Nina Simone

Precious Williams
Big Issue, December 1998

NINA SIMONE is furious that there is no alcohol left in the house. It's not even 11 o'clock in the morning and yet the 65-year-old jazz legend has already drunk a whole bottle of Baileys.

Despite a string of timeless, international hits including 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' and 'I Put A Spell On You', Simone today lives in isolation and near-poverty. A series of tragedies and betrayals have left her embittered – and strapped for cash.

Simone moves slowly around her cluttered villa in the south of France, hurling insults at Clifton, the gay black American male nurse who acts as the latest in a string of personal managers.

"You have no idea of what I can drink, you damned fool. I once drank five bottles of champagne in one afternoon," she bellows in the rough-edged voice that has sold millions of records all over the globe. "Gays like you ought to be lined up and shot. You go against God."

Years or racial discrimination and dissatisfaction in her emotional life has made Simone intolerant of those around her. "I hate people," she says simply. "They've wasted my time and they are squandering my life."

Simone says that she is angry because tension and worry about money have not allowed her to sleep for three nights in a row. She feels daunted at the prospect of periodically being wheeled out onto stage at an age when most women are enjoying their first years of retirement.

"I hate showbiz. I've devoted my life to being a star and yet I've got absolutely nothing to show for it," she laments. "It's an ugly business. I've got no desire to be involved in it anymore. With everyone out there re-releasing and ripping off my records – I just need the money. It's as simple as that. I get as much as £20,000 cash for a live concert. And that money goes straight into my pocket. No one can take it away from me. If I don't force myself to get out there and perform live, I won't be able to keep this place up. I won't be able to carry on."

To her adoring fans, Simone represents the last living icon of the sophisticated and timeless American jazz tradition. Yet mismanagement of funds and ill-advised choices of business managers throughout her 40-year career span have resulted in an incredible lack of financial reward. 'My Baby Just Cares For Me', Simone's most recent hit, sold more than a million copies worldwide, and was used by Chanel in 1987 as part of an international television advertising campaign for its No. 5 perfume – yet Simone was advised by confidantes to sign away her royalties from the record for a mere $2,000.

Today, living in self-imposed exile in a quiet, middle-class village between Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence, Simone takes pleasure in shutting herself off form the world. She emerges from the confines of her gloomy home just three times a week, to swim at the local leisure center.

A series of requests for interviews spurt forth from her noisy fax machine. Simone is deeply irritated by these constant interruptions. "Tell them that they can all fuck off!", she screams, accepting her seventh lit cigarette from Janet, her official dresser. "The tickets to my concert have sold haven't they?"

The world's most famous living diva sits on a low, velour stool in front of a chipped baby piano and kicks off her shoes. As she regains her composure and strikes a pose, she tells me that her glamorous bronze, silk trouser suit was purchased in London, in the Seventies. Her famously almond-shaped eyes are glazed and bloodshot.

It is Thanksgiving Day and Simone has invited half a dozen French acquaintances over to celebrate the occasion with her. "I want a big turkey, mashed potatoes and a whole ham. And bottles and bottles of champagne. Stars drink champagne," she declares, to the room at large.

Simone was born plain old Eunice Wayman in 1933 to poverty-stricken parents in America's Deep South. Despite having stunned her Methodist parents by playing a flawless classical music score on the church organ at the age of two and a half, Simone was denied the chance to fulfill her musical potential.

At the age of 18, the child prodigy was refused admission to the prestigious Curtis Institute to study classical piano – purely because of the colour of her skin. The young musician later changed her name to Nina (meaning "little girl") Simone, in an attempt to hide the fact that she was earning money by performing in a night club, from her deeply religious parents.

Stardom has failed to spare Simone from spending an entire lifetime haunted by memories of her early poverty and lack of opportunity in her native America. By early adulthood she had already witnessed the racist lynchings of childhood friends and the gunning down of her early icons. "I call it the United Snakes of America," she says bitterly. "Words cannot express just how much I despised that place. They [the American Government] want to keep their black people in slavery forever."

Simone was further alienated from America during the Sixties, after she was placed under surveillance by the FBI following her association with civil rights leader Martin Luther King. She finally fled the States permanently ten years later amid rumours of tax disputes and embarked on a nomadic tour of the world. After setting up home in London and then in Liberia and Ghana in West Africa, Simone purchased her villa in France five years ago.

Today, she is observed by local police who have kept a keen eye on her ever since she shot and wounded the teenage son of her next-door neighbour three years ago. Simone fired a bullet at the boy after his laughter interrupted her piano practice. The £3,000 fine and probation order she subsequently received appear to have done nothing to quell her aggression.

"I'm itching to use my gun again!" she shrieks, her face lighting up with enthusiasm. "Next time I'll use it on him because of his incapability," she says, gesturing towards Clifton, who smiles nervously. "I'll do what I damned well like. I hate children. That child should have learned how to stay quiet when I'm playing my piano."

Simone represents to many the ultimate in liberated womanhood yet, in reality, she remains tied by the shackles of a ghetto childhood. The singer's first husband, New York detective Andrew Stroud, to whom she bore her only child Lisa Celeste, set a pattern of abuse that was to plague Simone's life. In 1970, Stroud became her first business manager and allegedly embezzled a quarter of million dollars from her before abandoning her. "He was such a ruthless creep," she reminisces sadly.

Currently single ("I find now that even men who are good in bed are not worth the trouble"); a string of unsatisfactory love unions followed Simone's 1971 divorce from Stroud, resulting in four miscarriages and a bitterness that filters through to her songs. "My problem is that I am too innocent. I trust what people close to me say. I've got to trust someone haven't I? I make excuses for them sometimes."

Estranged from her 36-year-old daughter Lisa, to whom she has not spoken in 10 years, the icon insists on her staff – manager Clifton, dresser Janet and bodyguard and chauffeur Xavier – residing with her in her far-from-comfortable four-bedroom home.

Simone was invited to join Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and a host of international dignitaries at Nelson Mandela's glittering 80th birthday celebrations in Cape Town. When it became apparent that Simone couldn't raise the funds to travel to the ceremony, the South African Government stepped in and footed the entire bill for Simone's traveling expenses.

As she shuffles up the rickety, winding staircase towards the unmade bed in her bedroom, she turns and says: "Please tell my public that there aren't many of us geniuses still living. Hardly any of us left at all. It's down to Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra.

"Except Frank's already dead," she adds, almost as an afterthought.