I first heard Nina Simone back in the summer of 1979, while living in Iron Station, NC – a small crossroads of a place with no stoplights and only two stop signs. One afternoon while relaxing and listening to the radio; I came across a version of My May, made famous by Frank Sinatra; but this was not Frank – it was a voice of a songstress which I later learned, was Nina Simone. Below is the instrumental arrangement of My Way that I heard that day and as you will see, it is like no other you have ever heard… listen to the tempo doubled on bongos.
Nina Simone - My Way
Nina, was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina (not more than 60 miles from Iron Station) as the sixth of seven children in a poor family. The child prodigy played piano at the age of four. With the help of her music teacher, who set up the "Eunice Waymon Fund", she could continue her general and musical education. She studied at the Julliard School of Music in New York. To help support her family financially, she started working as an accompanist. In the summer of 1954 she took a job in an Irish bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The bar owner told her she had to sing as well. Without having time to realize what was happening, Eunice Waymon, who was trained to become a classical pianist, stepped into show business. She changed her name into Nina ("little one") Simone ("from the French actress Simone Signoret").
In the late 50's Nina Simone recorded her first tracks for the Bethlehem label. These are still remarkable displays of her talents as a pianist, singer, arranger and composer. Songs as Plain Gold Ring, Don't Smoke In Bed and Little Girl Blue soon became standards in her repertoire.
One song, I Loves You, Porgy, from the opera "Porgy and Bess", became a hit and the nightclub singer became a star, performing at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival. Even from the beginning of her career on, her repertoire included jazz standards, gospel and spirituals, classical music, folk songs of diverse origin, blues, pop, songs from musicals and opera, African chants as well as her own compositions.
Combining Bachian counterpoint, the improvisational approach of jazz and the modulations of the blues, her talent could no longer be ignored. Other characteristics of the Simone art are: her original timing, the way she uses silence as a musical element and her often understated live act, sitting at the piano and advancing the mood and climate of her songs by a few chords.
Sometimes her voice changes from dark and raw to soft and sweet. She pauses, shouts, repeats, whispers and moans. Sometimes piano, voice and gestures seem to be separate elements, then, at once, they meet. Add to this all the way she puts her spell on an audience, and you have some of the elements that make Nina Simone into a unique artist.
Nina was called "High Priestess of Soul" and was respected by fans and critics as a mysterious, almost religious figure; she was often misunderstood as well. When she wrote Four Women in 1966, a bitter lament of four black women whose circumstances and outlook are related to subtle gradations in skin color, the song was banned on Philadelphia and New York radio stations because "it was insulting to black people…"
The High Priestess would walk different paths to find the adequate music to spread her message. Her first RCA album, "Nina Simone Sings The Blues", includes her own I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl, Do I Move You, a haunting version of My Man's Gone Now (again from "Porgy & Bess") and the protest song Backlash Blues, based on a poem written for her by Langston Hughes.
Nina Simone - Backlash Blues
Her repertoire includes more Civil Rights songs: Why? The King of Love is Dead, capturing the tragedy of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Brown Baby, Images (based on a Waring Cuney poem), Go Limp, Old Jim Crow, … One song, To be Young, Gifted and Black, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's play with the same title, became the black national anthem in the USA.
She surprised even her most devoted fans with an album on which she sings and plays alone. "Nina Simone And Piano!” an introspective collection of songs about reincarnation, death, loneliness and love, is still a highlight in her recording career.
Her gift to give new and deeper dimensions to songs resulted in remarkable versions of Ain't Got No / I Got Life (from the musical "Hair"), Leonard Colhen's Suzanne, Bee Gees songs as To Love Somebody, the classic My Way done in a tempo doubled on bongos, Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues and four other Bob Dylan songs. This gift culminated on her record "Emergency Ward": she set up an atmosphere that left no illusions and no escape, performing two long versions of George Harrison songs: My Sweet Lord (to which she added a David Nelson poem, Today is a Killer) and Isn't it a Pity.
Together with her regular accompanists Lepoldo Fleming (percussion), Tony Jones (bass), Paul Robinson (drums), Xavier Collados (keyboards) and her musical director Al Schackman (guitar), she still excites audiences all over the world. At the Barbican Theatre in London in 1997 she sang Every Time I Feel The Spirit as a tribute to one of America's first and foremost leaders in the cause of Civil Rights, peace and brotherhood, singer and actor Paul Robeson. More spirituals and "blood songs" would follow: Reached Down And Got My Soul, The Blood Done Change My Name and When I See The Blood.
Nina was the highlight of the Nice Jazz Festival in France in 1997, the Thessalonica Jazz Festival in Greece in 1998. At the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin, Ireland in 1999 her daughter, Lisa Celeste, performing as "Simone", sang a few duets with her mother. Simone has toured the world, sung with Latin superstar Rafael, participated in two Disney theatre workshops, playing the title role in Aida and Nala in The Lion King. She is currently working on her upcoming debut album, "Simone Superstar".
On July 24, 1998 Nina Simone was a special guest at Nelson Mandela's 80th Birthday Party. On October 7, 1999 she received a Lifetime Achievement in Music Award in Dublin.
In 2000 she received Honorary Citizenship to Atlanta, the Diamond Award for Excellence in Music from the Association of African American Music in Philadelphia and the Honorable Musketeer Award from the Compagnie des Mousquetaires d'Armagnac in France (August 7).
Nina Simone passed away after a long illness at her home in her villa in Carry-le-Rouet (South of France) on April 21, 2003. As she had wished, her ashes were spread in different African countries.
The Diva, who was, as well, an Honorary Doctor in Music and Humanities, has an unrivalled legendary status as one of the very last Griots (a storyteller in western Africa who perpetuates the oral tradition and history of a village). She is and will forever be the ultimate songstress and storyteller of our times.
Nina Simone - I put a spell on you
Au revoir ma princesse d'âme