Toni Morrison said: “Nina Simone saved our lives. She was several women.” In her brilliant song Four Women, recorded in 1965, Simone sings about four very different black women, one who lives “Between two worlds”, another who says: “I’m awfully bitter these days because my parents were slaves ...”
In his new biography of the great jazz diva, David Brun-Lambert asserts: “If you listen carefully to her music, you hear within in it two opposite people, two beings with nothing in common, as though trapped together and forced to share the same means of expression. An artist leading a double artistic life, unable to find her own place anywhere.”
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 into a family that was doing fine until the Great Depression came along. She grew up, poor, in a small town, Tryon, North Carolina, a few kilometers from the Mason-Dixon line.
Some of her earliest memories were of her mother singing Heaven Belongs to You. It became the soundtrack to her life. It played underneath the Bach that she learned as a child prodigy who experienced the glory of a good piano teacher. “The first time I went to Mrs Massinovitch’s house, I almost fainted it was so beautiful,” Simone wrote in her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You.
And it played over the blues and folk she later sang when she got turned down by the Curtis Institute, ending her hopes of becoming a classical pianist. “I never got over it. I still haven’t got over it and I never will,” Simone said. “Anyone in Tryon would have told you black children don’t get to be concert pianists.”
Aged two and a half, the small Eunice could play God Be With You Till We Meet Again on the organ. “Just a few people could do it, Callas, Rubinstein and me,” Nina wrote. Nina Simone mixed humility with hubris and it was a deadly cocktail. Perhaps the modesty and the monstrosity were both needed to fuel the genius, to fuse the two worlds — classical music and jazz. Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone so that her mother wouldn’t find out she was singing the devil’s music. At 21, she got a job as a pianist in the Midtown Bar and Grill. “As soon as I got there, I was asked whether I could sing. I said no but they demanded that I sing … so I sang and this is how my career in the business started.”
Brun-Lambert charts the birth of Nina Simone the artist, her musical successes, her terrible marriage to Andy Stroud, her bad relationships, her fragile mental state, and her gigs. He is good at mapping her political awakening and the rise of black power. Most of all, he charts her terrible loneliness. “I had no community at the back of me. I was a national star ... I was rich and famous but I wasn’t free,” she said in I Put a Spell on You.
The paranoid and volatile Simone is the woman who emerges most clearly from this biography, the one who audiences at Ronnie Scott’s would recognize, the diva who arrived late, harangued her audience and screamed at them: ‘“Nobody’s going to sleep tonight.” After a while, the biography depresses and almost demeans Simone as Brun-Lambert recounts tale after tale. The Simone prowling these pages is not so much four women as one: a drunken, abusive, selfish, bad mother who fell out with her beloved father, who treated her musicians badly, who was frightening, intimidating and who herself was frightened and intimidated.