Nina Simone: Diary of A Princess Noir

Gavin Martin
New Musical Express, 4 February 1984


AT 4.30 PM, a worn and dishevelled Nina Simone is still tucked up in her plush Park Lane hotel bed.

The curtains are drawn, the lighting discreet – its glare directed away from her sullen orbs sunk in layers of eye shadow smudge and rolls of puffy flesh.

A cassette of Marvin Gaye's Midnight Love LP and a Walkman lie on the dresser, but the only sound comes from this formidably sized middle aged woman – shouting orders and ripostes to her tall slim brother, manager, organ player and sometime vocal accompanist Sam who busies himself with sheafs and folders on the other side of the room.

As soon as we enter she's on the offensive.

"No pictures! I won't have no pictures!" she thunders.

The arrogant and cantankerous Nina Simone pantomime is under way, at the moment photographer Peter Anderson is playing Little Red Riding Hood to her big bad wolf, but I'll soon be taking over.

"Here he comes again, are you deaf? I said NO PHOTOGRAPHS! Sam! SAM! Tell him, Sam. Just give him the ones we have."

In the middle of this verbal crossfire – she's facing me but shouting at Peter over my shoulder, Peter is looking at Sam, and Sam is telling me to sit down – I take a bedside seat, turn on the recorder and wait for the sweet lustrous voice to fill me, to fill us all, with worldly wisdom. Her attention roused, she turns round in bed. A left breast threatens to poke out from under a loosely tied purple gown as she gets tetchy again.

"What do you want?" she scowls.

I try some small talk to break the ice: How's London? The shows? The interviews? Oh, Nina I see you like Marvin Gaye...But she doesn't want to know. Tired, suspicious and in a bad mood, she wants the job over with as soon as possible.

"Oh my God! What kind of questions are these? Come on now, shoot!"

The interview was a certain kind of seduction. It lasted half an hour, she started out hard and impenetrable, became warm and friendly midway through and at the end she was tired but smiling. I was exhausted.

EUNICE WAYMON was born in Tryon, North Carolina on 21 February, 1933. A resident of Paris, France for the last four years, she's in London to play a £12.50 a head two week residency at Ronnie Scott's. Coming near the end of her stint she's starting to feel the strain of her years and the hectic schedule.

"I don't want to go onstage at Ronnie Scott's tonight. Sometimes it just gets to be a real bore, but I have to go. It didn't use to be a bore, but the pressure of having to do it every night is very great. But I must go – I have to make money and I'm famous. Fame is something you can't stop once it has started."

In the hallowed echelons of black music the classically nurtured soul of Nina Simone holds a singularly unique position. Her route from rural poverty to classical academy, through '50s jazz cocktail bar, the activism of civil rights and college circuits of the '60s, into festival and concert halls in the '70s, to the present where she yearns for the irreproachable status of a diva (which, suitably, means being a prima donna, as well as a great singer) did not follow the normal course of most black female performers.

The sheer enormity of her work is hard to put in a context. It has a grasp big enough to incorporate the sanctity of gospel, the rough hewn folksy 'Gin House Blues' and 'The Work Song', impeccable jazzy quintet reworkings of standards like 'Mr Bojangles' and 'Just Like A Woman'. Her love of Africa and African music is another recurring facet of her style, though she was equally at home in the lavish orchestrations of the Baltimore album.

Her music has kept alive the best traditions of folk musics, but with her earthy wounded and wounding contralto and effortless mastery of the keyboards, she seemed to fashion something completely of her own making. When she took a classic or relatively unknown song like 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' she had the ability not only to divine its inner magic, but weave it through the whole performance. Live recordings from every period are available on obscure of pirate labels. I'd particularly recommend A Little Sugar In My Bowl on New York's Manhattan label.

During America's Depression of the '30s, the backwater of Tryon was hardly the ideal birthplace for a potential prodigy. But along with her family – three sisters, four brothers and a very religious mother and father – at four Nina began playing piano at gospel revival meetings.

At one performance she caught the attention of a well heeled admirer who offered to pay for her to have formal classical training. When the patron's support was discontinued a Eunice Waymon Fund was set up. Local folks gave so generously that, having graduated from high school in North Carolina, Nina was able to move to a classical academy in New York.

"I hated those recitals. At the first one in the white library there was a big hassle about where my mother and father would sit. That hurt me. Miss Mazzie (her teacher) never knew how tense I was and how scared those white people made me. I had to go across the tracks. I was split in half. I loved Bach, but the music was never a joy, never a pleasure.

"When I was young I wanted to be famous as a classical pianist. But I've achieved it as a star and it's a very hard, very lonely life. I would preferred to have achieved it as a classical pianist. In America, in New York I got turned down from the first academy I went to because of racial prejudice. And that was something I never got over because it changed me into a showbiz person. And, really, I never wanted to do that.

AS WE SIT talking in this dimly lit room, her fierce exterior soon cracks and underneath lies a sad, but resilient figure. Simone's tale is scarred with the scourge of prejudice, the ugly machinations of the business and two broken marriages. Sometimes her voice breaks from its matronly boom and she sounds as frail and helpless as a small girl. She's lovesick, broke, unable to's all quite tragic, actually.

About halfway through the interview the room service trolley arrives and she breakfasts quickly and voraciously on chicken consomme, salad sandwiches and a glass of lager. I have a mental picture of her, her mouth filled with bread, beer and soup and she's trying to look serious, staring straight ahead and declaring, "I'm known as a diva now. That's the way I want it. Do you know what a diva is? Good. I want you to print that."

And that's kind of tragic too.

From an early age the consummate artistry which was to inform her future recordings was formed.

"I started off as a child prodigy. You know what that is? A child prodigy plays anything they hear. I didn't start playing gospel; I started playing bop, gospel, jazz, blues...anything I heard...hymns."

Although she never really 'made it' as a classical pianist, the style is a base for all her playing. She used it to counterpoint melodies, to cast huge spectres and gashes of melancholy to aching love songs like 'The Other Man', 'I Don't Want Him', or the present, 'If You Knew'. Or as a centrepiece to a towering masterpiece like 'Four Women' placing the songs on a setting that is so deep and dark and troubled that it can genuinely frighten the listener. The ability to do this must be a source of gratification.

"Yes, it is tremendously gratifying. The audience appreciate that, but don't think of it as classical, they just think of it as my style. The fact is I play African rooted classical music. I would rather use two drummers and nobody else if I could. I don't like using guitar...I like using drummers because they can adopt themselves to ballads and not get in the way with a whole lot of clapping and carrying on that has nothing to do with ballads at all."

When she played to 2,000 people at the Barbican Centre 18 months ago she was accompanied only by a drummer and her grand piano. It was a fascinating performance – obsessive, consumed with passion/anger/sorrow/love/sex/death. Simone writhed and squirmed in front of the audience. She seemed to be laying herself bare, as if unable to separate whatever drama or crisis in her personal life had inspired the songs off the stage. She doesn't agree.

"Hell, no. My personal life is just as important to me as my music, but I keep the two completely separate. That stuff you saw, I can turn it on and off like a faucet."

On stage or off, however, Simone can be a weird, disparaging character. Performances range from the sublime to the ridiculous, behaviour from humble to petulant, audience reaction can be one of rapture of affrontery. A disgusted Barney Hoskyns, formerly of Pleasant Valley County, recalls a show some months back in Los Angeles where she regaled the audience with twee ivory tinkling and went through the whole concert speaking French.

By all accounts her shows at Ronnie's have been similarly erratic. I caught two nights. The first I was seated about two feet from her. I should have been rapt, but somehow wasn't. She came onstage looking tired and fragile; painted and besequinned she stood surveying the audience with her huge shoulders arched, her hands on her hips and an expression of vague disdain on her face. While there were undeniable moments of beauty the set as a whole had a hollow ring. She wasn't enjoying it (after the third song she started to make regular timechecks with the guy at the side of the stage).

"It was a shock. It was very different having to play nightclubs when I first went to New York. I went there to study classical music, but I was broke and I had to make money. It was very hard to get acclimatised to show business; I hated it then and I still do. I hate the hotel rooms, the lack of good food, the lack of a normal life.

"The audience at Ronnie Scott's is wonderful. But I'd rather be playing the Royal Festival Hall. I don't like nightclubs but I am grateful it's been packed out every night."

AS A RECORDING artist Simone's career has been fraught with contractual and business problems. Her major beef throughout the interview is how 50 or so pirate companies owe her money that runs into "the millions".

She was 25 when she recorded her first session for Bethlehem records, the bulk of which can be found on the My Baby Just Cares For Me Charly reissue. She shot to national acclaim with the million selling version of Gershwin's 'I Loves You Porgy', and her interpretative powers as singer, arranger and musician on that and other standards such as Duke Ellington's 'Mood Indigo' or traditional spirituals like 'He's Got The Whole World In His Hands' reaped lavish critical acclaim, casting her as a supper club performer par excellence.

Was it a thrill to start recording?
"No, it was very hard, and when it was recorded I had to beg for them to release it."

LPs such as the now rare Nina Simone – Jazz As Played In An Exclusive Side Street Club and Nina Simone And Friends (with guest appearance by Carmen Macrae) followed, but with the turn of the decade Simone tired of her position and moved on to international stardom. In 1961 she married former-police detective Andrew Stroud, who also became her manager. Her own songs began to take prominence and they were spitting fire and blood, declarations of black pride and determination.

In 1963, following a church bombing in Alabama which killed little girls, and shortly after black rights leader Medgar Evers was shot in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, she wrote the memorable 'Mississippi Goddam' – "Alabama's got me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi – Goddam!"

It was songs like 'Young Gifted And Black' (turned into a reggae pop classic by Bob and Marcia) and her reading of militant black poet Langston Hughes's Backlash Blues that garnered her a reputation as The High Priestess Of Soul and caused Ralph J. Gleason to comment, "She is a singer, an actress, an artist, a preacher and a religious symbol. Her very presence inspires to achievement, to art and ultimately to life itself."

When Phyl Garland interviewed Simone for her book The Sound Of Soul in 1969 she asked her how the change from nightclub to protest singer came about. She smiled and said, "Now that my people have decided to take over the world...I'm going to have to do my part."

Nowadays it's something she'd rather forget.

"I worked for the...ummm...what do you call it, Sam? Yes, the civil rights movement during the '60s."

Are you still involved with it?

"No, I am not. It got me into a lot of trouble. It hurt my career. Maybe it helped black people, but it hurt me. That's why I'm not making the money I should be right now. At least 50 pirate companies are holding out on me because of that."

That's bad, I say, because I thought you were at the height of your powers in those days.

"I do too, dear. But it hurt my career in terms of money. I was playing benefits but I wasn't getting my money then or now. But no doubt some of my best songs came out of that period. 'Four Women' was written overnight, but it took me four months before I had the nerve to play it to somebody because I thought it would be rejected. I played it for my husband on an airplane one day; I thought he wasn't going to like it because it was so direct and blatant.

"'Mississippi Goddam' I wrote in about an hour. But remember, these things were written when I was stable, I was married and I was living at home. I don't write now. I'm staying in hotels. I can't; there's no pianos here."

Doesn't that make you sad?
"Oh, honey, it saddens me terribly. It makes me so depressed. I don't know what to do. Not to have a piano in here and to be able to create in here. It saddens me more than anything.

THE SECOND time I see Nina at Ronnie Scott's she is in full command, fusing together all her strengths and talents – siding a gorgeous reading of 'Porgy' with the parched pathos of the new 'Father In My Wings', moving from the funky rumble of 'See Line Woman' to a majestic 'My Baby Just Cares For Me'.

From the crowd two guys presented her with red roses (just like a real diva!) and she made dates with them for after the show. Apart from the scathing 'Stupid Dog' ("dedicated to the recording industry of North America") most of her new songs are ballads.

"For me love songs and ballads are the most important kind of songs. Why? Because I'm not in love, and I love love, and I have a child, and to me the most important thing in the world is love and being married."

The last great Nina Simone LP to reach these shores was Baltimore in 1978, and she still plays Randy Newman's title track, begrudgingly.

"What I'm trying to do now is sing my own songs. It'll be the first time I've sung just my own songs. I want record companies to buy them."

Did you never have a lot of money?
"Yeah, I had plenty. But I got divorced and I was swindled out of it by record companies, theatres, lawyers and bad management," she claims. "I like the things money can buy, but I haven't got any. I'll tell you again – the pirate companies are keeping my money because of the civil rights movement. The only money I'm earning is what I'm working for."

If true, Nina Simone must have had some dubious management to get ripped off by 50 record companies, though it seems highly unlikely that they are holding back on payment because of her involvement with the civil rights movement.

But, then, the lady is not unknown to exaggerate or make outbursts which subsequently have to be retracted. A recent diatribe against Charly Records was one such incident (NME 28.1.84), and she once told an interviewer that she had been forced to record Baltimore, having been kidnapped by five men and put in a cellar for three days without sleep or water and released only when she had finished recording the LP.

She now lives in Paris, visits Africa as often as possible with her best friend Miriam Makeba, onetime wife of Eldridge Cleaver and originator of 'click' singing. ("You've never heard of her. What age are you anyway? Man, she's world famous.") She goes to America as little as possible – "I don't like it; that's where they ripped off my songs. I get really physically sick everytime I'm there" – and feels at home in Paris.

"There I am very, very famous. Did you know how big I was in Paris? Oh, man, it's easy for me to live in Paris, everyone knows my songs. In the street I get recognised all the time – taxi drivers, meat cutters, flower sellers. I like that. I need that."

She's released a few LPs since Baltimore; Live in Europe from 1981 is worth investigating for the epic 'Sinnerman'. But the others on the French label Carrere haven't been promoted properly, she claims, and at the moment she and Sam are hoping to ink a deal with a British label. She also says she's putting the finishing touches to an autobiography, compiled from a diary she's kept throughout her 30 years in showbusiness. She has a recurring dream that she must finish it, and the projected title is Between The Keys or Princess Noir. Her immediate plans are to get a single released, a duet with Sam on a version of Jerry Butler's 'Let It Be Me'. And, like she's been saying for the past five years, she wants to sue the ass off all the companies that have ripped her off.

BEFORE I go, I ask her if she's aware of her reputation for not being the easiest or most amicable interview in the business.

She grins. "Sure I'm difficult. I have a reputation like that because people don't know me. I'm used to it now. It's better to have a reputation for being too difficult than it is for having one for being kind of easy. Hell, if I was any easier they'd be walking all over me."

She's looking forward to a few more hours curled up under the sheets before a lady comes to give her tired bones a rub down before the concert. Sam tells me it's time to go.

Hey Nina have you ever heard of the Sex Pistols?
"Yes, but I never hear them. I hear The Police and I like them. I don't think I'd like The Sex Pistols."

I tell her one of the best things about her show at the Barbican was the way she unleashed so much wrath and force at the audience. It was the nearest they'd get to experiencing the shock of The Sex Pistols. I appreciated the wind up.

Just poked above the sheets her face cracks into a wide, sly beam. She closes her eyes and sinks away.