"I insist on being not one of your clowns, but one of you," she commands of her French audience early on in her performance. When Nina Simone walks out onto the stage, the first word that comes to mind is: regal. "I am a queen," she proudly announces. Her black wrap dress is simple and minimalist. Her silver necklace, a gift from a man who lives in Greece, is modest and beautifulshe pulls attention towards it on more than one occasion during her performance. But for me, it is Simone herself that stands out; she is the radiant gem and her garb serves merely as a backdrop.
The way she looks out into the crowdwith or without her Cheshire-cat like smileand her unflinching stare make you feel like you are the only person that matters in the room. The intensity and power she gives off while singing is felt in the exaggerated rises and falls in her pitch and the crisp high notes that she holds onto forever. Simone has the ability to make every word count and resonate. I think what surprised me the most about her presence was how seemingly aware she was of her gifts, of her ability to captivate and mesmerize her audience.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. In her autobiography I Put a Spell on You (Pantheon Books, 1991), she recalls that most of her childhood memories were tied up in music. "Everything that happened to me as a child involved music," she said. "It was part of everyday life, as automatic as breathing."
As an infant during Sunday services at church, her family and parishioners remember how her tiny infant hands were able to clap in time with the choir. At just two-and-a-half, Simone climbed up to the piano bench and tried very hard to play the keys on the family organ. She was able to strike each key with more force in just a few months. Mary Kate, her mother, was astonished when she heard her barely three year old daughter play "God Be with You 'Til We Meet Again," in the key of F. "To Momma's mind there was only one explanation: I had received a gift from God," wrote Simone of the event.
At six and a half, Simone was introduced to an Englishwoman named Mrs. Massinovitch, whom she affectionately called "Miz Mazzy." She would become Simone's first and perhaps most significant introduction to classical training. Miz Mazzy introduced Simone to the world of classical music: Beethoven, Liszt, Czerny, and her favorite, Bach. Her time with Miz Mazzy taught her valuable lessons in technique: how to properly hold her hands at the piano, how to improve the spread of her fingers, and how to play from the shoulders and not from the wrists. But her lessons went beyond technique. Simone also learned how to carry herself on stage, things like bowing and walking on and off a stage with grace, and she even learned how to sit up straight and exude elegance while she played.
Both her training with Miz Mazzy and her eventual studies at Juilliard amply prepared Simone to share her talents with the rest of the world. Sid Nathan, the owner of Bethlehem Records, arrived at her home one evening. He brought with him a ton of songs for her to play and a list of musicians that he had chosen to become Simone's studio band. She told him straight away she didn't want to play his songs and if she was going to make an album, she would choose the material. Simone also told Nathan that she would pick the musicians she wanted to back her. What Nathan didn't know was that fame was never a huge ambition for her. When Nathan returned later that afternoon, he agreed to all of her conditions and offered her a contract to record Little Girl Blue in 1957.
Aside from the hectic touring schedules that come with being a professional musician, her success did have other drawbacks. Simone had to find a way to deal with being labeled. She began to notice that many of the critics would often compare her to Billie Holiday because of "Porgy (I Loves You Porgy)." She hated that because it was just one of many songs that she had performed and all of them were quite distinct.
"What made me mad was that it meant people couldn't get past the fact we were both black," she said. "If I had happened to be white, nobody would have made the connection." She further added that it was wrong to put her into a box. "Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn't fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be. It was a racist thing; 'If she's black she must be a jazz singer.'"
A number of tragedies of the 1960s inspired some of Simone's greatest work. Her life as a mother and a wife had always taken a back seat to her music, but perhaps even more so now; the Civil Rights movement had consumed her. Though her touring and practice continued to keep her isolated, Simone would listen to the radio more often to keep up with any changes in the struggle. It was her idealism that made her believe that things were going to change for the better for black people.