentation to optimism. Yet the tempo of the song never changes. From the start, then, it was obvious that we were not just in the presence of a first rate singer-pianist but actress as well. She writes in her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, published in 1991:

"I went into the studio and recorded my songs exactly as I always played them, so when you listen to that Bethlehem album you're hearing the songs played as they were at the Midtown Bar."

Simone's premiere album was also the source of her last and only other major singles hit when in, in 1987, she charted Top Five in England with "My Baby Just Cares for Me" after the song was used in a Chanel television commercial.

Little Girl Blue was significant for two other reasons: it marked the beginning of the singer's career-long war with the recording industry. Simone's one-album stay with Bethlehem was not a pleasant one for her. In addition, Little Girl Blue established the ground rules for the musical eclecticism that would become a Simone trademark Its twelve tracks cover nearly the entire stylistic waterfront of American secular music: jazz (most notably Tadd Dameron's bop anthem "Good Bait"), folk, blues, pop. Nearly all were suffused to some degree or other with stylistic flourishes drawn from the Baroque songbook, most notably Johann Sebastian Bach.

Singer-pianist Charlie Cochran remembers the singer he befriended and worked alongside, in the mid-l 950s prior to the '58 Bethlehem recording. He met Simone when she was just getting her start in New York and they shared billing at a small club:

"I thought she was fascinating, not so much as a great musician but a terrifically mesmerizing show woman. If there was no one there, it wouldn't make any difference. She would sing just as movingly to one person as to 100. . .Sometimes, because the room was a bomb, I was her only listener and she, mine. . . Lousy, watered-down drinks, and no minimum, no cover, natch. We made about $125 each per week."

Simone recalled those years in her autobiography: "Because I was hired to play the piano for forty-five minutes out of each hour for six hours a night, and since I hadn't played any popular music before, I had to incorporate jazz and classical motifs into what I was doing . . . I didn't start singing until the manager of the bar told me that just playing wasn't good enough. "

From the beginning, Simone's singing was unique and unmistakable: She had one of the most astonishing voices in postwar American music -- at its deepest, she could almost be taken for male, yet it was unmistakably feminine; intense, but tender, shot through with a sexuality that was straightforward, yet teasing. She sounded like no one else!

Simone couldn't help but be surprised when music that she had been playing for several years to half-attentive drunks in near-dives and joints along the East Coast of the U.S. was suddenly near the top of the U.S. sales charts. Even at the time of her first recording, according to I Put a Spell on You, Simone called all the shots:

"I told the owner [of Bethlehem] I wasn't interested in playing any of his songs and that if I was going to make an album I'd chose the material myself and pick the musicians I wanted to support me."

By this time 25-year-old Simone probably felt she had nothing left to lose. She had been singing and playing around the East Coast for several years to no particular effect when the recording offer came. When she took her first such job in the Spring of 1954, she wrote in "Spell": "At moment I had never been into a bar in my life." Simone couldn't help but be surprised, then, when music that she had been playing for some time to half-attentive drunks in near-dives and joints was suddenly near the top of the U.S. sales charts.

Simone was born Eunice Waymon in the small town of Tryon, North Carolina in 1933 at the height of the U.S. economic Depression. Eventually she would change her name to stop her highly religious family from leaning that she was playing jazz, i.e. "the devil's music" in places where alcohol was being served.

Like most of America---black and white---the Waymons, a close-knit family of eight overseen by caring and devoted parents, suffered greatly during the Depression. Simone's father was an industrious blue collar worker, who was ultimately thwarted by the economic hard times and ill health; her mother was a minister of the church. And, as with so many other great black American musicians, that is where Simone began to attain a solid grounding in music. She recalled in her autobiography that when she was two-and- a-half:

"Momma came into the living room and heard me playing one of her favorite hymns, "God Be With You" in the key of F. She was so surprised she almost died on the spot."

It was soon understood, however, that Simone was no mere clever child, but instead, a genuine musical prodigy.

Almost immediately the citizens of Tryon began a fund that would support Simone's musical education from local training all the way to studying in her late teens at New York's world famous Julliard School of Music. After a year there, plans were for her to continue her studies at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Simone's aim was to become the first African-American female classical pianist (that is where all the Bachian quotes come from in her piano playing). She was turned down by Curtis in 1950, however; not good enough, they claimed. A near lifetime of dreams dismantled with the stroke of a pen! Simone would always believe that the real reason was because she was black, and few are the press interviews with her that fail to allude to the incident. It marked the beginning of several "lost" years during which she mainly supported herself by teaching, and playing in clubs.

Little Girl Blue is, arguably, a coherent masterwork that she never quite topped throughout the remainder of her career. Other key releases include: Nina at Town Hall (rec. 59), Nina Simone in Concert (rec. '64), Nina Simone and Piano (rec. '68). Her last album was 1993's A Single Woman. But even if it is true that subsequent albums, after the first, never quite measured up to it in consistency, still the overall body of her 41-entries (not counting reissues) catalog contains many examples of enduring art. After four black children were killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham in 1963, Simone wrote "Mississippi Goddam," considered a landmark of U.S. protest music. And over the next decade, during which she became much more politically engaged than before, there followed a series of series of great U.S. Civil Rights "anthems", including "Four Women" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," and "The Backlash Blues." So many, in fact, that her music came to be, what some called, the "soundtrack" of the exploding Civil Rights movement. All the while, as before, she continued successfully whipping up her usual eclectic musical stew, consisting of such diverse "ingredients" as: Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," The Bee Gee's "To Love Somebody," Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" and Brecht-Weill, Randy Newman, Daryl Hall, The Beatles, Jacques Brel, Leonard Bernstein, Janis Ian, Jim Webb et al, along with a healthy sprinkling of her own compositions.

Some people wonder why Simone---so seemingly bitter and angry with her audience ----would even want to be a performer. Seems simple enough to me; being able to dump your anger on total strangers and make them pay for it strikes me as the perfect plan. After winning a huge settlement from record bootleggers, you'd have thought this would have mellowed her out a bit. Apparently not. My friend Nat Shapiro used to be her press agent. Nina liked him a lot for a white man (Jewish at that) and seriously told him that when the deal came down she was going to see to it that he was the one white man on the planet NOT destroyed. Both are now gone; Nat died in 1983, Simone in 2003. And Simone’s race war has still not yet come to pass.

When asked not long before her death how she would like to be remembered, Simone replied:

"I want to be remembered as a diva from beginning to end who never compromised in what she felt about racism and how the world should be, and who to the end of her days consistently stayed the same."

"But," asked the reporter, "isn't life about evolving and changing?"

"Not for me," she cryptically replied.

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