Saturday, February 20, 2010

Under a Strange, Soulful Spell

The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
By Nadine Cohodas
Illustrated. 449 pages.
Pantheon Books.US $30.

By Dwight Garner
Published New York Times: February 18, 2010

In 1960, one year after Nina Simone’s first album, “Little Girl Blue,” was released, the poet Langston Hughes struggled to put the appeal of Simone’s music and presence — that dusky voice, that unblinking gaze — into words. “She is strange,” Hughes wrote in The Chicago Daily Defender. “So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet and Bertolt Brecht. She is far out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire.”

Left - Photo by Sam Falk/The New York Times
Little Girl Blue: Nina Simone at the Village Gate in 1965.

Hughes was just getting warmed up. “She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis and John Donne. So is Mort Sahl, so is Ernie Banks.” He continued: “You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — wheee-ouuueu! You do!”

Simone soon befriended Hughes, and through him she dove into the beating heart of that era’s young black intelligentsia, becoming close to both James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, who would become godmother to Simone’s daughter. That Simone was absurdly talented was already clear. But her new friends helped crystallize her inchoate political thinking.

One result was a stunning song, “Mississippi Goddam,” written by Simone in the wake of the 1963 Birmingham church bombings and the killing of the civil rights advocate Medgar Evers. In many respects it represented the pinnacle of what would become a long and tangled career. “Alabama’s got me so upset,” Simone sang. “Tennessee made me lose my rest./But everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.”

It was a song that inserted her into the forefront, at least musically, of the civil rights movement. Its recording is a moment that Nadine Cohodas’s fascinating if turgid new biography of Simone, “Princess Noire,” builds toward and then falls away from. In the case of her career, that falling away was a long, slow and painful one into mental illness, megalomania and increasingly strange behavior.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C., in 1933. She was one of eight children. Her father worked a variety of jobs (cook, dry cleaner, barber), and her mother was a Methodist minister. People knew right away that she was special. When she was 8 months old, she could hum “Down by the Riverside.” At 2 ½ she could play a church organ.

Simone’s dream was to become a concert pianist, and she studied briefly at Juilliard. She was devastated when she was turned down by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, a rejection that may have been racially motivated, Ms. Cohodas writes. To pay the rent Simone began playing in bars, where she treated her gigs almost like concert recitals. She began to sing as well as play and took Nina Simone as a stage name in part, Ms. Cohodas suggests, to hide from her mother that she was playing in sometimes unsavory places.

Simone had, almost immediately, an electric effect on listeners. She brought to the stage, one critic wrote, “an atmosphere of blue lights and sad memories.” On her first LP Simone recorded a version of “I Loves You, Porgy,” and it became a Top 20 hit.

Before long she was playing the Village Vanguard in New York and the Newport Jazz Festival, even appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And she was pouring out the songs that would define the early part of her career: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Sinnerman,” “Feeling Good,” “I Put a Spell on You.”
Read Dwight Garner's full piece at NYT.

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