Book review: ‘Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone’ by Nadine Cohodas

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Like her unprocessed voice and Bach-meets-barrelhouse piano style, Nina Simone’s life story is peculiar, beautiful, sometimes off-key and off-color but deeply, disturbingly dramatic.

In the 1960s, the “high priestess of soul” wrote and/or sang some of the most moving anthems of a profound period in American history: “Backlash Blues,” “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

She had sought for years to find a place for her unique vision, and she found it alongside her friends Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Miriam Makeba and James Baldwin.

Hers was a dignified and formidable presence at many civil rights protests and benefit concerts. Yet all these decades later, sordid tales of disheveled onstage rants, mysterious hospitalizations and other indiscretions have threatened to eclipse her legacy.

In “Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone,” Nadine Cohodas reinscribes into the historical record the musical contributions of a woman with prodigious gifts and sometimes unusual taste. The book is exhaustively researched, but unfortunately, in its plodding detail, it fails to grasp the essence of an artist for whom eccentricity and genius were never far apart.

There was always something strange about Simone’s formidable talent. Born Eunice Waymon in rural North Carolina, she learned to play piano while she still had baby teeth, as an accompanist at the church where her mother preached.

Under the sponsorship of several white women, she trained to be a concert pianist. Those hopes were dashed when she was not admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, a rejection she resented her whole life, blaming it on racism.

Instead, she started performing standards at a club in Atlantic City: Nina Simone was born. From the outset, she mixed pop, jazz, blues and classical music — sometimes in a single number. Such a style became her signature; she called it black classical.

Simone, who died in 2003, established the outline of her story in the 1992 autobiography “I Put a Spell on You.” Cohodas relies on that book to get at her subject’s thoughts and feelings, even while uncovering inaccuracies in the narrative.

The author of a biography of Dinah Washington, she draws heavily on media accounts, trying to pin down an artist surrounded by myth.

She also interviewed family members, friends, musicians, promoters and other acquaintances. But she never got a chance to talk to Simone herself, nor did she interview such key figures as the singer’s daughter, ex-husbands and managers.

This lack of intimacy gives “Princess Noire” a distanced feeling. A biography of such an outspoken, sometimes tragic woman should be a page-turner, but Cohodas often misses the forest for the trees. She describes gig after gig, yet brushes over such important issues as Simone’s bisexuality.

She does capture her subject’s gradual unraveling. Given her classical background, Simone never got used to the rudeness of club and pop crowds. From the start, she denounced loud patrons and eventually, her onstage petulance overtook her; sometimes, she didn’t even perform.

Her offstage behavior became equally bizarre, culminating when she shot a young neighbor in the leg in France. Simone was eventually diagnosed with multiple personality disorder and put on medication. “Talent is a burden, not a joy,” she told a London crowd in July 1978. “I am not of this planet. I do not come from you. I am not like you.”

Simone had real grievances. She was crushed by the passing of the civil rights era and felt ripped off by white record companies and promoters. Given the role these complaints played in Simone’s psyche, it would have been interesting if Cohodas had examined them in more depth.

But alas, the author doesn’t venture down that path. Nor does she offer much in the way of context for Simone’s sometimes weird musical choices. Cohodas accepts without explication this black nationalist who loved to sing songs by Hall and Oates, the Beatles and Rod McKuen.

There’s a camp quality to such Simone compositions as “Four Women.” But you wouldn’t know it from the studious seriousness of “Princess Noire.” That’s too bad, because we need a book that gets inside the Simone myth. Cohodas, however, never quite connects with what made this great diva tick.

For a glimpse of that divided soul in action, just listen to “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” with its piano scales descending into Simone’s otherworldly vocals.

This performance by the woman born Eunice Waymon is at once a statement of black pride and a deep, inconsolable lament — as was Nina Simone’s life.

McDonnell is the author of “Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock ‘n’ Roll” and an an incoming assistant professor of English at Loyola Marymount University.