Sunday, August 8,
Nina Simone: The Mahogany Voice Endures, and So Do the
by James Gavin
Photo by Ebet Roberts
NINA SIMONE has just released her first
major album in 15 years, and she is doing everything
possible to stand in the way of its success. Now 60, the
caustic pop-jazz singer, pianist and onetime fiery civil
rights advocate has never cared much for public relations,
as her label, Elektra Records, has found out. She has
resisted interviews, canceled several concerts, turned down
the "Tonight" show and made her only New York appearance
this year two months before the album's release.
But none of this is unusual for Ms. Simone, a cult diva
whose shamanistic hold on audiences is matched by an
infamous temperament. About 20 years ago, she left this
country for Barbados, then Liberia and Europe. She angrily
denounced the treatment of blacks in America and claimed
that record companies and promoters had cheated her. The
Internal Revenue Service had charged her with nonpayment of
taxes, another factor in her decision to leave the country.
After years spent living and working sporadically
throughout Europe, Ms. Simone has finally settled in the
South of France. Only recently has she seemed to come to
terms with America, thanks to renewed interest in her work.
Five of her recordings were used in the film "Point of No
Return"; her autobiography, "I Put a Spell on You," first
published in Europe, is now available in this country; and
Elektra signed her for an expensive new album, "A Single
Lavishly arranged for strings, it avoids the political
rallying that has dominated much of her work to concentrate
on themes of solitude and yearning. Dark, brooding versions
of standards like "If I Should Lose You" and "The Folks Who
Live on the Hill" are combined with several newer songs,
one of which is a searing rendition of "Papa, Can You Hear
Me?" from the movie "Yentl." That song holds special
meaning for Ms. Simone, whose father died in 1971. "Nina
and I had both lost our fathers," says Michael Alago, the
album's executive producer. "Issues of love, loneliness and
loss kept coming up. I knew that was the kind of record we
were going to make."
In recent years, she has traded her once-volatile stage
persona for that of a shameless diva. At the Beacon Theater
on the Upper West Side in May, her entrance was greeted
with a standing ovation, one of four that night. "So you're
glad to see me, huh?" she boomed, ceremoniously dropping
her yellow satin wrap to reveal a black strapless dress.
"Didn't I come back and see you after all these years?"
asked the singer, seemingly oblivious to her Carnegie Hall
concert last year. "Can't come back too often, you know.
They might kill me."
Her formerly stark, minimal piano playing was crude and
wildly baroque, but her mahogany voice still cast a fierce,
hypnotic mood. Songs like Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas"
and Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You" became
superheated melodrama, where love is synonymous with anger
and loss and where romance is a battle for possession. Her
parting words, though, revealed other concerns. "Buy my
record!" she shouted. "Buy my book! Stay faithful! And get
me back here soon!"
Rage and bitterness have always given Ms. Simone's singing
its visceral excitement, but those qualities haven't made
Elektra's job any easier. All communication with the singer
is channeled through Mr. Alago, a fanatical Simone admirer
and the one person she seems to trust at the label. "I take
things very slowly with her," he says. "She hates the pace
of the U.S." He reads off her itinerary -- a number of
European concerts plus an August appearance at the JVC Jazz
Festival in Newport, R.I. -- but he doesn't know how many
will materialize. "From day to day it changes with her," he
Reached by phone in France, Ms. Simone granted a 20-minute
interview. Her patience was minimal at the start and
diminished from there. Told that her ebullient Beacon
performance contrasted sharply with the unsmiling face on
her 60's album covers, she snapped: "How the hell was I
going to smile in the United States when I'm black? Come
on! But let's talk about the film! We have five songs in a
film called 'Point of No Return.' John Badham, the
director, chose my songs as a healing thing for the girl,
Bridget Fonda, and I had quite a creative hand in saying
yes to the songs."
Her current political views were off-limits: "I'm not going
to get into a discussion about that anymore. I watch CNN a
lot, I read The Herald Tribune every day, and I'm waiting
to see what Perot and Clinton do. So . . . j'attend. That's
French for 'I'm waiting.' "
An attempt to discuss the songs on her new album also
proved futile. "I have no thoughts about the songs," she
said. "They're love songs and that's why I chose them."
Is there anything about America she misses? "My money," she
"That's Nina's disposition to the world these days," says
the guitarist Al Schackman, who has performed with her
since 1958. "She's terribly upset right now with an agent
in the United States over some payments." Ms. Simone has
long complained about feeling underappreciated in America,
but according to Mr. Schackman that seems to be partly her
own doing. "She's now at the door of being able to change
that," he says, "and I seem to feel her choosing not to
Born in Tryon, N.C., in 1933, Ms. Simone showed a
prodigious talent for classical piano at age 6 and devoted
the next 10 years to private study. At 16 she entered
Juilliard on a one-year scholarship, then tested for
admission to the prestigious Curtis Institute in
Philadelphia. She was told she wasn't good enough, but in
her book she claims she was denied admission because she is
black. She took a job as a nightclub singer and pianist and
developed a repertory in which pop, folk, gospel and jazz
tunes were given a classical scope and grandiosity. When
her 1958 recording of "I Loves You, Porgy" became a best
seller, it launched her as a pop artist with an eerily
dramatic command and a burning air of defiance. Much of her
anger stemmed from her resentment at having to give up
classical piano for a type of music she deemed inferior --
and that, in her view, carried a racist stigma.
The emerging civil rights movement gave her an outlet for
her frustrations. In 1963, after the murder of Medgar
Evers, the N.A.A.C.P. field secretary, in Mississippi, she
wrote her first protest song, "Mississippi Goddam," a
bitter indictment of American values. For the rest of the
60's, she devoted much of her concerts to protest music,
winning the admiration of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin,
Lorraine Hansberry and other black artists dedicated to
But by 1970, when many of the great black leaders had died
with their goals unfulfilled, Ms. Simone began to view the
movement as a failure. Around that time her marriage to
Andy Stroud, her manager, ended, and the I.R.S. started to
investigate her past tax payments. She complained about
bootleg albums and unscrupulous record companies, although
Mr. Schackman believes that the latter claim is
exaggerated. "Nina has gotten paid for her recordings," he
says. "In a lot of cases the masters to her albums were
sold, mostly to European labels, and because they were
being released a second or third time the royalty figures
were not that great."
But her bitterness toward her homeland grew and she fled.
Her return performances in the United States were hostile
and undisciplined; often she failed to show up at all. In
1979 John S. Wilson of The Times reviewed an appearance at
the Village Gate. "She kept the audience waiting an hour,"
he wrote, "while she sat in her dressing room complaining
about the financial arrangements for her appearance,
objecting to the size of her audience. When she finally did
appear, she did 45 minutes of an uneven, relatively
perfunctory performance, punctuated by interpolations in
her songs of 'I must get my money!' "
THE PATTERN SEEMED TO change only after 1987, when her
recording of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" was used in a
perfume commercial in Europe and became a Top-10 hit there.
After that, according to Mr. Schackman, she resolved her
tax situation and changed her onstage behavior. "In the
past five years," he says, "she's been immediately
connecting with the audience no matter what's going on in
Mr. Alago is one of the few who have discovered her playful
side. "We act like silly children sometimes," he says, "and
I don't think Nina has anyone else in her life to carry on
with like that." Ms. Simone's 31-year-old daughter, Lisa,
lives in Los Angeles, where she has joined a pop vocal
group. In her book Ms. Simone refers sadly to the fact that
she devoted so little time to her daughter. Says Mr.
Schackman, "I think the relationship now is one of learning
to be friends." Money, he finds, is still her prime
concern: "When she's on the road, she always says, 'I work
for money.' After a concert she asks, 'Wasn't it nice?
Didn't Nina give them everything they wanted? But is there
anybody here for me now?' "
Despite these complaints, Ms. Simone claims to enjoy her
current slow pace. Her classical ambitions, she said, are
long forgotten. "Sometimes at night I think about classical
music," she said. "But let's face it -- I'm bigger than the
Curtis Institute now because I became a singer."
When her alleged exploitation by record companies was
brought up, though, she fumed. "You have to understand that
I was interviewed in New York when I was there, and we
talked about precisely the same thing! So I don't feel a
need to talk about it anymore!" Asked if there were still
any ghosts that haunted Nina Simone, she said, "No, and
I've got to go now. Will I get a copy of this?"
Yes, Elektra would pass one on. "Oh, fine," she said,
suddenly cheerful. "O.K., darling. Keep buying my albums!"