The Captain Beefheart Radar Station –
Nina Simone : Empress of American Music
by John Ellis
There is no one like Nina Simone in American musical history – a statement that sounds foolishly impulsive without explanation. She is a classically trained child-prodigy pianist from a dirt-floor South Carolina rural background; a great jazz vocalist with a voice of, as she once put it, “three notes”; a prominent American civil-rights heroine when the success of that struggle was in no surety (her stance did serious damage to her career); an imperious diva with the operatic stage presence of Maria Callas and the dignified bearing of Marian Anderson (the great opera singer, who broke the color barrier at the Met); a woman of magnificent gifts reduced more than once to near homelessness; the author of a brilliant and self-penetrating autobiography who can make outlandish statements that fall around your ears like the cruelest utterances of an arrogant aristocrat. When a crowd calls out for “Porgy!”, her one and only chart hit recording of 45 years ago, she can cut it off with a “I don’t like cripples”. When the smug host of a television talk show asks her why she says she now only plays for ‘her people’, she can reply: “Because they need me!”. And, however off-putting the remark, her gifts are such that they do; we do, too.
At the age of two in a huge Southern family, Eunice (Wayman, her given name) pulled herself up onto the piano stool and began to play by ear the gospel songs she had heard so often. Her mother, an evangelist minister, sent her out to perform at the beginning of her tent revivals, generating donations before the service had even begun – after all, the crowd was witnessing a miracle of God. After years of free piano lessons from the local white piano teacher, Eunice set out in the mid-1950s for the Juilliard School (American equivalent of the Sorbonne) to become the first black female concert pianist (at that time, a black classical pianist would have been virtually unique). Running out of money after the first year, she took a job in a New Jersey smoke-filled dive, only to discover on opening night that she was expected to sing – or be fired. Needing a more appropriate name – or an alias to protect her classical standing – she sang as Nina Simone and was so popular, there was a bootleg album out of these early performances before she ever set foot in a studio. She recorded “(I Loves You) Porgy”, from Gershwin’s opera, as a Brunswick single shortly after and it went straight to number one on the charts. It was the only ‘hit’ she ever had in America, but of course, that puts her one up on Billie Holiday’s entire career.
Nina has made well over thirty albums over the years, and there is a progression in them of gaining artistic control over their content in roughly the same arc that rock music traveled over the 1960s. The first LP, also for Brunswick, was self-titled (with the coy subtitle “Jazz As Heard in an Exclusive Side Street Club”). It was more or less her New Jersey ‘dive’ act, and lead to a long term Colpix contract. For Colpix she first made The Amazing Nina Simone, including persuasive blues, folk, and jazz but always underpinned by the intelligence and clarity of classical technique, the most graceful of European classical traditions wed to the rawest power of African and American blues and folk music; exquisite musical miscegenation. The voice is almost raw, and forcefully emphatic with a masculine power when called for, but the finesse of the piano providing the foundation is coming out of the same mind at the same time, the musical air and earth one, from one creator, one imagination. It’s like hearing Holiday if she could have blown the saxophone beneath her own vocals. Relative to her later work, there is little social or political content on the Colpix material, except the subtext of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”, for example, an early subtle expression of the then-new counter-cultural ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement. Colpix recorded Nina live, notably at Carnegie Hall, and her rapport with the audience – like Holiday, she has immense innate talent as an actress – rises off the recorded vibrations, you feel it around you. Like all great actresses, she makes love to an audience en mass, on her terms. If that doesn’t please you, get out.
Before some of these early concerts, a little-known folkie comic songster used to open for her. He borrowed one of her songs for his first album, a song she had gathered from the folk music of New Orleans, that the prostitutes there sang (Bob Dylan / “The House of the Rising Sun”). It was the first of several songs Nina would put down that was picked up by somebody else (“Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”). She wrote the song “Young, Gifted and Black”, a rare case of someone topping her version – Nina’s is earthbound next to the great Aretha Franklin version.
No number one hit sprang off the Colpix material like Porgy, and live recordings were probably made because they were cheaper. When she moved on to Phillips, the arrangements became grander; the statements, both musical and lyrical, grew bolder, and when Nina controlled a song as arranger, rose to a high level of musical art. Stronger sidemen were hired; one of them warned her as they were about to record that he was going to blow something that might overshadow her – “Oh, go on and do it – I’ll just top ya!” she promised, and delivered.
Listen to a song she claims to hate now, her virile “I Put a Spell on You” (nee Screaming Jay Hawkins), the way she and the saxophone honk, hiss and spit at each other like mating swans. Even on the silly European hit single “The Monster” (which turns out to be A Lie), she brings a force and also the salvaging distance that served Holiday so well when she was singing the Tin Pan Alley dross they used to hand her (“These and That and Those”, for example, which Holiday wryly twists into an erotic joke).
For every Phillips-era “Monster”, there is something like “Images” (from Let It All Out). This stunning live cut is sung acapella in the voice of a young black girl seeing her reflection in the restaurant sink of dirty dishes she is endlessly washing; she thinks she is ugly because the brown water mirrors only that back to her. Left in the sound mix is the nervous coughing of the audience connecting to that pain. Or, for me, the pinnacle of the Phillips Nina, her version of “Strange Fruit”, the anthem Billie Holiday originated protesting lynchings, at a time when they were still common. Holiday’s recording is brave, ground-breaking, slightly nervous, stunning but matter-of-fact, a protest banner; it was so identified with her (and controversial) no one else would touch it. Nina, over twenty years later and with race riots and assassinations in the air, took the banner up. She sings it as if she were standing in front of the rotting lynched body, the odors and gore hanging in the air around her, she pulls you there and points at it and you – a searing accusation.
When six young black girls were killed in a 1963 church bombing (the perpetrators were arrested – thirty-seven years later), Nina recorded her violent disgust in “Mississippi Goddam”, which Phillips released as a single. The box of twenty-five promotional singles sent South through the distribution center in Atlanta was returned to Nina; every record had been carefully broken in half. On the full-blooded live LP In Concert, without changing a syllable, she transforms the class resentment of the great Brecht/Weill “Pirate Jenny” into a chilling expression of repressed black rage and frustration, dangerous but forging a connection through the bridge of her art. There has never been a studio recording of the performance, the power of the live version being so much stronger than any ‘canned’ version could be.
As an artist, the late 60s/ early 70s RCA period, running parallel with the Beatles and The Who and other popular artists’ greatest work, was Nina’s period of greatest control. And Piano, with Nina singing virtually every voice and playing every instrument including harpsichord, is the finest of these albums. “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon”, recorded as the moon landings were news, is literally sung as if she were a lunatic with alchemical results, one of several character voices she uses on the LP. She becomes an old woman singing ruefully on her front porch on another cut; and on “Who Am I?” (from Leonard Bernstein’s rarely performed score for Peter Pan), she acts the part of a species-shifting character through her voice as he/she/it contemplates reincarnation. Her Peter Pan is anthromophically perverse. The wonderful RCA LP Silk and Soul, a sister album to And Piano, includes her extraordinary transformation of The Association’s pleasant hit “Cherish”, fired with a fiercely sung obsession, and a similar treatment of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love”; as well as the Bach-inflected compositions “Consummation” and “The Turning Point”.
The RCA era includes a live album recorded the night after Martin Luther King was murdered. Nina’s violent comments on the tape were edited at the time (recently issued in their complete form on both the recent RCA compilation Saga of the Good Life and Hard Times and the double RCA CD Sugar in My Bowl). The mournful tribute song “Why (Is the King of Love Dead?)”, a moving, nearly-improvised hymn to his memory, was issued in Europe as a single, but was little played in the US where anything on the subject by a black artist was feared to be inflammatory (and had the cut been issued as it was on the recent CDs, could well have been). It was a long time ago, but I remember in the late 60s the sense that the United States was out of control and that a revolution was possible – in my conservative hometown in Kentucky, the ROTC building was burned to the ground. Power was shifting in some dangerous way and no one wanted to be rolled under by it. If you listen to Nina’s version of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” you can actually feel the unmooring force of a power shift, a rumble like a fledgling earthquake under the voice. The throb of that recording is what living then felt like. Things, major things, were up for grabs; events like the 1999 riot in Seattle were commonplace, and everywhere.
When Nixon grabbed the political end of the stick, on a campaign of ‘Law and Order’, widely understood to mean keeping down those who were already down, Nina was performing at benefits for Angela Davis, the Communist activist, and other left-wing figures, enemies of the powers that were. She was removed in the way the US government often removed troublesome people, hounded out of the country by the IRS for taxes owed to a government she did not accept as legitimate (given the hugely disproportionate number of young Black men sent to die in Vietnam and other issues, this was a common dispute at the time). And except for her rare concerts – nowadays, like royal visitations with appropriate prolonged celebrations – she has never come back for long. As in the elegiac Judy Collins song “My Father” (which Nina recorded), she lives in Paris now. At one mid-90s gig in New York, the New York Times reviewer could not write a proper review because the celebration of Nina’s presence went on for nearly an hour; the reviewer left before the actual concert began.
I was lucky enough to see her on one of her earlier visits, on less regal terms. At a low point, she accepted a week at the small Blue Note club in Greenwich Village, playing two sets on Friday and Saturday. I went to see the last show. As we were standing outside, people were coming out from the show before. “Don’t go in. She’s drunk, she stopped playing half-way through the show and when to the rest room. Then she sat on the stairs and watched us for a half-hour.” I thought, sounds like an event, and figured she needed my money, so I went.
When she came out, it was a shocking sight: Nina Simone is a physically powerful, vibrant human being, but her skin color was ashen, like (my unfortunate mind thought) the Spielberg film’s E.T. when he was dying in the bathtub. She shot a hostile glance at us – the club is small, no distance between the performer and her audience. She launched into her first song, but it was obvious she was in pain and you wondered if that would be it. She began to talk, as if she needed a friend and we’d have to do; it seems that she needed a man, badly. You see, she had been asked to play a festival in Boston and Bob Marley was to be on the same bill. Well, she let someone talk her out of doing it (an older man, she said, and “we Africans always listen to older people”), and what a terrible decision that had been because “he was such a fine young thing and I really needed sex at that time”. She began to play/sing “No Woman No Cry”, turning the verses into the story of how she let Bob Marley slip through her needful hands and inducing us to sing the refrain to her, to comfort her misery. Near the end, she stopped and looked at us with fierce determination: “I’m going to be the first one to get to that Michael Jackson, too!”. The bond was formed, and the concert lifted off into the stratosphere, hell and heaven forged in one evening. Of course, Marian Anderson would have been horrified.
At another New York concert, a one-night appearance at Irving Plaza in New York, Nina entered from the back of the space to a polyrhythmic beat, holding mango-colored rose blossoms in her large hands, crushing them and disdainfully tossing them ahead into her path, as if to say: “You didn’t think to do this for me, I had to do it for myself.” In Paris, she can fill a theater for months; on both these dates in the US, the IRS allowed her to perform then seized the box office take.
During the Irving Plaza set, she sang her version of “My Way”, adapting the lyrics into searing autobiographical confessions, which for legal reasons could never be recorded. With “Alone Again, Naturally”, another of these highly personal transformations, she confessed her deeply felt regrets about her unforgiving battles with her late father; it was a huge improvement on the original.
Nina’s albums after the RCA contract ended in the mid-70s are variable to a great degree. The French release Fodder on My Wings, recorded around the time of the above concerts is extraordinary, sometimes harrowing, the voice woolen but expressively rich; the US recorded LP Baltimore is very good, with a profound version of “Everything is Change” that should retire the song from any other singer’s repertoire and a worse-for-wear reggae take on Randy Newman’s title song. The album on the whole is safer than Fodder; the later mid-80s Elektra LP A Single Woman is similar, with a definitive “Love in Vain” (the Kern, not the Johnson); but the voice is so dark, so thick with experience that only certain colors will bleed through it now. The only bad album she ever recorded is the terrible Nina’s Back, a victim of the disco era (issued ten years too late). Like many disco-era LPs, the orchestral (or ersatz synthesized orchestral) sound dominates the singer, whose voice is heavily filtered through echoing layers of distortion. Nina fell into this trap on Nina’s Back, and there is no redemption on it. The cover is a nude shot of, naturally, her back.
Nina made a rare guest appearance on Pete Townsend’s theatrical Iron Man, singing the role of a space dragon as large as Australia who lands on earth and demands a Super-Sized portion of fresh young human beings (“Fast Food”), an appetite developed while watching human behavior from space. She pulls this unlikely song off, somehow, and it is very difficult to imagine virtually anyone else who could (we await the Elvis Costello version). She aborted an earlier co-starring project, when RCA tried to record a complete jazz Porgy and Bess with Nina and Ray Charles. Charles is known to be a similarly prickly temperament (after his famous 1962 LP with Betty Carter was recorded, they never spoke again), and one studio was perhaps too small for both – Cleo Laine was brought in on short notice to replace Nina. However, several of the opera’s songs were recorded by Nina over the years and it’s possible to string together a striking “Porgy” Simone oratoria from the several sources. Of particular note is her “My Man’s Gone Now” on the first RCA LP Nina Simone Sings the Blues, sung in a voice of bewildered pain, with a very-last-note piano shift into a major chord, musically suggesting that perhaps his absence might not be such a bad thing.
In the late 1950s Eunice Wayman took a job in a Philadelphia dive to make enough money to get back to Juilliard for her second year. She never got back; as a concert pianist, it is unlikely she would have had the impact she has as Nina Simone – the classical music world is extremely conservative, to this day, hidebound with centuries of practices that are often simply prejudices. She is no doubt maddening to deal with, dangerous, imperious. I sent her a rare record once, a recording of Bach (her favorite composer) arias by Marian Anderson (her model). I did not know her. She was so appreciative, several months later I got a phone call:
“John – the Liberian government has given me ten thousand acres and I’m gathering up my people – do you want to come?”
It is difficult not to love a monarch of such benevolence.
– John Ellis
– Radar Station, August 2000