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What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography

Nenad Georgievski By

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What Happened, Miss Simone?
Alan Light
320 Pages
ISBN: 1101904879
Atria
2016

It was singer and poet Gil Scott-Heron who said that Nina Simone was black way before it was fashionable to be black. A controversial and indisputable music icon and celebrity, her unique blend of jazz, pop and soul made her one of the most compelling voices in music history. She was equally known for her interpretations of other people's songs, that encompassed completely different genres, and her original songs that unmistakably had a stamp of her distinct style and character. As a passionate and outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights movement, she used her songs to empower the movement. But these are just fragments of a much complex story that was fully revealed and presented firstly in the documentary film What Happened, Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus and then in writer Alan Light's book with the same title.

Alan Light, a renowned journalist, editor and author of books about singer/poet Leonard Cohen, Prince, and several other titles, has given an in-depth portrait of this one of a kind artist. In just over 320 tautly written pages which are thick with the information gained from an indefatigable research from materials amassed behind the Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? he is providing many insightful views about Nina Simone's life. It is a fascinating tale, and Light tells it in an equally fascinating style. He diligently sifts through a myriad of sources such as various interviews with Simone or her closest associates, journalists and cultural commentators, journal entries, articles, and digs deep into the narrative of Simone's life. The narrative arc of her life and career were dramatic and Light maps a life full of artistic achievements, personal peaks and valleys, a career that stumbles and falls.

Born Eunice Wayborn and raised in a small North Carolina town, she never noticed much prejudice when she was growing up there. Some of the town's white citizens have even helped this young talent's musical education. It was there that her first battle against the privileges of white folks happened when at an early recital an anonymous white family sought to force her parents from their front row seats. Still only 11, Eunice spoke up to say she wouldn't perform unless her parents remained in place. The audience laughed and jeered at this reasonable demand. Thus began her miss-education. Her earliest ambition was to become the first black concert pianist, but eventually after a year of scholarship at Julliard, she was turned down by the major colleges. Even Julliard was unpleasant as she found the same racism there as in other establishment outposts. This wasn't some ordinary racism but more of a broader agenda that eventually thwarted her ambitions. The painful rejection proved to be a turning point and as a result she turned to night club performances in a bar in Atlantic City where she incorporated her extraordinary piano technique to performing jazz. That is the moment when she took a stage name, Nina Simone, partially out of fear of her mother who definitely wouldn't have approved her choice of playing the "devil's music."

In the beginning, she would perform works by classical composers such as Bach and Chopin alongside with instrumental selections of gospel songs, but soon she was warned to sing songs if she wanted to keep her job. This led to building up a repertoire and giving electrifying performances. Eventually, this led to a recording contract and soon she released her debut, Little Girl Blue. This wonderful album featured her first hit and trademark song such as Gershwin's "I Love you Porgy." It even featured a song that in later years would bring her back in the limelight, "My Baby Just Cares For Me." One of Simone's strengths was her strong interpretations of other people's songs. Later, when other people covered these songs as well, it was her arrangements and interpretations that they looked up to rather the originals. An example to that were singers David Bowie and Jeff Buckley, to name but a few, who covered songs from her repertoire and using her arrangements.

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