A book for Christmas? A fascinating real life story of a mega star, Nina Simone.
Nina Simone was a remarkable pianist and one of the great singers of the 20th century with a strikingly unique voice and presentation which could be powerful or tender or bitter, but always captivating.
I recently discovered that she had written an autobiography which is not surprisingly, entitled I put a spell on you.
What lay behind that impression of great inner strength?
Like many people I have always been curious about the real life, behind the scenes, experience, of world famous people.. To the world, to you and me, they may have always looked supremely confident and capable. This biography reveals her complex and troubled character.
It had always been my impression that Nina Simone grew up in poor circumstances, but that is an oversimplification.
She was the sixth of eight children. Her father had been a working man who had become a successful businessman and, at one time owned three businesses – a dry cleaning business, a barbers shop, a road hauliers business, For a few years the family had lived in a big house with a very large garden. They had their own tennis court, but at the time Nina was born the family had hit really bad times.
The Great Depression caused all three of her father’s businesses to collapse. They moved to a smaller house. The house burned down. Her father became seriously ill and had a major operation which put him out of work for several years. This was the time of great poverty for the family, the time of Nina’s early childhood.
As a result of this they had to move to a small community living in shacks in the woods. Nina’s family made their shack into a superior one by building on a bathroom. Without toilet facilities their neighbours just had to use the woods..
Musical family – talent plus incredible hard work
Both of Nina’s parents played the piano as did all her brothers and sisters. When Nina was only a toddler she was impressing everybody with her ability to play the piano. She stood out even in her talented family.
She developed an ambition to become a classical concert pianist. Added to her natural talent was a real passion for playing the piano which resulted in her practicing five hours a day in her late teenage years.
She studied classical piano in New York and Philadelphia and auditioned for one of the top classical music colleges in the US, The Curtis Institute of Music. She failed the audition and was devastated. Everyone told her, and she was personally convinced, the reason she failed was because she was black. For a time she decided to give up music altogether.
Nina Simone was very angry about racism in the US all her life and was very active in the Civil Rights Movement appearing on platforms speaking and singing alongside Martin Luther King.
Mixing marriage and stage career
She married twice, the first time for two years and the second time for 10 years. Her second marriage was to Andy Stroud who was also her manager. Towards the end of the 10 years Nina was feeling that Andy was very much more her manager than her husband and she needed rest and reassurance rather than a relentless programme of performing around the world.
Bad with audiences
Nina Simone had a reputation for not always giving her best to her audiences and sometimes being very bad tempered with them. I took our family to see Nina perform at The Dome in Brighton, I think in the year 1990. There was a support act which was a bit lacklustre and it performed for a very long time.
We were beginning to get the impression we would never see Nina Simone, but eventually she appeared on stage and performed a very short set. Then it became clear that that was it and she walked off the stage followed by her musicians. The audience shouted for more but she never returned.
Her autobiography gives some clue as to what might have been going on in her mind. Talking about the end of her marriage many years before the Dome appearance She wrote “ We went on as before, touring, arguing and making up, never getting once close to the real issues. We just pushed on blindly until every so often my nervous exhaustion would force a crisis and I’d be late on stage or give a bad performance. Then we’d rest up just long enough for me to recover before starting up again. I guess I wanted more from Andy than he was prepared to give.”
Then comes a tragic insight into her personal feelings and experience as a top entertainer. “What I needed most was something that few men I have ever known have been able to give me, a sense of peace. My whole life had been full of doubt and insecurity, and I was never confident about what I was doing. I’d lie awake nights worrying about complicated musical arrangements, whether or not we’d make the plane the next morning, if I was still attractive to men, anything and everything. All I really needed was someone to pull on my hand and say, ‘ You’re ok Nina. Leave yourself alone.’ Andy wasn’t the sort of man to do that, never had been.”
She went on to have many affairs around the world. Some of them were happy others were deeply frustrating or disappointing. She had an affair with a hotel porter in Barbados and a long affair with the prime minister of Barbados.
She spent her final years living in France..
Nina Simone performed in Britain on many occasions, especially at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, also the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican Centre and venues in Liverpool, Glasgow and Brighton. Her last performance was in Poland.
For the years 2002 and 2003 she was booked to do several gigs in England, but she was dying of breast cancer and the gigs were cancelled.
Three days before her death the Curtis Institute of Music awarded her a doctorate in music all those years after they had rejected her. She died in the south of France on 21 April 2003 at the age of seventy.
I put a spell on you – the autobiography of Nina Simone. Published by Da Capo Press in the US. Available in the UK.