FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Seventeen: Nina Simone



Female Icons


PHOTO CREDIT: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Part Seventeen: Nina Simone


I have been focusing on some less obvious icons…


 IN THIS PHOTO: Nina Simone in 1964/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

over the past few weeks. That sounds dismissive but, when we think of those artists who are iconic, maybe we get a certain impression. In terms of women who have changed music and inspired generations, one has to tip their cap to Nina Simone. I will talk about a few of her albums in a bit but, before then, I want to explain when Nina Simone came into my life. Even though Simone covered the Jazz standard, My Baby Just Cares for Me, back in 1957, it was released as a single in 1987 after the song was used in a perfume advert – it created a bit of resurgence and new respect for Nina Simone’s work. Maybe it was the amazing sound that affected my impressionable mind and the fact that, as a young child, I had seen nothing like it before. The song captivated me then and, so many years later, it still sounds completely terrific. When assessing and examining Nina Simone, there are various sides to explore. She is this iconic and legendary artist who has inspired so many other musicians – I shall get to that near the end of this feature – but there is a more complex and troubled side. Simone did have a reputation for her short temper and, in 1985, she actually fired a gun at a record company executive, who she felt was stealing royalties. This anger and passion contrasts Simone’s civil rights activation and the fact she called for change in her music.

The 1985 incident was not an isolated one: in 1995, Simone shot her neighbour’s son with an air rifle. Simon has a fragility and volatility that you would not guess from her music. So powerful and moving are her songs, one would not know about some of the demons Simone possessed. She was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder in the late-1980s. It is a shame that died relatively young – she was seventy when the world lost her in 2003. By 1993, she was settled in Southern France. The final years of her life were fairly quiet and, in 1998, she announced to a crowd in Newark that she was staying in France – she would never return to the U.S. and perform. Simone died from breast cancer in 2003 and left a huge hole. There has been nobody like Nina Simone since her death and, in many ways, we will never see anyone like her again. Along with icons such as Aretha Franklin, she was part of a generation that is slowly disappearing. It is sad to reflect but, rather than mourn the loss of a great voice, we need to celebrate the music. Since her death in 2003, there have been a few attempts to bring Simone’s life to the screen. Perhaps the best, most-recent attempt was the 2015 documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? The documentary was released with the blessing of Simone’s estate and gained some good reviews.

Some were a bit more reluctant to expend too much praise because, when it comes to someone as layered and complex as Simone, it is hard to strike the right balance. In their review, The Guardian explained more:

As the conflagration of the late 1960s grew more intense, Simone became more radicalised, at one point asking a black audience if they were ready to kill for black liberation. This, as I’m sure you can imagine, restricted her career’s growth. She also became addicted to pills, had bipolar episodes, and was a general mess. Talking-head interviews with her daughter give specific insight.

But there was always the music, and this movie has plenty of it. And let’s not forget that film is a visual medium. As such, What Happened, Miss Simone? is a wall-to-wall fantasia of fabulous outfits, from African print frocks to outsized hats that would look absurd on anyone other than a centre of gravity like Nina Simone.

Clearly there is entertainment value in this documentary, but it’s very much of a “behind the music” calibre. A clip, commentary from an associate or a critic like Stanley Crouch, another clip, rinse, repeat. A post-festival distribution deal is already in place with Netflix and, frankly, that’s the perfect format for Garbus’s by-the-numbers storytelling. What Happened, Miss Simone? is another example of Wikipedia-entry-as-cinema, but with a life this remarkable, it’s still worth a look”.

2016’s Nina was an attempt to bring Simone’s life to Hollywood. Starring Zoe Saldana, the film received a lot of negative reviews. Maybe it is the case that one cannot do full justice to the importance and stature of Nina Simone – it is always tricky when it comes to music biopics and striking the perfect balance of honesty and accessibility.  

 IN THIS PHOTO: Nina Simone photographed in 1969/PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Robinson/Getty Images

Anyway…perhaps there will be another attempt to bring Nina Simone’s life to the big screen. Simone was born the sixth of eight children to an impoverished family from North Carolina. As a child in that part of the U.S. in the 1930s (Simone was born in 1933), life must have been strange and hard. She was six when the Second World War broke out and one can only envisage what a strain that put on her already-fractured upbringing. Even though she was born into a landscape where aspirations were more about survival than success, the young Simone dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. I am not sure whether Simone was attracted to the beauty of the piano or whether it was a particular artist who lit that fuse. Simone was determined to become a success but, at a time when there was racial discrimination and divisions, she was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. One can understand why Simone fought (quite literally) for success and was regarded as a bit unpredictable at times given the fact she had very little support in the early days. Not only was she rejected by music schools but Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, changed her name so that her family would not find out about her dreams. Simone’s family considered Jazz as unsuitable and felt that Jazz music was not the direction she should head in. At nightclubs, when Simone played piano, she had no vocal accompaniment so had to take care of every aspect.

It was hard for Simone to even launch a career, let alone succeed. Her handyman father suffered ill health and she had to rely on a local fund and scholarship money to ensure she could get an education. One suspects that the rejection she received early in life – whether it was racially-motivated or not – caused a sense of defeat and deflation that she struggled to get over. Eventually, Simone released her solo album, Little Girl Blue, in 1958 and started her career. Her output from the late-1950s to the mid-1960s was impressive but, to me, her first big released occurred after 1964: a year when she changed record distributors from Colpix to Philips Records (a Dutch company). 1964 marked a year when Simone addressed the racial divisions in the U.S. On Nina in Concert, she released Mississippi Goddam – a reaction to the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963 and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Motivated by the hatred and injustice around her, Mississippi Goddam was fuelled by upset and outrage. It is a song that sounds moving and startling today. My favourite Simone album of the 1960s was 1965’s I Put a Spell on You. Although it is more Pop-flavoured than her earlier albums, it is her most solid release to that point. Songs such as I Put a Spell on You and Feeling Good are classics in her cannon.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Carol Friedman

Through the 1960s, Simone performed at civil rights meetings and was a supporter of violent revolution. Rather than follow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violet approach, she was an advocate of Black Nationalism. 1967’s High Priestess of Soul was the last great album from Simone in the decade and contained a mix of Pop (Don’t You Pay Them No Mind); African-American Gospel tracks and songs written by Simone herself. In spite of the success she enjoyed in the 1960s, there was backlash to Mississippi Goddam. Perhaps it was too raw and angry for the record label but there was a feeling Simone was being rejected. Simone left the U.S. in 1970 and, upon her return, there was a warrant for her arrest for unpaid taxes. The 1970s was quite a turbulent period for Simone. She abandoned her daughter Lisa in Mount Vernon and, according to Lisa, Simone was quite abusive towards her. There were signs Simone was struggling and showing some cracks. She did perform gigs during the 1980s and, unlike some of her earlier performances, there was more engagement and warmth aimed at the audiences. She could be regularly found at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and it seemed like she was back on a more even keel. Albums such as 1982’s Fodder on My Wings were more introspective than some of her albums of the 1960s and 1970s; 1993’s A Single Woman was the final album from an iconic singer who enjoyed a busy and successful career.

Simone is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and a key figure in the civil rights movement. Her voice is a thing of wonder. She could show tenderness and passion when the mood called but, on her civil rights numbers, there is an aggression and passion that is more powerful than anything else in the world. Simone was an incredibly eclectic vocalist and her delivery, both vocally and on the piano, was truly stunning. There are countless artists who have name-checked Nina Simone as an influence. From Madonna and David Bowie to Janis Joplin to Alicia Keys and Jeff Buckley…so many truly giant artists owe a debt to Nina Simone! There are websites where you can learn more about Nina Simone but, to end, I have collected some of her best performances together. Although the 2015 documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? had its detractors, it did bring Simone’s work and life to a new generation. This article from The Guardian talks about the highs and lows of one of the most inspiring artists ever:

What Happened, Miss Simone? makes the case that Simone was not only one of the most talented musicians of the 20th century but one of the most troubled and unlucky. It shows how she always felt she had been denied her true calling; how she never achieved the success that prettier, more biddable singers enjoyed; how she invested so much of herself in the civil rights movement that she was shattered when it faltered; how she suffered physical abuse from her husband and manager Andrew Stroud and inflicted it on her daughter Lisa; how her bipolar condition was only diagnosed in the 1980s, long after her volatility had inflicted irreparable damage. She was an outcast who only briefly found safe harbour — first as a wife and mother, then as an activist – before it was snatched away. Not fitting in made her great, but it also made her angry and very lonely.


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Simone was now less a musician who cared about politics than an activist who sang. Her music was by, about and for black people. She would scan the crowd for black faces and tell them, “I’m singing only to you. I don’t care about the others.” White fans, she said, were “accidental and incidental”. She could not ignore the fact “that I was a black-skinned woman in a country where you could be killed because of that one fact.” No wonder there has been controversy over the casting of beautiful, light-skinned Zoe Saldana in the long-delayed biopic Nina.

In the 25 years before her death in 2003, at the age of 70, Simone was relatively stable and prolific. She didn’t experience the triumphant comeback that she deserved, but this was as happy an ending as could be expected from someone who had once appeared to be waging a one-woman war against everything.

As she left the stage after a disastrous show at the Royal Albert Hall in 1978, Simone declared: “I am not of this planet. I do not come from you. I am not like you.” She was in a terrible state, but on that point she was absolutely right. For good and for ill, Nina Simone stood alone”.

I return to my earlier point regarding Nina Simone and whether Hollywood will ever truly capture her essence. One cannot argue that Simone lacks relevance and importance today. In 2018, Simone’s childhood home was named a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Listen to music today and you can hear the essence and spirit of Simone living on. Although Simone grew weary of the division and racism that flourished in America in the late-1960s, she made an enormous impact and, without knowing it, she was influenced the next generation. I have named a few artists who have been inspired by Simone but, in terms of average civilians, there is no telling how meaningful and instrumental her music was to those struggle; those who were isolated and affected by the hatred and violence around them. In 2019, her music is still so relevant and I think it holds as much power as it did in the 1960s. That might sound extreme but think about the world today and the fact we are so fractured and divided. I listen to Simone a lot and it provokes so many emotions. From the fire of Mississippi Goddam to my first taste, My Baby Just Cares for Me, she is an artist who still plays a role in my life. Of course, she is an icon: Simone has helped change Jazz and music itself. She opened Jazz to new audiences and created some of the most powerful and moving songs of her generation. Simone is this complicated and hugely important artist who, as we have seen, has been portrayed several times on the screen. There have been some valiant attempts but I think that definitive version is yet to come. I wonder whether anyone can capture the magic, soul and…


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

THE majesty of Miss Simone?