- 21 Feb 22
To mark what would've been Nina Simone's 89th birthday, we're revisiting Andy Darlington's tribute to the 'High Priestess of Soul' – originally published in Hot Press shortly after her death in 2003.
Silk and soul
If Bessie Smith was ‘Empress of the Blues’, and Aretha is ‘Queen of Soul’, then Nina Simone will always be the indisputable ‘High Priestess of Soul’. Hers was a terrifyingly austere beauty, with the perfect black poise of a Nefertiti. ‘Diva’ could have been a term created exclusively to describe her. Neither a pianist who sings, nor a singer who plays, neither jazz or soul or torchlit city-blues, hers was a wise resonant voice deftly moulding and reconciling all such elements into unity. Prodigiously gifted, emotional, regal, problematic, imperious, rarely untroubled, obsessively self-destructive and invariably unhappy, it’s the flaws in her life that embody the essential keys to her charisma, and that’s where to look to find the genesis of her timeless artistry.
For Nina Simone’s life reads as compulsively as any airport novel, involving exploitation, betrayal, assault and battery, attempted suicide, militancy and revolution, parental exorcism through a witch doctor’s ritual, FBI black-listing, and a doomed love affair with a Barbados Prime Minister. Yet it is never without a mesmerisingly hypnotic jazz-soul soundtrack tripped off with an almost insolently nonchalant ease.
Known originally through other artists’ covers of her material – ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ for the Animals as early as 1965, the sinuous ‘I Put A Spell On You’ for the Alan Price Set, then, into the 1970s, a gilded sanitised reggae hit version of her Black Pride anthem ‘Young Gifted And Black’ from Bob (Andy) & Marcia (Griffiths), as well as the template for David Bowie’s haunting ‘Wild Is The Wind’, ironically it’s probably through her contributions to TV adverts for perfume and the VW Golf Cabriolet that she achieved her highest profile during the final decades of her life.
Little Girl Blue
Born Eunice Waymon in 1933, Simone once conceded, “I’m very innocent. I trust a lot, then I get stepped on a million times from those I expect it from least” (to Karl Dallas, Melody Maker, September 29 1979). Sat straight-backed at the keyboard, her mouth petulantly down-turned, her art was always too close to her lived experience for it to be inhibited. The sixth of eight children in Tryon, in the segregated state of North Carolina, she was playing hymns on the organ at her preacher mother’s Methodist Church at two-and-a-half years old, and accompanying their gospel work-outs by three, admitting “Church taught me rhythm.”
Yet a deeply shocking incident would soon emphatically scar her with evidence of the racial barriers already conspiring to damage and thwart her abilities. When she was aged just 11, and already extending her soaring talents to playing piano, her parents were thrown out of their front-row seats to make way for a white couple. Characteristically, Nina defiantly refused to play on until they were reinstated but, horrified, the incident left her feeling as though the skin was being ripped from her. But then, “the skin grew back, a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black,” she would later say. “Such oppression lodges in the soul.”
Determined to be the first black woman concert pianist, she spent two years’ formal training at New York’s prestigious Julliard School of Music, but was inexplicably turned down for a vital scholarship to the Curtis Institute to study classical music – another example, she was convinced, of bias against her colour and gender. So she married for the first time, changed her name, and took to playing what her mother denounced as ‘Devil’s music’, working clubs and bars around Philadelphia and Atlantic City to finance her piano tuition. And became a star almost despite her best intentions.
Signed to the regional Bethlehem label in 1959, her debut album not only received Billie Holiday’s approval during their one and only encounter, but swiftly yielded a million-selling single – a torturous, gospel-drenched version of George Gershwin’s ‘I Love You Porgy’ (reaching no.18 in the US in August), coinciding with Sam Cooke’s early success as part of RCA’s cross-over soul policy. She moved to the Colpix label in 1960, recording numerous albums and scoring a couple more minor hit singles before joining Philips in 1965, where her original ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ and her sensual ‘I Put A Spell On You’ became considerable R&B hits. With her growing grace and confidence, and a contralto that could by turns be caressingly warm, achingly bleak, or nakedly austere, she signed upwardly to RCA in 1967.
Raised on blues and gospel, then jazz, she reinforced these black roots with a respect for Bach and the European classical tradition, creating a unique fusion from such an unlikely sorcery of influences. Yet, never one to suffer fools gladly or tolerate incompetence, she could be a nightmare to work for – playing with accompanists such as jazzers Jimmy Bond (bass), Albert Heath (drums), avant-garde pianist Don Pullen, or legendary funk drummer Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie, her advice to her band was merely “keep your eyes on me”. But she could also be totally inspiring, witness her albums recorded live at the New York Town Hall (as early as September 1959), or the Newport Festival, or Carnegie Hall.
She was soon returned to the pop charts with ‘Ain’t Got No – I Got Life’ (a UK no.2 in October 1968) which, although lifted from the eccentric hippie musical Hair, she emphatically made her own by first itemising the negative influences on her life, then balancing them with the contrasting positives that “no-one can take away”, including her hair, boobs, liver, and blood! Its success coincided with that of her black awareness anthem ‘Young Gifted And Black’. On other occasions her song-choice could appear odd, and commercially compromised – George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes The Sun’ in August 1971, or the Bee-Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’, a no.5 hit in January 1969 – yet she could work alchemic lead-into-gold reinterpretations on even the most inadequate material sufficient to shiver the stiffest of spines.
And when working with a song as searingly powerful as Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, her excursions into the Duke Ellington songbook, work by Bertold Brecht, Leonard Cohen, or Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’, she was eerily capable of taking them into new realms of relevance. She could also be teasingly erotic, writing ‘I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl’ which she’d preface in later years by conceding “I have to settle for a massage these days.” And for every pop cover, there’s a ‘Gin House Blues’ or a violent ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, or her interpretation of Bill Broonzy’s ‘In The Dark’, re-immersing her in deep blues.
On the evidence of her autobiography, written with journalist Stephen Cleary (I Put A Spell On You from Ebury Press in 1991), few lived the artist-activist’s life as hugely and luridly as Nina Simone did. Seeing herself increasingly as a black-consciousness message-carrier into the violence of the Civil Rights struggle, her ‘Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)’ forms a deeply emotional hymn to Martin Luther King, written by Nina’s bass-player Gene Taylor and recorded live at the Westbury Music Fair within 48 hours of his slaying. Her ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is an outraged reaction to the deaths of four children in a Sunday-school Ku-Klux Klan bombing in Birmingham Alabama in September 1963. Her heartfelt ‘Four Women’ evokes black feminism, while her fiery ‘Backlash Blues’ movingly transfigures a protest poem by Langston Hughes, written a few months prior to his death, into a bitter-sweet testimony to the enduring legacy of slavery. And in April 1967 she undertook a UK tour, supported not by a band but by confrontational black comedian Dick Gregory.
Yet she spoke of her prominent identification with radical issues, and her vocal awareness of the weight of Afro-American history as less a conscious choice, more the unavoidable culmination of the forces that had already shaped her life. “I have stopped singing love songs and started singing protest songs... I have become more militant because the time is right.”
By temperament she was unpredictably explosive. At, for example, her concert at the London Festival Hall in July 1978, she adopted a high-wire no safety-net approach. Faced with an occasion requiring merely the lightest touch of lush balladry, she instead tongue-lashed the audience with harangues about her victimisation by the music industry, about how she’s been stiffed by crooked management, cheated out of royalties, censored by her record label. Her demeanour was mournfully regal, yet her performance mutated into lengthy personal improvisations stretching way beyond the limits of endurance. You wondered could she even survive to the other side on the song? Of course, she did.
To attend such a night, to listen to her hung on by her immaculately manicured fingernails, could be an unnervingly high-risk experience. “Nothing about Nina Simone is comfortable,” observed critic Dave Gelly. Yet her brooding aura of near-mystical superiority was by now assured of cult status, even when new recordings appeared infrequently, as her intense vocal and small combo jazz style weaved in and out of commercial favour. Her final decade, defined by patchy albums from Elektra and CTI (with producer Creed Taylor’s unwanted and furiously resented embellishments), were marked by instability and exile – until bizarrely her 1959 Bethlehem recording of ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, lifted for a Chanel No.5 TV-ad, returned her to big-time chart status.). Ironically, there’s a generation who now know her largely through this jaunty Steinway-syncopated, yet commercially-powered success.
But, of course, there was much more to the life and work of Nina Simone than that. “I only have nine notes in my voice, although I am a genius,” she once claimed, with absolute conviction. ’Nuff Said.