Nina Simone: Diva Of The Dives

Lucy O'Brien
Guardian, 20 November 1992

APPROACHING 60, Nina Simone, Princess Noir with the famed attitude, has got used to putting punters in their place. A one-time classical musician she should have been a world-famous concert pianist, but instead poverty and prejudice led her to the pop world and a show business format that has never been taxing enough for her. The disdain shows. She wouldn't be seen dead in a video dancing on a ceiling or blow-drying her hair. A completely self-contained legend, she has carved out a powerful personal style of blues, classics and soulful hymns — from 'I Loves You Porgy' to the phenomenally successful 'My Baby Just Cares For Me'.

Hers is a life story packed with "should have beens". She should have become America's first black classical pianist, but the only route wide open for a poor unknown black girl in the fifties was supper club show tunes or a strong dose of the blues. She should have been happily married with 2.2 kids and a white picket fence. Instead the rigours of the road left her with two failed marriages and a string of abandoned lovers. She swears that, could she live her life over again, she'd have "gotten married to my first boyfriend and had some babies. I maybe would have continued with my music, if he'd allowed me to."

Next week her autobiography comes out in paperback, called appropriately enough, I Put A Spell On You. It's been 30 years in the mix. It would have been out sooner but the first two ghostwriters didn't stay the course. The third was "Jimmy Baldwin — who had to wait a year to do it; and by that time he was dead". So it wasn't until British writer Stephen Cleary recently took up the challenge that she was able to complete it. The result is a frank and nostalgic account of her extraordinary life, a far cry from the usual pop autobiographical fare of "I sang to the crowd and they loved me" or "success, stress, drug habit, rehab".

Coming from the star who danced naked in a Liberian disco and attempted to seduce Louis Farrakhan, it is difficult to images Simone living a demure Hello!-ish fantasy. Like a seasoned connoisseur she is candid about what she admires in a man: "I don't want a fat man. I can't stand that, can't stand his snoring. I want him tall and thin and tender. Aware of how to make love. He must be rich or have some money, so he doesn't envy mine. He must love sports. Love to dance. Love music. Preferably black. If I can get him.

"Liberians. I love those men, down there, they're very warm and personable, you don't have to try twice to get their attention. South Africans are very hot men, sexually hot. Don't know much about them money-wise. My boyfriend now is from Nigeria — he's quite rich. He's a little fat, but I'm gonna change that if I stay with him. It's possible I can get a man from Zimbabwe because in one of my past lives I was a high priestess down there."

A haughty but oddly vulnerable woman, Simone got used to asserting herself so early on that acquiescence has never come easy. Born Eunice Waymon in 1932, the sixth child of a preacher's family in Tryon, smalltown North Carolina, Simone hopped on to the piano stool at the age of two and a half, and like a little-girl Mozart, played her mother's favourite hymn note-perfect. Her mother, a stern, distant Methodist minister, channeled Simone into a life of musical excellence.

At six, she was playing church revivals, in her teens she was sent to an exclusive, mainly white, private school for girls with a top academic record, and her hometown launched a fund to finance her musical training. After a year's scholarship at New York's Juilliard School of Music, it was expected Simone would win a place at the elite, prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. "There was a lot of black pride and money invested in me."

Despite her brilliance, the young Eunice Waymon was rejected. Even though many claimed it was racist decision, she felt humiliated. Reluctantly turning her back on the classical world ("How was I going to be the first black concert pianist in my spare time?") she changed her name — a Hispanic boyfriend kept calling her Nina, Spanish for "little girl"; Simone she adopted after the French actress Simone Signoret — and began performing popular songs in bars to earn money for further tuition. Her early bitter disappointment was to infuse her music, creating a sense of tragedy as stagey as it was magnificent. For her first gig, a downtown dive in Atlantic City full of "drunken Irish bums", she played sitting erect in a chiffon gown, her hair and face meticulously made up. A big-boned woman with wide shoulders and a strangely regal face, Simone always took her diva role seriously.

Beginning to attract a young, hip beatnik audience, Simone moved to New York and in 1957, signed her first record contract with the Bethlehem label without looking at the small print — a mistake that would cost her over a million dollars in later royalty wars. Simone has never had a smooth relationship with money; hoodwinked by her second husband, who was also her manager, and hounded by the American tax authorities for 10 years for not filing tax receipts, Simone is now extra vigilant about getting paid. "I hate show business," she claims. "It's hard. You never know if you're gonna get your money. There's different hotels, different airplanes, bad food. When it's all finished you have people pirating your records and stealing from you. The poor always ask you for money; they think you lead a special Cinderella life. It's all nonsense."

Despite her feigned indifference to the performing process, years of relentless international touring mean that Simone has perfected the art of hypnotizing an audience, through both intense musical emotion and absolute silence. Although her voice has lately grown cracked and worn, she still has that calculated ability to mesmerise. A concert can be an assault course of nerves — she has often been known to harangue a crowd that's not properly attentive.

"Sometimes she's all right. Sometimes it's just torture," says Stuart Lyons, a London promoter who worked on her 1989-90 gigs. "You're always on edge, never quite sure which way it'll go. I remember having dinner with her once and she asked me about the singer Najma Akhtar: 'How is that Asian girl? I really enjoyed her tape.' I said, 'She's doing well in France,' and Nina suddenly spat out, 'There you go, some other bitch riding on my coat tails'. She wouldn't speak to me for 10 minutes. Talk about unpredictable."

"The audience tended to be adoring even if she abused them. Half the people expect that. She's unique, the last of the working divas."

Though burned by her initial Bethlehem deal, it was a song re-released from her first album and used on a Chanel No. 5 advertisement that was to be her biggest hit and let to a comeback in 1987. Simone believes 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' to be one of her slighter recordings, but it opened a whole new market to her music. Before that she was considered a left-field soulful singer who's had her day. She'd spent the seventies drifting, from Africa, to Switzerland, to an attempted suicide in London, to ending up broke in Paris. Success in the eighties gave her back her self-respect.

Simone's highest point was in the 1960s, supporting the Civil Rights movement, penning such classics as 'Mississippi Goddam' and 'Young, Gifted And Black'. Friends with James Baldwin, Stokeley Carmichel and Miriam Makeba, she was one of the first black American sixties entertainers to "rediscover" her African roots, spending four years in Liberia.

She tires of the civil war tearing apart her spiritual home. Currently living in Amsterdam, she's yearning to return to Africa, and from next May will live in Ghana. "I sincerely hope that Africa can get its ass together," she says. "Get rid of some of the poverty and come under one democratic government. We don't have problems in Ghana and that's one of the reasons I'm moving there. I'll stay there six months of the year and spend the other half in the south of France. I have to spend time with my own people."

Also weary of the country she left long ago, Simone says: "Nothing's changed in the United States, so I'll go on singing my protest songs. They're just as applicable in 1992 as they were in 1963. It amazed me when I saw on TV all the burning and looting in LA. I said my people should burn down the United States, they should tear it up and burn it down."

She will be taking those songs on the road in the New Year, and recording an album of fresh material. Although devotees will be delighted, she's at pains to point out that her music doesn't come easy. "These days I have no inspiration to write. Two months ago I wrote two tunes. That was primarily because they'll be included in this record I'm making. I was pushed by the fact there's money in it — that gives me inspiration to write." She's flattered that six of her songs will be included on the soundtrack to The Specialists, the Stateside version of the movie Nikita.

The last time Simone was truly inspired was one evening last May when she returned to her classical roots playing the Beatles' 'The Long And Winding Road' with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "It brought back a lot of memories and I cried, because that was the happiest I'd been with my music in about 10 years." Simone also takes heart from the fact that her personal psychic believes 1993 will be her biggest year. She states majestically; "I had a medium contact my father, and he says my time of greatness is yet to come."