Nina Simone: Moody Dues

Richard Cook
New Musical Express, 14 November 1987

JAPANESE TOURISTS frantically snapping photographs of each other is a recurring scenario common to the lobbies of Europe's grandest hotels. Today is different. Stepping from the lift of Montreux's Eden au Lac, I am confronted by the majestic presence of black music diva, Nina Simone.

With 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' back in the UK charts for a third re-run, the lady is seated at a grand piano, singing gospel songs and holding court with her apres-lunch guests. A most influential and emotionally explosive personality, give La Simone an audience and she is as controversial a performer off-stage as she is under the limes.

Her moods – constantly changeable. Her behaviour – notoriously unpredictable. Her rants – legendary.

H-e-r-e's N-i -n-a!

Afronted by one of her guests openly admitting they didn't realise that La Simone had composed the anthemic 'Young, Gifted And Black', her frustrations aren't eased by her inability to place a collect call to the Mayor of New Jersey on her declaration that, "the lover that I want refuses to acknowledge I'm around!" Nervous coughs punctuate the silence.

Naturally, yours truly doesn't lighten the moment by casually enquiring about her often volatile relationship with both promoters and the record industry. Having lit the fuse, I retire to safety.

"It's a lie... a lie that record companies are frightened of me. They're not frightened of me. They're not frightened of me because they have pirated me."

She drags a cassette copy of Nina's Back from out of her bag and waves it around. "They went behind my back and stole from each other like I was a slave. They took me and sold me from one record company to another because they couldn't deal with me openly!"

The reason for such an outburst, is that Chanel No.5 paid a fist full of francs to use La Simone's recording of the Kahn/Donaldson standard 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' for the soundtrack to their current TV commercials. Meanwhile, the singer alleges she's yet to have a whiff of such royalties.

It should be noted that the sub-leasing of masters is legitimate, commonplace and financially beneficial to the artist. Furthermore, it takes time to collect and distribute the resulting income. However, the US copyright owners who lease such back-catalogue items like 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' to companies such as Charly Records argue that with so many lawyers constantly claiming to represent the interests of La Simone (she herself puts the current tally at five and adding!), they want to deal with her direct. The problem is that La Simone fails to respond to their invitation.

Her mood deepens, "Look...", she continues, "I'm still a spokesman in terms of political statements... my music continues to be subliminal explanation about what the black is about is this world. However, some writers feel that my music is almost at a point where it is going to be lost in view of the fact that I have to choose where I am going to live because of the colour of my skin."

An over-dramatic statement for there are those observers who believe that it's La Simone's often erratic stage behaviour which is the root cause.

"But it's a lie to say that record companies are frightened of Nina Simone because I am overtly political... this is 1987 and everyone of consequence is politically minded."

But in far too many instances don't such tactics amount to nothing more than astute career moves – hollow gestures!

"I don't give a shit," she retorts, "because they can't kill my music. But what they do is to sell me off... syphon off the immense power that I obviously have in my music."

With her autobiography Between The Keys currently being edited by Putnam Press and a new album released on Verve, La Simones states that she might well cut back on her live work.

Judging from recent reports, it's a most sensitive area at the very best of times. But if, as she insists, she is constantly being deprived of hard-earned royalties, won't this place pressure on her cash flow as she commutes between Africa, Switzerland and America?

"Don't be ridiculous my dharling," she says, throwing back her head and laughing. "You think I'm telling you everything. Don't be absurd. Anyway," she concludes, "it's none of your business!" Tease!