Nina Simone’s Tragic Rise and Fall

A new book offers an incomplete map of a complex and tortured artist.

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She had been the toast of New York City’s pop scene for all of two years, but Nina Simone was already cementing her legend as a no-nonsense diva.

There she was onstage at the Apollo Theater in February 1961, barely two weeks before her 28th birthday. She was a slip of a woman, haughty and remote, her dusky voice commanding and blues-suffused. Halfway through her spoken introduction to Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” Nina thought she heard giggles and chatter, which wasn’t unusual for the notoriously rowdy crowd at the famed Harlem venue.

But the former Eunice Waymon of Tryon, N.C., was having none of it. She snapped: “For the very first time in your lives, act like ladies and gentlemen at the Apollo.”

The crowd shut up immediately, and Nina turned back to the piano and performed. The artist, whose only smash at the time was a tear-stained rendition of “I Love You, Porgy,” was hard to pin down even then. Nina’s approach was steeped in classical music. In fact, she was trained as a classical pianist and had hopes of breaking into that lily-white field. But her music rippled with the blues, jazz and gospel. European styles and African roots music were also braided into her work.

But her repertoire turned bitingly political, starting with 1963’s self-penned “Mississippi Goddam.” She traded elegant gowns for vibrant Afrocentric garb, and as she spiraled into the depths of mental illness, Nina’s behavior on and off the stage became more erratic. When she wasn’t rambling through her set, she would cuss out ticket holders—or not show up at all. She would pull knives on musicians and shoot at noisy neighbors.