Tribute to Nina Simone
For people across the world, the death of the legendary Dr. Nina Simone in 2003 (April 20), was met with a lot of sadness. An often-unsung hero and pioneer in the civil rights movement, Nina was a woman of conviction who left her country of birth rather than compromised her artistic integrity, a woman who challenged the status quo.
But more than that, a woman who knew how to touch the hearts of so many with her distinctive musical blend of jazz, blues, and soul. I was blessed to have my own first-hand experience of Nina at the tender age of sixteen when I formed the very first British fan club for her in 1965.
I remember vividly going out to the airport, flowers in hand, to meet this woman who had made such an impact on me through the albums she made in the ‘60s.
Mixing Billie Holiday classics with spirituals, folk songs with African chants, old English odes with movie themes, Duke Ellington with George Gershwin, Nina was a one-of-a-kind artist whose music moved me such that I felt compelled to be involved somehow in sharing her brilliance with others. Thus, the fan club and a life full of memories of my encounters with the amazing Dr. Simone!
Like the time in 1967 when she played a London club frequented by Jamaican patrons who demanded she sing “My Baby Just Cares For Me” …how she slammed down the piano and walked off and had to be coaxed back by a few words of wisdom from me and a couple of glasses of gin! Like watching her leave a Dutch television audience in stunned silence with a rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Like laughing uproariously but a few years ago as she shared stories of her romantic exploits at the ripe young age of 67!
Nina was a character, beginning to end. A fearless warrior for truth and injustice, her music was not easily accepted by the music industry establishment: when she performed songs of protest like “Mississippi Goddam” or sang to uplift a generation with her original version of “To Be Young, Gifted And Black,” the white male-run record labels of the ‘60s and ‘70s did not warm to her.
Nina was not conventional: she wore African garb long before it was ‘acceptable’; her Afro pre-dated that of practically every black female entertainer; she did not compromise her look or her stance for anyone. Ultimately, her refusal to acquiesce or give in to the demands of an industry that wanted black female artists to conform to a specific look and sound led to her self-imposed exile. Nina spent much of the past thirty years living outside the U.S. – in the Caribbean, Africa and finally in Europe, residing in France in a new home she proudly told me in 2000, ‘overlooks the Mediterranean!’
Thanks to the compact disc revolution, thousands of record buyers discovered Nina Simone’s music during the past decade. Exposure to her work was certainly aided by the use of some of her songs in television commercials and her recordings were prominently featured in the film “Point Of No Return.”
Ultimately, years after she stopped recording on a regular basis, Nina sold over one million CDs, an amazing feat in itself. That renewed success led to a series of concert appearances in the U.S., and always performing before packed houses, Nina cajoled, laughed, berated, smiled…but mostly, gave people an experience they would never forget.
I still remember watching her sitting at the piano, opening her set with “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” the very first song I ever heard by her back in ’65 before ending her set with an emotionally wrenching version of “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” The title of that Jacques Brel song translates as “Don’t Leave Me.”
Well, Nina – with all the external bravado that hid a warm and tender heart – has left but her memory lingers on through her timeless music and the presence of her wonderfully talented daughter Lisa Celeste, known professionally as Simone and star of the Broadway musical “Aida,” who has formed the Nina Simone Foundation in her honor.
Peace be still, Nina: I am so much richer for you having been such a presence in my life and I dedicate my first CD “Reinvention” in your memory.