Nina Simone: Recognition of a Signifyin' Songbird
The first Bethlehem release was a success, prompting her to go on and record another two LPs for the label. Marrying a New York detective in 1961, giving birth to a daughter in 1962, and recording another twenty-two records for the Phillips and RCA labels between the years of 1962 and 1970, Nina Simone led an incredibly active life during the 1960s. Some of her most provocative songs were written during this time, including protest songs like her original "Mississippi Goddamn" and "Four Women." All of her records feature both original songs and incredible renditions of songs by other composers, including tunes by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Sandy Denny, and the Bee Gees (in addition to the countless jazz standards she performed). Albums like To Love Somebody and Black Gold include songs like Screamin Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You," which was never before sung with such sexual undertones, and the often covered "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." The latter song was quite appropriate for a woman who was not easily defined.
Not all of her recordings met critical success. When Nina Simone recorded Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" in 1967, many critics panned the recording, finding her pop-style orchestration, consisting of electric guitar, strings and electric bass, to be tepid and mainstream. What most critics failed to see was the beauty in Simone's interpretation and the new meaning it took on when sung by her: "I Shall Be Released" has an entirely different meaning when it is considered in the context of the struggles Simone suffered in her own life and the struggles of African-Americans in general. Never would she allow critics (or anyone else for that matter) to dictate the direction of her musical progress.
Frustrated with racism and discrimination in America, Simone became an expatriate in 1969, moving to Barbados, Trindad, Liberia, Switzerland, Belgium, and finally settling in France. Her marriage ended in 1970 and she devoted much of her time over the next decade to touring and recording. In 1978, upon returning to the US for a tour, she was arrested for withholding taxes during the years of 1971 to 1973. Pleading that her actions were in protest of Vietnam conflict, she was eventually released. During the 1980s, she made infrequent visits to the US, instead spending much of her time performing in Europe and staying at her home in France. In July of 1995, she ran into trouble with the law again; this time for firing a scatter-gun at a group of rambunctious kids outside of her home, in the Provencal town of Bouc-Bel-Air. After paying the medical bills of one boy who was shot in the leg and a $4,600 fine, she was released. Her daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud (now vocalist for Liquid Soul), remained very close to her mother during this period, appearing frequently with her on stage. On her last trip to the US in 2001, it was apparent that the once boisterous and hardy Nina Simone was ailing. She died on April 21, 2003, at the age of 70, in her home in France.
Nina Simone's contributions to music are innumerable. Critics have longed fawned over her voice and her piano playing, but there was always something more to this outspoken musician. She refused to be labeled, choosing instead to subvert the expectations of her audience and of critics through her broad exploration of the fields of rock, folk, country, blues, and jazz. She once said, "It's always been my aim to stay outside any category. That's my freedom." Her freedom, her wit, and her ability to signify, even more than her lovely voice and virtuosity on the piano, may never be matched.