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Reading Nina Simone’s tragic life

Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas. Pantheon Books, 2010. 449 pages.

The first time I ever heard Nina Simone sing, I was in one of those pretentious “high fi” stores in Atlanta back in the early ’60’s where all of the clerks wore lab coats, which suggested that they were trained specialists who had access to highly arcane knowledge. They used terms like “woofers” and “tweeters” and were constantly adjusting the “decibel levels” on a row of gigantic speakers. In order to demonstrate the merits of the speakers, one of the “specialists” picked up a Nina Simone record and dropped it on the turntable, saying, “Listen to this.”

The recording was “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and it is still one of my favorites. Suddenly, the speakers vibrated, and Nina Simone’s deep, dark contralto literally made the hair stand up on my neck. I had never heard a voice like that before, and I was fairly certain that all of the high tech equipment wasn’t responsible for the aching, near-painful beauty of this woman’s voice. I became an instant fan.

In all of the years that I listened to Nina Simone sing (1960-2000), I knew very little about her personal life except what I gleaned from liner notes and album covers. I knew that she had been born in Tryon, N.C., and had been proclaimed a “musical prodigy” by the time she was nine. I saw references to Carnegie Hall concerts,and I knew that she had marched with Martin Luther King. I knew that she had become a kind of deified goddess in Europe as she blazed a trail that was both inspiring and troubling due to her bizarre and unpredictable behavior on stage. There were magazine articles about her confrontations with her fans and promoters in the concert halls of London, Paris and Nassau where she frequently refused to perform because of imagined slights and repeatedly walked out of performances.

I received something of a shock when I read her autobiography several years ago (I Put a Spell on You), for it revealed the troubled life of a woman who readily acknowledged her mental instability but seemed incapable of accepting the blame for conduct that wrecked her marriages and alienated her friends, family and fans. However, Nadine Cohodas has now published a painfully detailed biography, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, that finally reveals all of the bitterness, vanity, fears and guilt that haunted this gifted and tragic woman.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933. Eunice’s mother was a minister and musician, and although the family was poor, J. D. Waymon provided for his family by operating both a barbershop and laundry. Although most of the region remained segregated for another 25 years, Tryon’s artistic and cultural community proved to be exceptionally tolerant. In fact, when Eunice’s musical talents became common knowledge (she was playing hymns at the age of 3), some of the town’s prominent residents established the “Eunice Waymon Fund” to pay for her music lessons. In addition, a noted musician, Muriel Mazzanovich who had retired to Tryon, taught the budding prodigy, training her to be a classical concert pianist.

Nina Simone’s biographer, Nadine Cohodas, provides significant evidence that the obsession to be a black classical pianist was the seed of discontent that would provide the basis for Nina’s mental illness. Subjecting herself to rigorous training, Eunice attended the Allen School of Music in Asheville (1949) and was given a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York with the goal of being eventually accepted at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Throughout these years of training, Eunice Waymon developed a reputation as a solitary young woman who denied herself any distraction (no boyfriends, no parties, etc.). Indeed, many felt that her determination and fervor were detrimental to her character.

When the Curtis Institute rejected Eunice’s application, the blow was devastating. In later years, Nina often noted that the Institute’s rejection was motivated by racism. The broken-hearted girl vowed to apply again, but in the meanwhile, she needed to make a living. Then, one of her friends recommended that she apply for a position in one of the numerous bars or nightclubs in Atlantic City where many young musicians found summer work.

It was at this point that Nina Simone was born.

When the owner of the Midtown Bar asked her for her “stage name,” Eunice told him to call her Nina Simone. “I always liked the name Nina, and I saw the name Simone on a movie poster” (probably the French actress Simone Signoret).

For many years, Nina told her friends that her work as a jazz and blues pianist was temporary. However, within a few months she had developed an ardent following. Her audiences were fascinated by the unusual blend of classics like Bach and contemporary jazz. At first, Nina resisted singing, but when the club owners insisted, she began to sing in the dark, dramatic contralto that would make her famous. When she became a sensation in New York, she finally stopped her strenuous training sessions and gave up her dream of being admitted to the Curtis.

However, her nightclub performances were the beginning of Nina’s conflict with her audiences. She refused to sing if there disturbances (laughter and talking) in the club, and would often stand staring resentfully at the crowd until she had total silence. “I expect and deserve respect,” she often told them. Other times she was more direct. “Shut up!” she would say, pointing at the offending party.

When fame came to Nina Simone, it was both disconcerting and exhilarating. An early bad marriage left her embittered. In addition, a series of relationships with unethical recording companies — which had issued many of her records illegally — had cheated her out of millions of dollars. Her subsequent financial problems produced a growing sense of paranoia and the feeling that she was being victimized by everyone.

Although her career flourished during the next 40 years, Nina’s mental illness grew steadily worse. She was finally diagnosed as schizophrenic, but due to her mounting debts and lavish lifestyle, she continued to perform in folk festivals, Carnegie Hall concerts and the performance centers of Europe and Africa. Even when she began arriving late for concerts and initiating shouting matches with irate audiences, her performance would frequently turn the tide and the same audiences that booed her tardiness and provocative speeches would end up give her standing ovations.

During the civil rights movement, Nina marched with Martin Luther King, writing and singing hundreds of protest songs. Among her best friends who rallied to her side during her tumultuous final years were the writer James Baldwin; Lorraine Hansbury, the playwright who wrote “Raisin in the Sun;” and the poet, Langston Hughes. When she died on April 20, 2003, she was living in a small seaside village in France where a group of devoted friends tended to her every need.

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