A real survivor
(unlike the family of foxes draped over her shoulders) 

Jenny Diski
The Observer, 21 December 1997

A small comforting glow lit up the shadows at the edge of the back-cloth. Comforting because it suggested that Madame Her Excellency Doctor Nina Simone was not honoured and iconed beyond the reasonable need for a last puff before she came out to her alarmingly expectant audience. Though it may, of course, have been just another bit of show business. Regal but ultimately vulnerable is how we best love our idols. 

When she appeared and stood centre stage at London's Barbican, waiting for the ovation to die down, the honorary music and arts doctorate, and ambassadorship of the Ivory Coast, weighed less heavily on her stooped shoulders than the full-length silver fox coat, so beautiful and worn so righteously that the right-on audience quite forgot it disapproved of fur. "Like my coat?" she rasped, with a dangerous look in her eyes, when the cheering finally died down. "Yes!" roared the thousand who would probably throw paint at anyone foolish enough to wander down their street in one. 

The coat was shrugged off into the care of a beautiful young man in a suit that was probably made by the Archangel Gabriel, who, with his access to all those star, must also have designed Simone's divinely spangled gown. The beautiful young man was not the only one looking out for her. A huddle of men hovered at the back of the stage in a slightly worrying just-in-case sort of way. Simone's stage presence was massive and she is statuesque, but there was a hesitancy in her movement, and at times she seemed physically frozen. The she would suddenly skitter across the front of stage, fiercely examining her audience. The band too watched out for her. Guitarists Al Shackman and Tony Jones, and percussionists Paul Robinson end Leo Poldo-Flemming never took their eyes off her for a second, or let their attention slip, so that her cracked and missed notes, both vocal and piano,  were instantly finessed almost away. Devotion was what was going on, both on and off stage. 

She sang almost all the songs that were most wanted. "I Loves You Porgy", a raunchy "Sugar in my Bowl", a rather lost, throwaway version of "Mississippi Goddam", and a sill chilling recitation of Brecht and Weill's "Pirate Jenny". The drama queen is still with us. Apart from granting a request for the maudlin "The Other Woman" (she who ends up all alone: though these days it was OK, she ad-libbed a little mystifyingly, because all those polygamous Arabs were taking care of the surplus), she kept to upbeat, angry, ballsy numbers. She wasn't playing up to the tragic woman myth, but offering something like a resolution: an unbeaten survivor of civil rights and personal independence battles. But she did, of course, grow up in the segregated South, mismarry, take beatings, get stiffed by management, overdose. Back home, listening to a collection of her records from the mid-Sixties, I recalled the other side of Simone - the wayward would-be sorceress of "I Put a Spell on You", the distracted madwoman in the attic who whimpers the almost unbearable "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and the nearly, but not quite, placatory apologist of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". She has, in her time, been distraught and lost, but she sang none of those songs last Sunday. 

If she wasn't offering a festival of masochism on the lines of Judy Garland to her audience, there was no doubt she wanted to please us. There was non, bad-tempered stalking the stage or refusing to open her mouth. She was there to give, and did not disdain the Chanel No.5-revived "My Baby Just Cares for Me", which renewed her popular success in the Eighties after years of neglect. If the great singers and the great songs (like Dinah Washington and "Mad About the Boy") have to depend on the power of commercials to get to another generation, well so be it. Worse compromises have been made with poorer results. This is, after all, showbiz, and sentiment. So she sang "My Way" her way, and had us on our feet droning "We Shall Overcome" with the excruciating second chorus "Everything will be all right ... some day ...". It must have been decades since anyone quite believed that, but we did it anyway. 

A closed-fist black power salute had the audience whooping, although only some of them had been around in the Seventies. But Pirate Jenny's triumphal "That'll learn ya!" as she has her thoughtless masters killed, conveyed real menace, and served as a reminder that most of us had been only distant witnesses. Her gospel and blues still carried the lesson in her voice of how oppression lodges in the soul. Madame Her Excellency Doctor Nina Simone carried her head even higher and prouder as the evening wore on, soaking up the adulation, bestowing slow smiles and handling over-devoted hecklers with disdainful affection. "What did you say, baby? No, not you. What did the rough one say?" It must be like plugging directly into a power station to feel all that love and admiration for a solid hour. No wonder they find it hard to retire.