So Many Battles, So Much Beauty: Nina Simone
An ultra-talented pianist, political activist and creator of a unique musical style, Simone had a difficult and little-known personal life.
The name Nina Simone provokes emotions in anybody who has heard any of her numerous hits. It reminds us of that great woman with a tremulous voice and untamed music that revolutionized the world of soul, jazz and folk, and who fought for Afro-American rights and against the mental torment that plagued her all her life. Her story, like those of the world’s great talents, is part of the social history of the arts and of our entire modern mythology.
Nina Simone was born in February 1933 in a small rural town called Tyron, North Carolina. Her parents were descendants of slaves and pillars of the town’s small black community and they baptized her Eunice Kathleen Waymon. Simone’s earliest memories were of her mother, a Methodist preacher, singing hymns, and both her house and the church were so full of music that nobody noticed little Eunice climbing onto the piano stool until, aged three, she played “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” from beginning to end.
From then on her parents encouraged her music studies and she was soon accompanied by the church choir on Sundays. At the age of five she had a piano teacher. “My white momma”, Eunice called her; the white woman that employed her mother to clean her house. She infused Eunice with a love of Bach and her plans to convert her into a famous classical pianist. At the age of 11, during a recital in the local library, Eunice saw her parents being moved from their front row seats to make room for a white couple. She refused to begin playing until her parents were returned to their seats, which only took place after some laughter, and the next day, Simone recalled, “the skin grew back a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black.”
Her community soon pooled money to pay for Eunice to study in the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her destiny seemed so assured that her parents moved to that city before she took her entrance exam. The fact that she was rejected, probably on the grounds of racism and gender, was a severe blow to the family but also a point of no return. In 1954, for economic necessity, Eunice auditioned to play at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City. The owner demanded that she also sing – against her mother’s opinion – and there she became Nina Simone, the impetuous and bewitching woman that we all know.
Her pseudonym was in homage to the French actress Simone Signoret. Nina like ‘the little one’ and Simone for one of her great figures. And thus, toward the end of the 1950s, she began to change the course of music. She procured a record deal and recorded her first record, Little Girl Blue (1958), which would include the eponymous hit that marked the beginning of a career that would last almost 50 years.
In 1961, living in New York and singing in the city’s best venues, she married Andrew Stroud, a detective from Harlem, who ended up giving up his job and becoming her manager, but who also beat her up systematically. During that time her records and songs were profoundly political and reactionary, strongly denouncing racism in the US. As the decade wore on, Nina began to favor turbans and colorful African dresses and became ‘the high priestess of soul,’ and although the title was no more than a marketing ploy by the record label, she carried it with prestige.
Nina left the country in 1971 and traveled to Liberia with her two-year-old daughter Lisa and divorced Stroud, eventually moving to France, alone. The rest of her life, some 25 years, is a story of misery. The low point was her being found wandering along a hotel corridor naked and clutching a knife. She burned down her house in France and once fired a gun at an adolescent for making too much noise. But her low points were as dramatic as her high points.
Her mental imbalances only became public knowledge after her death in 2003. Many subsequent biographies chose to take advantage of them and over-dramatize her life, even speculating about her depressions and making doubtful diagnoses of them, such as bi-polar disorder.
What Nina has left us is so vast and is made up of that glorious insolence that enriched music forever: We must remember how she would slap the palm of her right hand against her thigh and the sound of her flesh, or the playful noise that she introduced into soul songs, or her powerful capacity to enrage sad ballads and make them spiritual. Simone is all of that and everything else; what we feel when we listen to her and what made even the thickest skins tremble during her musical career. Thank you, Simone.
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