John Kelly

I interviewed Nina Simone for The Irish Times on the day of her 1999 performance at The Point Theatre in Dublin.

Where to start with Dr. Simone?  According to legend she’s the hardest of tickets, the toughest of cookies and quite the most difficult interviewee on this or any other planet.  And so, when word comes that ‘the Doctor will see me now’, I cautiously enter her suite armed only with the smallest of offerings – a CD of the American poet Langston Hughes with whom she collaborated on “Backlash Blues.”

The little present breaks the ice, the diva is delighted and before long we’re actually having a conversation about Brendan Behan – someone she remembers as having the tiniest feet she had ever seen.  Naturally I fall easily under her spell - the voice is extraordinary, the bearing regal and I understand immediately that I am in the presence of someone of a certain authority. She looks great too – and we’re actually having a laugh.  Very soon I’m beginning to quite enjoy being in the company of one of the genuine greats of popular music.  

As a pianist, singer and composer, Dr. Simone’s music is a very rich mix of just about everything - classical, folk, gospel, blues, rn’b and soul.  Don’t call it jazz however. She doesn’t like the word.  It is she says, “a white term used to define black people” and prefers to call her music black classical.  Whatever it is, there is nobody like her.  Eclectic is much too small a word, and our time together will never be long enough.

Born in North Carolina in 1933, Eunice Waymon grew up with dreams of being a classical pianist.  To cut a long story short, this was a time when being black and a woman made such ambitions almost impossible to achieve – and despite her obvious talent, it was not to be.  After attending the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York she was then rejected by the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.  It was a hard blow and Dr. Simone has no personal doubt as to the reason.

And so Eunice Waymon changed her name to Nina Simone (after French actress Simone Signoret) and began singing and playing in clubs.  Apart from the obvious glamour of her new name, it also served to keep her devout mother in the dark about the sort of music her daughter was now performing for a living.  It was the Devil’s music after all and such things were taken very seriously in the Waymon house.

Nina Simone’s debut album was recorded in 1958 and with it came her very first hit – “I Love You Porgy” and she was very suddenly a star.  She might also have been an overnight millionaire, but she had unwisely sold the rights to the record for just $3000. She was twenty four years old and badly stung.  Thirty years later “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, from the same album, was a major hit all over again.

By the sixties, Nina Simone was heading with great determination into the dangerous waters of protest.  After the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963 and the deaths of four children in Alabama, she wrote the first of her protest songs “Mississippi Goddam!” and maintained her position thereafter as the greatest protest singer them all.  She sang that very song at the end of Selma Montgomery March when herself, Sammy Davis Jnr, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and others crossed police and army lines and made their stand in front of 40,000 people. And although these were very serious and dangerous days, Dr. Simone is not beyond a joke at the expense of her comrades.

“At Selma, we were in a bus and Shelley Winters was as drunk as a skunk!  She couldn’t stand being in that bus.  But before Selma there was the first integrated show at the college in Alabama and there were coffins under the stage!  One of the guys who was playing on the show was Johnny Mathis and he used to be a sprinter. When he heard there were coffins he took off running!  But it was a matter of life and death. We were shot at many times. It was tough.”

Simone’s music was as powerful as it got in the 60’s.  What is now known as the Martin Luther King Jr. Suite was recorded live on the night after the assassination of Dr. King and represents perhaps some of the strongest music of the era – and there is no mistaking the depth of feeling in Dr. Simone’s voice. So strong in fact were those feelings about racism in the United States, that in 1969, she finally upped and left – a very public protest indeed.

“I was always a politician from the day the civil rights people chose me as their protest singer.  I was always a champion for civil rights and that made me into a politician.  We’re talking about people like Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry.  And we’re talking about Eldridge Cleaver and Stokley Carmichael who was the founder of the Black Panther Party. Music was powerful yes, but along with the marching. The thing that you have to understand is that I was never non-violent.  I just followed Dr. Martin Luther King because he was the popular one. But my sympathies were with Malcolm X.  I believed in taking gun for gun and totin’ for totin’!  If I hadn’t been a musician I probably would be dead by now.”

It’s a well documented fact that Dr Nina Simone has had a long and very tough career.  Contending with the very worst of racism, sexism, bad business and personal troubles, she has survived with honours and remains entirely unbent. A proud woman with every right to be, Dr Simone now gives thanks to the two primary forces in her life – music and God.  She has no doubts whatever about the power of God, but what about music itself?  What is its actual potential?  It’s a question which preoccupies many musicians for their entire careers and even for Dr Simone, history’s greatest protest singer, the power of music to bring about actual change remains something of an unknown.

“God gave me a gift and I have used it all over the world.  And I have never changed.  I still champion civil rights. And we’re talking about not just blacks in America, we’re talking about the third world.  Africa is in trouble too.  I think I’m the only diva left and I’m very regretful that there are no other protest singers besides myself. So in answer to your question, I don’t know whether music is strong enough to pull us out of the gutter.  I don’t know.”

© John Kelly

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