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A unique insight into a turbulent life
on 27 August 2008
Perhaps one of the most angry books one will ever read: The incredible account of how one Eunice Kathleen Waymon, born to a Black family in South Caroline, a piano playing child prodigy tried to become a professional classical pianist. As a student she began to play in night-clubs to fund her studies and changed her name to Nina Simone so that her mother wouldn`t find out. One night the manager told her to start singing as well or get fired. Nina started using her voice, got an increasing following, cut her own version of `I loves You Porgy' and began to gain an audience with the New York Beatniks, along with Bill Cosby, John Coltrane, and Bob Dylan. She married got divorced, re-married, her career was on the rise.
But Nina was not going to go to be assimilated easily. Her sense of duty towards Black Americans gave her an edge in an era where the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to have an impact, and the fact that she began to meet some of America's top Back Intellectuals such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Stokey Carmichael meant Nina couldn't remain neutral. In 1963 some white supremacists burned a church, killing four young Black girls. When the news broke Nina's husband and manager Andy found her in the garage looking for materials to assemble a zip gun. She was persuaded out of going to the Southern states to seek revenge, but to write `Mississippi Goddam', a show tune with an absolutely furious message.
Though friends with Martin Luther King junior, as the 1960's wore on, Nina didn't accept non-violence and was more accepting of Black Power. By 1968 Nina portrays the USA as being on the verge of civil war, and she remembers the activists who lost their lives in the struggle and begins to castigate the leadership of the movement for what she sees as its failures to carry on the fight.
Then the book seems becomes a procession of resentments. Nina leaves the United States in 1974 disgust at the political situation and abandons her marriage. Spells in Barbados, Liberia ( with unsuccessful love affairs), Switzerland , Paris follow, but by 1978 her career is in disarray. Her ex husband and manager had not being sorting out taxes, her personal affairs and business concerns were in a sheer mess. A supposed promoter takes Nina to London to get her career going. It turns out he is a swindler, and leaves her beaten unconscious in a hotel room with unpaid bills. Nina takes an overdose. Not surprisingly the Music Industry is savagely indicted throughout the biography.
After this point `I Put A Spell On You' seems to rush forward. Nina relocates to France, starts recording and touring. There are enough fans to re-kindle interest in her work . And by 1985 , `My Baby Just Cares For Me' an obscure LP track that Nina had first recorded in 1957 , used for commercial brings Nina back into the public eye. She has survived, though is never reconciled to the USA.
Now and then one longs for some more humour, such as the account of Nina, after a few gins, making a pass at Louis Farrakhan.
The book is short, 176 pages, and came out in 1991- Nina was to live for another twelve years -so is incomplete. The lack of dates in the text makes it hard to follow at times. But overall this autobiography gives an unique insight to one of the most versatile and interesting figures in modern popular music.