Kenny Mathieson looks at the surprising career of NINA SIMONE the lady once labelled The High Priestess of Soul.
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he continuing success ofsinger Nina Simone is one of the stranger facets of the current pop and jazz market. On the one hand. Simone is an unpredictable and often wildly inconsistent performer given to ludicrously overdramatic delivery. abbreviated sets. repeating songs (a friend ofmine swears he once heard her plav the same song six times in a set at Ronnie Scott‘s) and outbursts of unpredictable behaviour.
At the other extreme. though. she is an emotive. rough-edged singer who successfullv bridges the gap between blues. soul and jazz.dand accordingly appeals to a broad and. as anyone
who saw her Mayfest concert in Glasgow will attest. adoring audience.
Although she has recorded many jazz tunes with many jazz musicians. including the fastest version I have ever heard of Duke Ellington‘s beautiful ballad. ‘Mood lndigo‘.Simone’s powerful voice and unorthodox interpretations have always seemed most effective in the blues and soul field. underpinned as they are by a strong and very overt gospel inﬂuence. All ofthese diverse strands have been woven into a distinctively personal. highly recognisable musical signature.
It could all have been very different. though. had her original aspiration been fulfilled. Born Eunice Wayman into a poor North Carolina family in 1933. she exhibited her gift for music at an early age. and remembers ‘studying music six to eight hours a day from when l was five years old. By the time I finished high school. I could play anything.‘
I ler family and friends. including her music teacher. went to considerable lengths to enable her to continue her musical studies at the prestigious Julliard School in New York. Her ambition was to be a concert pianist. but disappointment lay just around the corner. At the age of seventeen. she applied for a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. and came face-to-face with what she still regards as institutional racism in the City of Brotherly Love.
‘1 was too good not to get that scholarship.’ she claims. ‘but they turned me down because of my colour. Back in those days. black people were not supposed to be concert pianists.” It is impossible at this distance to gauge the accuracy ofthat claim. at least in term’s of Simone‘s genuine potential as a concert pianist. but if it was a loss to the classical stage. it was popular music‘s gain. Simone took up singing when she moved into the seedy world of saloons and bars. until a massive hit with Gershwin‘s ‘l Loves You Porgy’ in 1957 established her as a major draw in her new role.
She has enjoyed a distinctly uneasy relationship with the business ever since. and has even claimed that 'showbusiness was a deep mistake for me‘. and a waste of her talent. It is not unreasonable to deduce that the Curtis Institute rejection sparked her involvement in black militant politics during the 1960s. when she became an outspoken defender ofblack rights. and wrote the anthemic ‘Young. Gifted and Black’. and the caustic protest songs ‘Four Women‘ and ‘Mississippi Goddamn‘.
In the 1970s. though. she all but slipped from sight. living in Liberia and Switzerland (she now makes Amsterdam her home). and making the headlines more for personal strife than artistic achievements. That career has revived in the 1980s. boosted by the success of her poppy 1957 recording “My Baby Just Cares For Me‘. which topped European charts after its appearance in a Chanel advertisement.
Rather against the odds. the 57 year-old singer is once again a major concert draw. and released a new album ofessentially pop-flavoured songs. Nina '5 Back. last year. Then again. perhaps we should not be so surprised: if there is any lesson to be drawn from Nina Simone's often rough. up-and-down life. it is that the lady is a born
Nina Simone, Queen's Hull. 27/1ng. 7.30pm.
The List 24 — 30 August 1990 9