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.
But fans all over the world kept coming back. Although she never matched the commercial success of contemporaries like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke or Aretha Franklin, Nina still became an international icon. Her commitment to using her music as a weapon, as a way to raise consciousness about the sociopolitical storms gathering around us, was unwavering throughout her 40-year career.
So it’s fitting for Women’s History Month that we remember Nina Simone, an oft-misunderstood artist who refused to compromise in an industry and a country that didn’t know (and still don’t know) what to make of self-assured, dark-skinned women with soul, brains and talent to spare. Her artistic triumphs and public struggles helped karate-kick down doors for the likes of Erykah Badu, India.Arie and, of course, Lauryn Hill, who name-checked Nina in the Fugees’ hit “Ready or Not.”
The legend’s strange and sometimes-volatile life is explored in the new book, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas, whose last book, Queen, was a biography of another troubled soul sister, Dinah Washington. Like that book, Princess Noire is painstakingly researched. It also clears up factual deficiencies found in Nina’s 1991 autobiography, I Put a Spell On You.
But as she did in Queen, Cohodas maintains a frustrating distance from her subject. She offers very little in the way of critical analysis. At well over 400 pages, Princess Noire is at times a downright numbing read. The middle is filled with so many concert reviews that your eyes cross after a while. Nina’s complex life and the political context in which she thrived and stumbled warrant deeper, more nuanced study. But here and there in the book, flashes of Nina’s madness break through, and you want to know more.
Artistic geniuses may have a difficult time reconciling the worlds inside and outside their heads. And Nina Simone was no different. But given her fragile mental state, which was evident early on in her life, it’s little wonder that she eventually became unhinged. Her depression and schizophrenia went undiagnosed for years. Also, her condition was exacerbated by an almost crippling rage at American racism. Nina’s various encounters with racism, how it impeded her commercial progress, killed her good friend Martin Luther King Jr. and ultimately annihilated the hopes and dreams of so many around her, nearly destroyed her and her art.
By the time she died in 2003, Nina’s gifts were diminished. Her voice had long lost its strength and fury, and she hadn’t played the piano with her singular, dazzling brilliance in years. Her classic compositions, namely “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” had been canonized. But time and a life filled with dramatic ups and downs took a toll on the woman.
Listening to performances from her peak years, roughly between 1961 and 1972, the depth and breadth is still amazing. The moniker “High Priestess of Soul” certainly fits. Although her arrangements were marred at times by overbearing strings and things, the force of Nina’s musical personality always ripped through. She could put the fear of God in her man (“I Put a Spell on You”) or love him tender (“Cherish”). She could be an earthy, blues mama (“Do I Move You”) or an ethereal love goddess (“Keeper of the Flame”). No matter the musical incarnation, Nina Simone was always believable.
Her legacy is extraordinarily complex and deserves a deeper look than it has received. In 1964, Nina sang “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good/Oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” And after all these years, she remains an intriguing puzzle.
Rashod Ollison is a pop culture critic living in Baltimore, Maryland.