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Princess Noire

Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone

Nadine Cohodas
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  • Book Info
    Princess Noire
    Book Description:

    Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone (1933-2003) began her musical life playing classical piano. A child prodigy, she wanted a career on the concert stage, but when the Curtis Institute of Music rejected her, the devastating disappointment compelled her to change direction. She turned to popular music and jazz but never abandoned her classical roots or her intense ambition. By the age of twenty six, Simone had sung at New York City's venerable Town Hall and was on her way. Tapping into newly unearthed material on Simone's family and career, Nadine Cohodas paints a luminous portrait of the singer, highlighting her tumultuous life, her innovative compositions, and the prodigious talent that matched her ambition.With precision and empathy, Cohodas weaves the story of Simone's contentious relationship with audiences and critics, her outspoken support for civil rights, her two marriages and her daughter, and, later, the sense of alienation that drove her to live abroad from 1993 until her death. Alongside these threads runs a more troubling one: Simone's increasing outbursts of rage and pain that signaled mental illness and a lifelong struggle to overcome a deep sense of personal injustice.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0224-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-2)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. 3-4)

    It was more a path emerging than a promise fulfilled that put Nina Simone on a makeshift stage in Montgomery, Alabama, on a sodden March night in 1965. She wanted to sing for the bedraggled men and women who had trekked three days from Selma to present their case for black voting rights to a recalcitrant Governor George Wallace. Nina was following the lead of James Baldwin, her good friend, mentor, and sparring partner at dinner-table debates, a role he shared with Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry. They were her circle of inspiration, writers who found their voice in the...

  4. 1. Called For and Delivered June 1898–February 1933
    (pp. 5-15)

    The gifts that would turn Eunice Waymon into Nina Simone were apparent by the time she was three, though the passions, the mood swings, and the ferocious intensity that marked her adult life were buried for years under her talent. She was born on February 21, 1933, the sixth of eight children, in Tryon, North Carolina, a town perched at the border between North and South Carolina, on the southern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The beautiful surroundings, the pleasant climate, and the good railroad service established by the turn of the century helped Tryon grow from a rural...

  5. 2. We Knew She Was a Genius March 1933–August 1941
    (pp. 16-28)

    John Irvin sang in a St. Luke quartet and played guitar with his father; Lucille, Carrol, Harold, and Dorothy sang in the church choir, but even before their baby sister could walk, they realized she had more musical talent than all of them. “When she was eight months old, my daughter hummed ‘Down by the Riverside’ and ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ ” Kate said. “I had a quilt that I had on the floor for her, and she wanted to look at magazines. Every time she saw a musical note, she tried to sing.”

    Parishioners at St. Luke commented, when they...

  6. 3. Miss Mazzy September 1941–August 1947
    (pp. 29-38)

    It was Eunice’s good fortune that Kate Waymon regularly cleaned house for Katherine Miller, a widow who lived in Gillette Woods, the affluent Tryon neighborhood that meandered from the far west side of town right up to the South Carolina border. The development traced its origins to 1893, when William Gillette, an actor famous for his characterization of Sherlock Holmes, was en route to Florida by train and was delayed in Tryon for several hours. To pass the time, he walked around the countryside and was so impressed with its natural beauty that he returned and purchased the seven hundred...

  7. 4. We Have Launched, Where Shall We Anchor? September 1947–May 1950
    (pp. 39-47)

    Eunice idolized her older sister Lucille, who seemed more like her mother than Kate did. Kate was working twelve- and fourteen-hour days cleaning houses on top of her church duties, so it fell to Lucille to teach Eunice how to dress and wear her hair. She walked her to school and talked to her about boys; one or two of them always were around seeking Lucille’s company—and Dorothy’s, too. Four years older than Eunice, Dorothy was pretty and spirited in her own way. Temporarily defiant when her mother and teachers vetoed her plan to wear a strapless gown to...

  8. 5. Prelude to a Fugue June 1950–May 1954
    (pp. 48-59)

    Eunice’s first trip to New York City, when she was twelve, had scarcely prepared her for life as a Juilliard student. It was an eight-week summer vacation organized around family, with everyone—Kate, Eunice, Dorothy, and the babies, Frances and Sam—staying on 129th Street where Lucille, Eunice’s oldest sister, lived. Her husband was in the service, so she was glad to have the company even if things were crowded.

    Kate had used that summer of 1945 to earn some extra money at a factory job, but work took second place to her love of the church. The side benefits...

  9. 6. The Arrival of Nina Simone June 1954–June 1956
    (pp. 60-70)

    It was through her students that Eunice got to Atlantic City, New Jersey, the beachfront resort town about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia that was famous for three things: the annual Miss America pageant, which had been held at the convention hall since 1940; the Boardwalk; and the topflight performers who entertained the white tourists flocking to the grand hotels. As segregated as any Southern town, Atlantic City had its own black section, here a few blocks north of the Boardwalk, with nightspots that drew the best black talent. Blacks were also found on the Boardwalk, but as the mainstays...

  10. 7. Little Girl Blue July 1956–December 1958
    (pp. 71-79)

    Nina’s relationship with Edney had been, for all its intensity, a meeting of the heart and mind, stopping short of the physical intimacy she longed for. In the months after she left Tryon, Nina found little social life of any sort, although there was one brief episode with a young man from home that was, in a way, connected to Edney because they knew each other. The day Nina ran into him on a Harlem street she was particularly lonesome, and, as it happened, so was he. New York City was “too much to deal with,” she said. He reminded...

  11. 8. A Fast Rising Star 1959
    (pp. 80-90)

    After staying with friends temporarily in Greenwich Village, Nina and Don found their own place on Central Park West at 101st Street, about a mile south of Harlem. The apartment was on the top floor of a fifteen-story building typical of the neighborhood: marble floors and accents in the lobby, plenty of windows to capture the view of Central Park across the street. The apartment was big enough for her piano, Don’s drum kit, and his painting paraphernalia. It seemed like an ideal setting as well as a testament to Nina’s growing success and the money that came with it....

  12. 9. Simone-ized 1960
    (pp. 91-106)

    In the middle of January, Colpix put out another single from the July 1959 sessions, “The Other Woman” backed with “It Might as Well Be Spring,” a sign the label intended to make Nina one of its stars. The record was a teaser for the anticipated release of two full-scale albums,The Amazing Nina Simone,made up of a dozen tracks from those sessions, including the songs on the single, and the Town Hall concert, marketed simply asNina Simone at Town Hall.But before Colpix could get the LPs in circulation, Syd Nathan issued another album calledNina Simone...

  13. 10. You Can’t Let Them Humiliate You January 1961–December 13, 1961
    (pp. 107-120)

    Nina’s weeklong booking at the Apollo Theater in February was her second at the storied venue. She had appeared there in the spring of 1959 but at the bottom of a jazz bill, playing solo piano for $350. This time Nina, with her trio, was the headliner, and she was earning exactly ten times more. “Friends said I might have trouble with the crowd because the Apollo was well known for giving artists a rough time,” she recalled. But Nina hardly flinched from the challenge. She had already shown she could dish out “a rough time,” too. “So the two...

  14. 11. Respect December 14, 1961–December 1962
    (pp. 121-132)

    Langston Hughes brought Nina into the circle of black talent that headed to Lagos December 13. Their friendship had blossomed during the 1960 Newport festival, and ever since the two had kept in touch. Langston periodically sent Nina books along with an occasional invitation to dinner at his Manhattan apartment, these missives filled with the panache of his other writings. She was especially sorry to miss the one that featured homecooked “coon—not a possum but a COON,” Langston promised, “that a friend brought us from ‘Down South.’ ”

    The AMSAC meetings provided Nina entrée to New York’s black intellectuals,...

  15. 12. Mississippi Goddam 1963
    (pp. 133-147)

    Nina’s thirtieth birthday fell in the middle of a two-week engagement at Chicago’s Sutherland Hotel. “I’m really quite content,” she told theChicago Defenderin one of two feature stories promoting the date. “I have a wonderful husband and a marvelous baby . . . She’s very pudgy and she has black curly hair. She has an atrocious temper if she’s not fed on time, but, all in all, she’s a joy.” Frances, Nina’s younger sister, had come on the road to help—they had just played the Sir John Hotel in Miami and a concert in Atlanta.

    Perhaps as...

  16. 13. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood 1964
    (pp. 148-162)

    Nina’s appearance in Summit, New Jersey, on January 22 to headline a benefit for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) further confirmed that Andy was right. Shedidhave her music. “I played on stage for a reason, and when I walked off stage those reasons still existed,” she said, long outlasting the applause. In an odd juxtaposition beyond Nina’s control, theHootenannyshow she taped in Clarksburg was broadcast on television just four days before the Summit concert. Perhaps to piggyback on the event, Andy had taken out a two-column, four-inch-high ad inVarietythat featured a new, appealing...

  17. 14. My Skin Is Black 1965
    (pp. 163-181)

    When Nina returned to the studio early in the new year, Andy asked Bernard Gotfryd, theNewsweekphotographer, to shoot the session. He found an engaged performer talking over arrangements with Horace Ott, chatting with the backup singers, and studying the music. In one moment, between takes, Gotfryd caught Nina in silhouette, standing against the wall, her head bowed in deep contemplation. Resonant with possible interpretations, the photo offered the kind of intriguing shot to illuminate a future release.

    This session featured more varied songs than the previous spring, including two rhythm-and-blues tunes from Andy with provocative titles: “Gimme Some”...

  18. 15. Images 1966
    (pp. 182-194)

    Andy’s negotiations with CORE had borne fruit. He and the organization agreed that Nina would do six benefit concerts in the Northeast starting January 21, 1966, in Pittsburgh and concluding January 28 in New Rochelle, New York. Something close to military precision would be required to get Nina and the musicians from one place to another, but Andy knew they could do it. Despite the lack of formal training in management or the music business, he had caught on fast. Some of it was instinct, some was learned from his association with pros like Felix Gerstman, who taught him about...

  19. 16. My Only Groove Is Moods 1967
    (pp. 195-205)

    Andy and Nina signed with RCA at the end of 1966. It was a step up to one of the majors that already had demonstrated a commitment to black artists, among them Harry Belafonte and Nina’s good friend Miriam Makeba. Andy had also formed Ninandy Music as the publisher for the couple’s compositions and expanded his management duties by signing a handful of new acts. Most important, he had negotiated Nina’s four-city tour with Bill Cosby, a young black comedian and actor and right now one of the hottest acts around. He was a co-star in the popularI Spy...

  20. 17. Black Gold 1968
    (pp. 206-221)

    Nina’s return to Carnegie Hall January 6 was as much coronation as concert. Undeterred by a snowstorm and blustery winds, her fans filled every available seat, lined the balconies, and even spilled out onto the stage where space permitted. They got restless during a half-hour delay that Nina gamely explained was caused by the theft of Rudy’s guitar. But they came to attention when she went ahead without Rudy and her brother Sam, who had joined the band, while they searched for a replacement. She barely skipped a beat when applause announced their arrival onstage in the middle of a...

  21. 18. To Be Young, Gifted and Black 1969
    (pp. 222-237)

    Nina’s latest album, released early in February, featured only her and her piano. The title was direct:Nina Simone and Piano!The jacket copy emphasized that Nina had done everything at the RCA sessions three months earlier, including over-dubbing vocals and playing a little tambourine and organ. One of the most affecting tracks, “Compensation,” consisted of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s two-stanza poem, which Nina surrounded with the gospel progressions she had played since she was a child. It fit perfectly with Dunbar’s meditation on a divine power that first gives the gift of song and later as “the master in infinite...

  22. 19. I Have Become More Militant 1970
    (pp. 238-249)

    Nina and Andy split up early in 1970. On February 14Amsterdam Newscolumnist Jesse H. Walker reported in hisTheatricalscolumn (usually at least a week behind events) that the couple had separated “and a divorce may be in the works.” A front-page story inThe Philadelphia TribuneFebruary 21 announced that “Nina Simone Leaves Mate Who Earns $100,000 as Her Personal Manager.” Andy had moved to a midtown Manhattan apartment, and though he did not comment on his income, he insisted there was no “love triangle” involved. “It’s simply a matter of personal difference.” Rumors of his infidelities...

  23. 20. Definite Vibrations of Pride 1971
    (pp. 250-264)

    On a trip to Holland a few years earlier, Nina had befriended a young Dutch man, Gerrit DeBruin, perhaps impressed by the ingenuity he showed in getting backstage to meet her. He had offered to help some musicians who were playing the same night, and once inside the theater, he found Nina and announced that he was her biggest fan in Holland. Instead of shooing him away, she invited him to pull up a chair while she rehearsed a few songs. She introduced Gerrit to Andy and then told him to join them at a post-concert party at the Amsterdam...

  24. 21. This Ain’t No Geraldine Up Here 1972
    (pp. 265-274)

    Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall was nearly filled to its 3,800-seat capacity February 12 for Nina’s first performance in the city in several years. It was not lost on her that three decades earlier the Daughters of the American Revolution, who ran the hall, had barred Marian Anderson, the heroic contralto, from singing there because she was black. It was equally well known, like spring following winter, that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had stepped in to ensure that not only could Anderson sing in Washington, she could have her concert at the city’s prized outdoor venue, the steps of the Lincoln...

  25. 22. Where My Soul Has Gone 1973–1976
    (pp. 275-285)

    Despite her disparaging comments now and then about their marriage, Nina and Andy maintained a relationship beyond their common interest in Lisa. She even expressed her gratitude to him on the jacket ofEmergency Ward“for encouragement and proper handling of this album.” In December Andy had taken his business interests one step further, forming Stroud Records. The first album he put out confirmed that Nina’s music was the linchpin of the enterprise,Nina Simone Sings Billie Holiday—Lady Sings the Blues.Andy was no doubt hoping to capitalize on the recent movie about Holiday starring Diana Ross. The album...

  26. 23. I Am Not of This Planet 1977–1978
    (pp. 286-300)

    Nina’s move to Switzerland complicated Lisa’s life. “Everything was fine as long as she wasn’t around,” Lisa recalled, “and then she decided to come and turn my world upside down.” Lisa resolved to visit her father and find out once and for all if he loved her. Maybe he didn’t, but whatever the case, she told Nina, “we gonna get this straight.” When she arrived in New York, Lisa didn’t tell Andy she had no return ticket to Switzerland. He thought she was staying three days. On the fifth, she told him she wasn’t leaving.

    Lisa’s separation from Nina had...

  27. 24. Loving Me Is Not Enough 1979–1981
    (pp. 301-313)

    Nina returned to the Village Gate February 22 and kept the opening night audience waiting an hour. She groused in her dressing room about the financial arrangement she had with owner Art D’Lugoff and a crowd not big enough to suit her. She finally came out and did an uneven forty-five-minute set. Though she included her biggest hits, she offered only snippets, breaking off a couple of them in favor of talking to the audience. “I must get my money,” she told them. “I will get my money.”

    She was supposed to perform two shows, but she did only one....

  28. 25. Fodder on Her Wings 1982–1988
    (pp. 314-335)

    The day I discovered Jacques Brel was one of the most exciting days of my whole life,” Nina wrote in her memoir. “So Paris seemed to make sense.” She knew the city had a large African community with residents from several countries, “so I would be able to create my own Africa in the heart of Europe, Africa in my mind.” She found a small apartment and decided to book herself into small clubs until she got established rather than work with a promoter. She distrusted them all. She liked the New Morning, one of the city’s popular jazz spots...

  29. 26 Nina’s Back . . . Again 1989–1992
    (pp. 336-347)

    Al called Chris White, Nina’s former bass player, in the spring of 1989 and asked him to join Nina in Europe. Chris was surprised. Based on the last time he saw her, he didn’t think she was up to performing. They had been at a party in Newark at the home of Amiri Baraka, the poet and writer formerly known as LeRoi Jones. “I said to her twice, ‘Hello, Nina. How are you? This is Chris.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Hello, dahling. How are you?’ She didn’t know who the fuck I was. I could have been...

  30. 27. A Single Woman 1993–1999
    (pp. 348-361)

    Michael Alago, who worked for Elektra Records, had been a fan since he was a teenager. During one of Nina’s New York appearances, he stopped in at her sound check to introduce himself. He thought she knew he was coming, but she didn’t and her displeasure showed. She demanded to know who he was and what he was doing there. Michael politely explained that he was with the record company and that he wanted to sign her. She started to laugh. “How old are you?”

    Twenty-eight, he told her, and she laughed some more.

    “Man, do you have the money?”...

  31. 28. The Final Curtain 2000–2003
    (pp. 362-374)

    By the middle of 2000, Nina had changed her life around again. She moved to Carry-le-Rouet, a seaside town west of Marseilles and near Sausset-les-Pins. “You love the water,” Clifton told her. “Why not live like a star?” Not only was Carry much prettier than the nondescript Bouc-Bel-Air, the new house was much nicer, too. The one in Bouc was more like a cabin, while the spacious new house came with a small pool and a terrace off Nina’s upstairs suite that allowed her to see the ocean. Her improved financial situation helped make the move possible. The decision to...

  32. Notes
    (pp. 375-416)
  33. Nina Simone, Briefly, on CD/DVD
    (pp. 417-418)
  34. Bibliography
    (pp. 419-424)
  35. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 425-428)
  36. Index
    (pp. 429-450)
  37. Back Matter
    (pp. 451-453)