Friday, February 21, 2014

Nina Simone - Triple Threat Artist

Today is Nina Simone's birthday. I first became aware of her in 1967. I was 13 years old at the time and living in Brooklyn, New York. The radio behind the lunch counter was tuned to a jazz station and the sound of Ms. Simone's voice seemed to pierce right through my teenage reverie. Not only was her voice interrupting my thoughts, but also the words were grabbing my attention as she searingly sang an indictment of racism and strife born of the Civil rights struggle.

That song, "Backlash Blues", was the work of  Langston Hughes; the poet of Harlem Renaissance fame; who was on his deathbed even as Ms. Simone sang his words. His last request to her was that she never stop singing it. And, as far as I know, she never did. I also know that I have never stopped listening to it. It's on my I-pod and even on a CD in my car. It is as important a song as "Bitter Fruit" by Billie Holiday; or even "Black and Blue" by Louis Armstrong. It also marked Ms. Simone as an activist in the struggle for Equality then sweeping the nation. This is the version of the song that leapt from the radio that day;

But before that, Ms. Simone was already a major artist in jazz, blues and even pop circles. Even her 1959 rendition of "Little Girl Blue" would be covered over a decade later by Janis Joplin. The woman was a triple threat; she sang, wrote, played piano; all while covering genres which ranged from classical to Jazz, Blues, Folk, R and B, Gospel and even Pop music. She literally knew no boundaries.

Born in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21, 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon, she was the 6th child born into a Preacher's family. Her original goal was to be a classical music pianist but her goal changed when she was denied a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. That denial was based purely on race. It was while singing in local clubs in Philadelphia to make up that deficiency of funds that she began to sing.

By 1958 she had begun her recording career with the single "I Loves You Porgy" and an album called "Little Girl Blue." She made nothing off of these recordings beyond the initial $3,000 for which she asked at the time, releasing her royalties forever. Those recordings went on to make millions.

Her recording career lasted from 1958-1974. Most known for her fusion of blues and gospel with clasical music, Ms. Simone was an enigma at first. She never fit neatly into any of the "slots". Her recordings almost all have a classical element in them somewhere. If not in the composition itself, then in the vocals arrangements.

Her early years playing gospel in church helped her to have an instinctive feel for her audience. She knew which crowd would understand her more jazz like renditions of her hits, and which ones wanted to hear the record. She measured them all up with a discerning eye,  sometimes being mistook as too much of a "purist." But whatever label you put on her, you could never deny that she was a force to be reckoned with.

By the early 1960's she was embracing the Civil rights Movement openly, which was still a risk until the later part of the decades. Careers could be smashed over this divisive issue. Her earliest taste of racism came when she was 12 years old and her parents were asked to move to the rear of the concert hall where she was making her first recital. We can only imagine how much that must have hurt. Ms. Simone refused to pay until her parents were restored to their seats. Imagine the courage which that took! This is a woman who would never know stage fright!

Her mother was the preacher in the house; she was a Methodist Minister and a housemaid. Her father worked as a handyman, after having tried his hand in business. His health was not always the best, making Ms. Simone's mother the main wage earner. Her mother's employer actually set up a fund for Ms. Simone to continue taking piano lessons, having heard something of promise in her. With some of that money she was able to attend Allen High School for Girls in Asheville. She then went on to the Curtis Institute where she was rejected. It must be noted that the Institute had already begun accepting African-American applicant as early as the 1940's. The first such graduate was George Walker in 1945. He would go on to earn a Pulitzer Prize. Ms. Simone went to New York and studied at Juilliard.

It was while attending school in New York that she became "Nina", performing in Atlantic City to pay for school. She took the last name Simone for Simone Signoret, the French actress, whom she admired. In later life Ms. Simone would go to live in France, where she was even more highly regarded than here at home.

Another signature Civil Rights Era song which Ms. Simone wrote has become almost an anthem, "Mississippi Goddam" which she wrote in response to the killing of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the church in Alabama which left 4 children dead. It was widely banned; as was to be expected; down south.

She opposed the war in Vietnam and refused to pay her taxes in protest. When she left the United States for Barbados she left her wedding band behind. Her husband/manager took this as a sign that she wanted a divorce. When she returned to the United States she found that a warrant had been issued for her arrest concerning the taxes. She quickly returned to Barbados, where she lived for many years before relocating to Liberia. From there she moved to Switzerland and the Netherlands before finally settling in France.

Her recording career was up and down during the decades she was moving about, but took an unexpected upturn in the late 1980's and 1990's when she recorded several well regarded jazz albums, as well as a collection of varied songs called "Baltimore."  Her last recording was in 1993, with an album called "A Single Woman." Her autobiography; published the year before; is called "I Put a Spell On You."

By far her most well regarded recording is the album "Montreux Jazz Festival" for which she will always be remembered. That album is also available on film.

In 1993 she settled in Aix-en-Provence in France. She died in her sleep on April 21, 2003. Her ashes were sent to several African countries. She left one daughter, Lisa Stroud, who uses the name Simone. She has appeared on Broadway in "Aida." 

While one of the more controversial artists of her time she has become one of the most well loved since her death. She was inducted into the  North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.  And, in 2010 a statue in her honor was erected on Trade Street, in Tryon, North Carolina, the place it all began.

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