Music journalist Alan Light has put this biography together using the research material for a Netflix documentary film directed by Liz Garbus. There was obviously a wealth of information on this unique performer and Light has done a very good job in pooling this all together to provide a fascinating biography on a fascinating subject.
Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymons in 1933, the sixth of eight children from Tryon, North Carolina showed early musical talent playing piano at church and began lessons with the intention of becoming a classical pianist. Her application for a scholarship at the esteemed Curtis Institute was turned down. Simone always believed this was because she was a black woman and this rejection became very much a foundation stone for her life and career. The pop and jazz world beckoned, (requiring a name change so her mother wouldn’t find out), but for Simone, this was always a second-rate choice with second-rate audiences who did not always seem as engrossed as she believed a classical audience would. A 1959 American hit, a cover of Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” (amazingly her only US single hit reaching number 18) began a career which encompassed many musical styles and certainly had its highs and lows. There was a marriage where abuse was commonplace and Simone could not lose the feeling that she was being exploited by those around her personally and professionally.
By the mid 60’s Simone had become highly involved in the civil rights movement This led to her writing and recording what was termed “The Black National Anthem”, the stupendous “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” (perhaps the greatest protest song of all time). This together with tracks such as “Mississippi Goddamn”, “Four Women” and an embracing of the Black Power movement and her need to educate her audiences led to her being deemed as a radical which would have been to some detriment to her career in the whites-dominated music industry and led to further disillusionment with her homeland.
Nina struggled with mental-health issues and her reputation for being “difficult”, and in fact quite often terrifying, was down to a severe bipolar disorder. The increasing need to be medicated and her own reluctance to take this medication at times makes for extraordinarily chilling reading. An account of her involvement with the Pamplona music festival is fairly mind-blowing. But, however difficult she might be, you could not ignore the talent and some people did whatever they could to stick with her. Fans were loyal despite her testing of their patience, through late arrivals, arguments and bad-tempered performances and no-shows and also through the trappings of touring which could easily become too much for her. Always unpredictable in her repertoire, she had the ability to move an audience to raptures (as well as occasional boos).
The title for both the book and documentary comes from a poem by Maya Angelou. Much of what I read in Light’s biography did not come as too much of a surprise. Nina’s struggles were well documented in her lifetime. You can get a great sense of the turmoil in her 1991 autobiography “I Put A Spell On You”, which is both highly readable yet confused and confusing.
She may have been hard to like but it was easy to fall in love with that voice and great talent. She was a real tour-de-force, a complete one-off who defies categorisation and whose like we will never see again. Alan Light portrays this clearly and respectfully and aims to illuminate the genius of the performer conflicted with the traumas and tensions of the woman.
What Happened, Miss Simone was published in hardback by Canongate in March 2016 and will be published in paperback in 2017. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.