Almost two decades since her death, Nina Simone’s legacy has once again been in the headlines since the release of the 2016 biopic, Nina. The casting of Zoe Saldana in the title role sparked a sea of controversy, with light-skinned Saldana painted in makeup akin to blackface and a prosthetic nose. For Simone, a musician whose artistry was so deeply intertwined with her skin tone, it proved to be painfully problematic. While the film itself received an avalanche of rotten tomatoes, no one has ever questioned Nina Simone’s influence or power. They wouldn’t dare.
Continuing Women’s History Month, today I’m revisiting a concert the legendary lady gave in 1998, at an equally revered music hall that is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary, the Royal Albert Hall in London. What a venue, what a woman.
The last of the jazz greats, Nina Simone was a singer with a voice like no other. Her cavern-deep contralto allowed her to reach depths that a lot of female singers physically can’t reach, while the soaring, rasping grit of her high register could tear through your skin, and burn your eardrums. Often unstable, fluctuating within both pitch and timbre, it’s a voice we’re supposed to hate yet it’s these imperfections that make her voice so undeniably Nina. There’s a reason hip-hop and R&B has been sampling these legendary vocals for years – because in the 2020s she is still one of the most important voices in music, recurring and re-evolving, that we need to hear right now.
Actually, to refer to Nina Simone as simply a jazz singer is inadequate. Defying categorisation, Simone did not so much move between different genres as combine them into her own distinctive style. Her work eluded pigeonholes like ‘jazz, ‘blues’, ‘soul’, ‘folk’ and ‘gospel’, yet she melded them all into a unique poppy Aframerican style with the training she received as a classically trained pianist in 1950s Philadelphia.
Me, I love Simone singing Gershwin and Berlin most of all, because not only was she a distinguished songwriter, but her repertoire included interpretations of everything from American musical standards to the songbooks of British bands like The Beatles and the Bee Gees, as well as original and powerful compositions on racial and social injustice.
A fearless warrior for truth and injustice, coupled with a passion, integrity and commitment to change, at the height of her career the singer was fantastically outspoken on the subject of civil rights for black people, using her voice to scream the painful truth in people’s faces.
When she wrote songs protesting racism in America like Mississippi Goddam or sang to uplift a generation with To Be Young, Gifted And Black, she alienated the white male-run record labels of the ‘60s and ‘70s and her music was not easily accepted by the establishment.
Even so, she saw it as her mission to deliver the words of hope (Feeling Good’s “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day”) while continuing to shine a discomforting light on the stubborn edifice of white power.
Soothsayer, chastiser, conjurer, philosopher, historian, actor, politician, archivist, ethnographer, black love proselytiser: if Nina was around today she wouldn’t just be voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, she’d be on the frontline of these necessary people-powered mass disturbances, not only wearing a BLM T-shirt but staying up all night to make them.
Liz Taylor is most definitely not her style.
Simone’s activism was intrinsically tied to her artistry, and as she once said: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times…That to me is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved.”
I’d listened and loved Nina Simone’s recordings since the CD revolution of the 1980s introduced her music to a new generation of record buyers. It was a new kind of exposure that was certainly aided by the use of some of her songs in television commercials — packaged, it must be said, with fluffy generic visuals that preferred to show cartoon animals than the black face of the actual performer.
The dodgy marketing worked, anyway, and a re-release of My Baby Just Cares For Me went to No.5 in 1987, giving Simone her biggest hit since the one about the “boobies” — 1968’s Ain’t Got No-I Got Life, still her biggest success in Britain (it‘s my mother’s fave Nina tune) during the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination across the pond in a Memphis motel.
Almost out of the blue, I managed to bag a ticket to see her sing to a spellbound audience of 5,000 or so at the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington on 14 December 1998. With Sinatra gone, and the lady Ella Fitzgerald having checked out a couple of years earlier, Simone represented the last female living icon of the sophisticated and timeless American jazz tradition, a reputation solidified as the world’s most famous musical diva.
I have to admit, it was a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I entered the hall. Not only had she been diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the year, but after much publicised battles with her mental health, a Nina Simone concert had come to symbolise the woman herself: erratic, unpredictable and often prone to car crash territory.
That The Big Issue had just published an imperious new interview with angry old one just added to the unease. That’ll be the un-cosy fireside chat at her “cluttered villa” near Marseille where she instructed the journalist: “Please tell my public that there aren’t many of us geniuses still living. It‘s down to Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra. Except Frank’s already dead.”
This was the same testy exhange where she admitted she hates people and hurls a string of verbal assaults at Clifton, her gay male nurse-cum-personal manager then: “Gays like you ought to be lined up and shot, she told him. “You go against God.”
Remind me who that is again?
So, after a K-Groove accompanied support set from her own daughter, Lisa, 66 year-old Dr. Nina Simone waded on to the stage with some hired help and clutching what looked like a horsehair fly-whisk. With her health problems in mind, she has become more stocky and wild-eyed than ever, and clearly has difficulty walking. The crowd don’t mind, though, giving her a sheroes’ welcome. Drinking up the adoration of the London crowd, Simone waits regally for the applause to die down before she takes a lump of chewing gum out of her mouth, and sticks it on the side of the grand piano she’s plonked herself beside.
At regular between-song intervals, the good doctor will brandish the whisk whenever she feels like the audience aren’t loud enough in their appreciation. She cajoles, laughs, berates, smiles…but mostly, she gives people an experience they will never forget. Indeed, it’s hard to picture little Eunice Waymon on the streets of small town Tryon*, North Carolina. Present day Nina seems to have been born with the hauteur of an empress – or at least a High Priestess of Soul, as she prefers to be billed, however grandly.
Tinkling the immaculately lacquered Steinway (black, naturally), she opens her set with a slightly shaky Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair and a raucous version of the Pentecostal spiritual Every Time I Feel The Spirit, both in a drag-queen bark with a range more hoarse than Shergar. The stab at Dylan’s Just Like A Woman is equally clumsy.
Things get better though.
Raising her fist in an ANC-like salute, she conducts the crowd on the first of many clapping sprees. With George Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun, her voice starts to soften, but it’s not until another number, the ‘30s chestnut Just Say I Love Him, that her rich, mahogany tones really begin to emerge. With a simple ballad about a woman alone yearning for lost love, shades of Simone’s magnificence return.
For the umpteenth time, she brandishes the fly-whisk like a conductor’s baton she’s decided to weaponise. Or, as we’re in London, perhaps she thinks she’s Michael Heseltine waving the parliamentary mace all over the House of Commons like some she-Tarzan with a stolen African sceptre.
The majority white hipster crowd yelps its radical-chic appreciation, then dutifully sings along to rousing Mississippi Goddam and a majestic I Loves You, Porgy. “You better keep loving me and buying my albums,” she commands after telling us she’s a bit tired.
There are further consolation prizes tucked at the tail end of the set: a version of I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl that reminds you of just how great Simone was and could still be if she got over her grande-dame airs and distancing devices. Sung with care and sensuality, its multiple entendres are left to speak for themselves, it’s Nina at her dark bluesy best.
The set concludes with a sorrowful, almost wrenching version of Ne Me Quitte Pas. The title of that Aznavour song translates as Don’t Leave Me. Well, Nina – with all the external pomp and bravado that hid an anguished heart – has left the stage but her memory lingers on through all that transcendent music.
I left the Albert Hall thinking what a brilliant, batty, pampered old diva she is. It’s not for nothing that the website where cabin crew from around the world dish the dirt on which celebs were easy to deal with and which fall under the ‘difficult’ category. Nina Simone? “There was someone who was a handful.” Quelle surprise.
Enigmatic and eccentric, Nina Simone was a character, beginning to end, and it was an evening I will never forget. I’m so glad I got to see her. Twice. Because, a year later, I was at a taping of a Channel 4 television show called Music Of The Millennium and, among the likes of your Travis and your (extremely stoned) Macy Gray, an unbilled, unexpected Nina Simone was wheeled on (literally) to perform a slightly ragged version of My Baby Just Cares For Me, the first song of hers I remember hearing.
Whatever you do, don’t scroll to 4:40 to see a skinny bespectacled me in a black roll-neck applauding Nina after she was asked by the rubbish presenter Richard Blackwood the ridiculous question to end all ridiculous questions: “You got Backstreet Boys, you got TLC — who do you admire out of the new groups that are out there today?”
“I don’t!,” came the all too obvious reply, and with that they wheeled her off again, brutally honest to her core. We can pore over her catalogue and her legacy til we’re blue in the face, but the great thing about Nina Simone was that she was totally unafraid to say what needed to be said. Inspired by her lack of beigeness, it’s been an aspiration of mine to earn the platform to say whatever I feel needs to be said, however much feathers may get ruffled. She put a spell on all of us.
When, three years later, mourners gathered in the pretty Côte d’Azur port town of Carry-le-Rouet to pay their last respects to Nina Simone at the end of April of 2003, they did so to celebrate the life of a legendary lady, but also to pay tribute to an extraordinary life devoted to battling oppression and speaking her mind.
“She was not only an artist but also a freedom fighter,” said ‘Mama Africa’ Miriam Makeba before taking her seat inside the church.
There can be no better epitaph, naturellement.
Steve Pafford, South of France
*I did manage to smuggle a camera (a Kodak Avantix 3700ix, once owned by David Bowie) into the Albert Hall that night, but the resulting photos were pretty poor. Much better are the travel snaps from 2019, when my US road trip stopped off at Nina’s 660-square foot clapboard birthpace and statue in tiny town Tryon; these days a lovely artsy enclave where North and South Carolina collide. Viva Simone.