I just discovered that BBC Radio 2 is playing a two-part documentary about the life of Nina Simone. Unfortunately I missed the first part because I didn’t know about it. The documentary is narrated by Nina Simone’s daughter Simone (born Lisa Celeste Stroud), whose father, a former police officer, was Nina Simone’s manager for a time. According to the BBC Radio 2 site:
Nina’s daughter Simone explores the life and career of her mother – the protest singer, jazz chanteuse, blues artist and live performer – sharing her personal thoughts and providing a glimpse of the real woman behind the distinctive voice.
In part one, we hear about Nina’s musical beginnings as Eunice Waymon, a 5-year old child protégé, learning classical piano with the help of people in her home town. She won a place at New York’s famous Juilliard School but was turned down by the elite Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. This was an incredible blow to the young Eunice Waymon, who turned to teaching piano and playing in bars to make ends meet. At this point she took the stage name Nina Simone.
She moved to New York City and signed her first record deal [not reading the small print which would cost her dearly later in her career]. New York was the place to be and Nina became closely associated with the civil rights movement, connected with both the radical black playwright Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X. She wrote her first protest song, Mississippi Goddamn, in 1963 – an enraged reaction to the deaths of four children in the bombing of a Sunday school in Alabama.
She also met and married Andy Stroud, who became her manager [and Simone’s father]. Throughout the 60s her output was prolific and she toured constantly in the US and Europe, always highlighting the civil rights message. When her marriage ended in the 70s, she left the US and became a global nomad, moving between Liberia, Switzerland, the Caribbean, the Netherlands, and finally France.
I was able to listen to the second part of the series, which concentrates on her later life, and her live performances. The second part is described as follows:
In part two, Simone explores her mother’s musical style and what she was like as a live performer. She began her performing career working as a singer-pianist in Atlantic City, taking her stage name from the French actress Simone Signoret. A commanding, if sometimes difficult, live performer, Nina often displayed an irrational temper but her shows were always an experience. Friends explain that this was due to her being bipolar, a condition she refused to admit to during her lifetime.
A fluke UK hit of My Baby Just Cares for Me, a resurrected 50s master, pushed the singer into the commercial spotlight when it reached number 5 in the 1987 UK charts, thanks to its use in a Chanel No 5 commercial. She also gave a series of mesmerising performances at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club during this decade. She recorded the classic album Baltimore and her last album, A Single Woman, was released in 1993. We hear from A&R man Michael Alago about how he signed Nina and got her to record again.
Her musical style can only be described as fearless: she refused to be categorised and often sang soul, jazz, blues, gospel, and Broadway tunes over the course of an album or concert. An uncompromising personality, Nina Simone was one of popular music’s great divas.
During the documentary, Nina Simone’s friends and family are interviewed. So are her drummer for 18 years, Paul Robinson, and music producer turned photographer Michael Alago. But the majority of the documentary is occupied by Simone’s reflections on her mother’s life. Sometimes she shares anecdotes while recounting her mother’s career from the 198os to the time of her death.
Here are some of the highlights:
Mommy’s regal bearing and unique stage presence earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul”. Her live performances were regarded not as mere concerts but as an experience. She compared it to mass hypnosis. On stage she moved from gospel to blues, jazz and folk and classical to numbers infused with all types of different stylings. She incorporated monologues and dialogues with the audience and often used silence as a musical element.
She’d be under incredible pressure form a young age, being the musical genius and having the onus of a whole town depending on her success. It is understandable that she developed certain mental problems call it manic depression, call it bipolar disorder, whatever you choose to call it, she suffered.
She had quite a painful life. She lost many of her closest friends and family. She had a number of broken relationships, and she was angry with a lack of equal rights progress in America. But on a more personal level Mommy didn’t love herself and was always looking for peace outside of herself and not within. Amazingly, she was able to channel this, all of this, into her music.
She always paid great attention to the musical expression of emotions. Within one album or concert, Mommy could move from extreme happiness to tragic melancholy. You realized that on stage Mommy was truly free. She was able to express herself without being edited or judged and it was there that you actually saw the real Nina. Her gift to give new and deeper dimensions to songs resulted in remarkable versions.
Her on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, but in later years Mommy particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences by recounting humorous anecdotes related her to career in music and soliciting requests.
At this point, we get to hear a recording a live performance by Nina Simone, where she chats with a very enthusiastic audience:
Love songs are never ending. Sometimes I listen to the radio and I say “They’re still at it!” (Audience laughs) No matter what the language, they’re still at it. They want it and when they get it they run from it. (Audience laughs) Then they say we want a natural woman. Then they get one. Scares them half to death (Audience laughs and bursts into applause)
Simone continues to tell her mother’s story of the reemergence of her mother’s career in the early 198os thanks to a perfume ad and in the early 1990s thanks to an action film. Simone explains:
30 years after Mommy had originally recorded “My Baby Just Cares For Me” for her very first album, the song was re-released after it was used in a European advertising campaign for Chanel #5 perfume. It became a Top Ten Hit in the UK, bringing Mommy to a new generation of listeners and her career soared. And “My Baby…” became one of the most listened to songs of the 20th Century.
Mommy returned to Europe and as the 90s dawned, she enjoyed a revival of interest in her music that’s to the publication of her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You” and the release of the hit movie “Point of No Return” starring Bridget Fonda who played a character fascinated with the music of Nina Simone.
Towards the end of the documentary, we learn about Simone’s own career and her mother’s declining health:
Towards to end of the 90s, my own theatrical career was beginning to blossom. I was playing the role of Mimi Marquez in the musical Rent, on the first national tour of the United States. I remember we were in Chicago at the time, and I got a call from Mommy. “Hi darling, I’m here. Just flew in from Poland and I want to see your show. So typical. She came the next night and she came the night thereafter and enjoyed the show immensely as she sat right next to my husband who regaled me with her reactions to every scene.
There’s a point for every parent and child when suddenly the caring roles are reversed. This happened for my mother and I in January 1998 when I received a call that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had had to undergo and emergency mastectomy. I knew exactly where her mind was and that I had to get to her quick fast. Mommy had previously lost her father and her elder sister my aunt Lucille to the disease and it was something she hadn’t gotten over. When I got to her, she was almost catatonic with shock. But I pulled her out of it and I let her know how much I loved her and how much I needed her to stay with me. I told her not to let this thing beat her and that if she wanted to live, and not for herself, then perhaps for me. Then she looked at me and said “Baby, I’ll do it for you.” And sure enough a year later, I fulfilled my dream of sharing the stage with her at the Dublin Music Festival in Ireland, July 24th 1999.
My favourite parts of the documentary are the interviews with Michael Alago, who, at the time when he met and worked with Nina Simone, was the A&R representative for Elektra Records, during which time he also signed Metallica. Alago’s anecdotes about Nina are often outrageously funny. Here are a few:
I first met Nina in 1989. I knew she was coming to do a gig in New York. I had been in touch with her brother Sam Waymon. I told him I did A&R for Elektra and I wanted to meet her. So I decide that I’m going to go to sound check. She’s already at the piano. And the hall is half-lit and she sees me in the back of the room and she says “Hey, man! This ain’t a freak show. Who are you? What do you want?” I said “Hi, I’m Michael Alago. I work for Elektra Records.” “Ah! You’re the man.” And she starts laughing and she says “You have any money for me?” And I said “No, I came to say hello.” And I went up on the stage and I kissed her hand and she just kept staring at me curiously and I just kind of went off just telling her how much I loved her all these years. And, you know, of course she loved that so immediately she said “Would you like some tea?”. And I said “I’d love some tea.” Like did I know that her favourite tea was a Black Tea with honey, lemon, and tonnes of cayenne pepper. So I take a huge sip of this tea and I’m almost dead. I can’t speak for a moment. My eyes are watering and she’s laughing and when I got my bearings again, I was laughing. I think it was three years later in 1992 when I actually signed her. We made a beautiful recording in Los Angeles with a 50 piece orchestra. She was a big fan of Frank Sinatra. One of the records she loved most was called A Man Alone. She reinterpreted it as A Single Woman. Little did I know that that would be the last full-length record that she would make.
There was a story that one day there was a fire at her place. So immediately I dialled and I said “What happened?” They said “Oh, she doesn’t want to talk to you. She says the fire was your fault.” I’m sitting here in New York City and the fire is my fault. Explain. She says “You sent her too many faxes that day. She’s not a White Man, she’s an artist, and why are you sending her all this paper work?” I said I think you should remind her that I was sending her all that paper work ‘cause it was part of the advance that I needed to send her. And he said “Oh, when I tell her that, she’ll be happy.” And I said “I know that why I tell you. Now tell me the real story.” He said “Well, she was walking up to the second floor and underneath those stairs was a linen closet and unfortunately she dropped a cigarette, didn’t pay attention, and there was a fire.”
Alago also makes a great observation about Nina Simone’s covers of other artists. I know that I personally often prefer the Nina Simone version of a song than the original. Alago states:
When she sung Bob Dylan, Kurt Weil, George Harrison, it made you feel like she wrote those songs. She sang with such heart and soul that it could tear your heart out, it could make you smile and that was the beauty of her.
She would look sometimes and she’d give you this look and you’re not sure what it was. So if you were unsure of yourself, you might take that look as being a look of hatred, whereas really she was just trying to find out what’s going on. Nina never told anybody what to play, or how to play, she didn’t even tell to what key you were going to play in, she would just start going and the guys, if they didn’t know it, had to find it pretty quickly and then get on with it. You never really knew where we were going, which, you know, was sort of spiritual jazz. That was the beginning of creating a chemistry between Nina and myself. And it was working really well. But we went backstage and I said “Nina, I got to talk to you about money.” And she had a glass of champagne in her hand, and she got angry and she threw this glass of champagne. But I’m still staring at her and I’m only a couple of feet away. And it hit the wall right next to me and I knew that I got my money because otherwise she’d have punched me or the glass would have hit me. It just hit the wall. She was just showing her anger that I’d broached the subject. And I went away feeling quite confident that at the end of the week I was going to get it, and I did, I got the extra money, which was great.
At list of songs available on Youtube that were played during the documentary and that I particularly like:
Baltimore (Written by Randy Newman)
Pirate Jenny (Written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil)
Interview (1999) with BBC News available online
Obituary on BBC News available online
Profile by James Gavin the New York Times available online
Profile available online
Audio Profile on NPR available online
Excerpts from the biography of Nina Simone Princesse Noire : The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas available online
‘Why?’: Remembering Nina Simone’s Tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. on NPR interview available online
1969 Documentary by Peter Rodis about Nina Simone available online
Simone’s World: The Website of Nina Simone’s Daughter
Interview (2006) with Simone on the All About Jazz site available online
Simone, daughter of famed singer Nina Simone, wins rave reviews for her performance in ‘Rent.’ article available online
Interview (2009) with Michael Alago in Gay Life Maryland available online