Nina Simone, 70; Maverick Singer, Pianist Performed Collages of Protest, Heartbreak
Nina Simone, a commanding, soulful singer who defied the strictures of genre and memorably infused her music with the heartbreak and protest of the civil rights movement, died Monday at her home in southern France, where she had lived the last decade as a U.S. expatriate. She was 70.
Simone’s manager, Clifton Henderson, said he was at her bedside when she died in her sleep of what he described as natural causes. He declined to tell reporters the name of the community, but in recent years Simone, who had been in failing health for some time, was living in a suburb about halfway between Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence.
Simone, who was dubbed the “high priestess of soul” and hailed as an elemental voice in 20th century American music, was a fiery maverick -- she dismissed the title “jazz singer” as racial pigeonholing -- and her tempestuous life was as difficult to catalog as her music. She recorded jazz, standards, soul, hymns, show tunes, African folk and, perhaps most inspired, her own songs of the African American struggle, such as “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Mississippi Goddam.”
Her signature interpretation of the George and Ira Gershwin song “I Loves You Porgy” in 1959 put her on the map in the jazz world, and her varied resume would include hits such as “I Put a Spell on You,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Gin House Blues,” “Forbidden Fruit” and “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Simone’s piano style -- understated, elegant and challenging -- added a power to her voice too, and made many of her cover songs more potent than the originals.
Simone bitterly dismissed the categories imposed on popular music and described her work as “black classical music.” Through the years, she interpreted the work of songwriters as varied as Kurt Weill, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, Hoyt Axton and the Bee Gees, and she not only refused to cater to the whims of a mainstream audience, she often eyed her loyal fans with a suspicion of their desires.
“People resent artists,” she told the British newspaper the Guardian in 1997. “They’re jealous of them, they want to be artists themselves, and the only way they can relate to their hatred is to put you down in any way they can. It might be in the papers, or by pirating your albums, or to be at the stage door waiting to kill you.”
Though severe and eccentric to some, to her fans and a generation of female artists Simone was both icon and inspiration, a towering figure who was preyed on by a series of unscrupulous businessmen and then made heartsick by the casualties of the civil rights era. Students of her music include Lauryn Hill, Norah Jones and Meshell Ndegeocello. The latter called Simone a voice that rose above mere music.
“Nina Simone was a messenger to our heart and conscience,” Ndegeocello said Monday. “Not only a brave lyricist, but a brilliant pianist, as committed to artistic integrity as to her political views. There is no telling how many lives she touched with the simple affirmation of the beauty of being ‘Young, Gifted and Black.’ I know she touched mine.”
As a teen, Simone aspired to become the first black, female concert pianist, but her aspirations were slapped down when she was turned away from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she desperately wanted to train. She was sure racism was the reason and abandoned that avenue to fame. Later, after she became a star on the New York club scene, she became a recording star -- but an early contract she signed would drain years of personal profits. She once estimated that she lost more than $1 million because of the deal.
As the 1960s unfolded, Simone became friends with playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and the association blossomed into her political awakenings. The assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and a church bombing inspired her “Mississippi Goddam,” which, Ndegeocello said, “captured the absurdity of American racism better than anyone.” That song would be followed by “Sunday in Savannah,” a version of Langston Hughes’ “Backlash Blues” and other provocative essays of race relations.
By 1970, she was divorced from her husband of a decade and had barely seen her 9-year-old daughter’s childhood. She had tax problems and had grown increasingly angry at her audiences, be it for talking during performances or not according her due acclaim. More than that, many of her heroes and friends within the civil rights movement were dead or defeated. She left the United States and began an expatriate’s odyssey that took her around the globe for 15 years.
Two months ago, Simone told the Sunday Herald, a newspaper in Scotland, that the civil rights movement had finished with a whimper. “Nothing’s really changed in the States. It’s worse now, especially in the South. There’s a need to sing the same songs over and over again to remind the whites of what the blacks have done and what they’re still doing.”
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tyron, N.C., on Feb. 21, 1933, the sixth of seven children of a dry cleaner and barber named John Divine Waymon and a Methodist minister, Mary Kate Waymon.
“Everything that happened to me as a child involved music,” Simone wrote in her autobiography, “You Put a Spell on Me.” “Everybody played music. There was never any formal training; we learned to play the same way we learned to walk, it was that natural.”
By age 6, when she became the pianist for her church congregation, Simone was setting herself apart even from the rest of her parents’ musically gifted children. Soon she was in formal training with a British piano teacher -- the Waymons could not afford the tutoring, but Mary Kate Waymon cleaned the house of a woman who insisted on helping with the expense when she became aware of the prodigy in the community.
The lessons quickly inspired the young girl. “When I understood Bach’s music,” Simone wrote in her book, “I never wanted to be anything other than a concert pianist; Bach made me dedicate my life to music.”
That dedication took her to a one-year scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. After being rejected by the Curtis Institute, she turned to non-academic avenues.
In 1954, she began playing piano at the Midtown, an Irish pub off of the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., and by then she had switched to her more familiar stage name (the “Simone” was a nod to a favorite actress, Simone Signoret) to keep her nightlife career from the attention of her pious, Methodist mother.
Her performances, though, quickly caught the ear of young jazz fans and others intrigued by her offbeat hybrid sound. With her background in formal training and rootsy heritage, she turned her sets into collage art -- classical selections melded with gospel and pop, sometimes weaving back and forth in the same song.
The Midtown notoriety led her to Philadelphia and then to Greenwich Village in New York City, where Simone soon found a recording deal and the beginning of a mercurial career.
In 2000, during one of her rare returns to the United States, Simone performed at the Wiltern Theatre and was joined for several songs by her daughter, who performs under the one-word name Simone.
Jazz critic Don Heckman wrote of the night: “An experience that has as much to do with a soul-stirring, spirit-raising, shamanistic ritual as it does with a mere program of music.... But she could have come on to a stage with nothing more than her piano as a companion and the crowd would have been just as pleased, the music no less assertive and challenging.
“ ‘Diva’ may not be quite sufficient to describe her artistry, but until someone comes up with a more expansive emblem, it’ll have to do. And no one is more richly deserving of the title, in all its aspects, than Nina Simone.”