Sunday, August 8, 1993

Nina Simone: The Mahogany Voice Endures, and So Do the Private Battles

by James Gavin

Photo by Ebet Roberts

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 Woman."

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 says.

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 said coldly.

"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 open it."

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 civil rights.

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 her life."

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!"