Nina Simone: Lady Trashes The Blues

Karl Dallas
Melody Maker, 29 September 1979

Nina Simone's concerts are almost as nerve-racking as her turbulent personal life, which makes it easy to see her as a weird, tragic mixture of Billie Holiday and Judy Garland. KARL DALLAS discovers that the reality is a lot perkier.

IT IRRITATES Nina Simone when people compare her with Billie Holiday. True, she's had her share of ill-luck and rip-offs. Her behaviour does, at times, seem to display the same obsessive self-destructiveness, which in turn has been sensationalised into the image of the artist as alien.

In her earlier recordings, there is an undoubted Billie influence, now vanished; and when she appeared in the Billie Holiday commemoration concert in Hollywood Bowl, people began discovering the parallels once again.

But, as she's quick to point out, there are considerable differences.

"The only way that I associate with her is that I haven't got my royalties," she says, "and that's only a matter of time. I don't take dope, I don't smoke, I barely drink a little bit of champagne, I'm certainly not in love with anybody, and he certainly hasn't left me out in the cold and all that junk. But it is true I got swindled a couple of times.

"I don't know why they keep comparing us in the press. They love to create monsters and they love to create sorrow and they love to create causes — but they don't know, seemingly, how to accept joy and enthusiasm and a lust for life, which is what I have.

"I don't like blues. And though I am known as a blues singer and a jazz singer in the States, I'm not, really.

"I only met Billie Holiday once in my life. I think they associate me with her because my first hit was approved by her, which was 'I Loves You Porgy'. The inspiration was taken from her and I asked for her approval to sing it.

"I associate with Vladimir Horowitz, with Rubenstein, Maria Callas, everything to do with opera, Wanda Landowska, Marion Anderson, Leontine Price, Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles certainly, Thelonious Monk, the masters of jazz and the masters of classics, including Bach. Let's not leave him out."

IT'S OBVIOUS, as you talk to her, that she is returning to her classical roots, at a very time that the jazz world is waking up to an understanding of her artistry.

She was, after all, classically trained, and despite her traditional North Carolina background, the jazz idiom does not come naturally to her.

Nina Simone got into show business against the wishes of her mother, a Methodist preacher who raised the young Eunice Waymon (her real name) and seven other children and put the originally self-taught pianist through Juilliard. Her decision to reject her mother's advice estranged her from her family, something she regrets bitterly, and she has begun to wonder if her mother wasn't right.

"I've had a good life," she says, "but I do regret getting into show business. I don't regret the music. I loved what I did (at the Royal Festival Hall) the other night. I'm back to my own classical roots now, doing my own music on my own Steinway.

"I was prepared to be a concert pianist. My mother has never accepted show business. She said it was too dirty, and I was too naive at the time to know what she meant. I didn't know that most of my songs would be stolen.

"I haven't actually been paid all my royalties from the seven record companies that I legitimately worked for. I thought they would automatically pay me, but I haven't got the kind of cheque from them that makes some kind of sense in over seven years.

"So, yes, I've been totally disillusioned by it, but we're getting a whole team of lawyers to go after the money, which goes into the millions."

LORD KNOWS, Nina Simone has had more than her share of hard knocks. When she recounts the conditions under which she recorded her last, highly praised Baltimore album for CTI, and the way she was denied any kind of artistic say in the final product, and the way she was treated by Creed Taylor — an experience which she describes as the worst thing that has happened to her in 20 years of show business — you can see why she describes it as piracy.

"I'm very innocent. I trust a lot, then I get stepped on a million times, from those I expect it from least. I thought the thing with CTI was going to be the beginning of a fantastic relationship, but they virtually kidnapped me.

"Five guys from the States took me to a basement in Belgium, where I was forced to sing songs in order to get out of there. This went on for three days. There was no sleep and there was no water and there was no release."

Her lip trembled as she began to recall the experience, and her voice became low and hard to distinguish as she begged a rare cigarette from an associate.

"The record is beautiful, but it was done under the most terrifying circumstances in the world. He took the tape to New York, put voices on it without my consent, put orchestrations on it without my consent, and I have not seen the president since that day."

PERSONALLY, THINGS haven't been much better. She is separated from her husband and sometime manager, and her child. When she was in London for her Drury Lane concert she fell in with a bank clerk posing as a lord who courted her and swindled her, running up enormous bills, and ended up giving her a blow on the back of the head which required that she wear a brace on her neck for months.

All this blew up when she did a concert in London which was not — how shall we put it? — representative of the best she can do.

"My dear," she said, "if you're talking about that performance, I had gone through being hurt, being robbed, being found on a hotel room floor by the maid, left for dead, then taken to an emergency ward and harassed about where I was staying. I was then swindled by a young man whose name I don't care to mention for thousands of pounds, and the creditors were on my doorstep.

"I couldn't walk without a thing on my neck, and I had no ideas until that year that when you're on top there's a whole public out there waiting to shoot you down, and it's real.

"When you fall from that little pedestal where they keep you, they're as anxious to see you crumble as they are to see you up there. They enjoy it. People enjoy the macabre, the horror of life.

"I've had traumas, traumas, traumas. I've changed. But now I am well."

I COMMENTED how impressed I'd been by her dancing on stage at the Festival Hall.

"Oh yes, I love dancing. If things don't get easier for me, if I don't get my royalties, I'm going to Las Vegas and become a shake dancer."

She said it with a primness that belied her words, like her mother preaching about the sinfulness of show-business fleshpots, the ultimate satirical commentary on a business that can't handle its artists as sensitively as it treats the vulnerable surface of a vinyl disc.

"You think I'm joking? Josephine Baker's one of my most wonderful inspirations. She started in bananas. I may end in bananas. It would break completely the impression that they have of me. But it wouldn't mean that I couldn't play."