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“Princess Noire” Chronicles Talent and Temperament of Nina Simone

Bijan C. Bayne | 2/23/2010, 8:38 a.m.

 In spring of 1957, agent Jerry Field signed Nina to the Queen Mary Room of Philly’s swank Rittenhouse Hotel, first for $100 a week, then $175. She signed her first recording contract with an indie label, Bethlehem Records. Though they recorded her with talented sidemen bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer “Tootie” Heath, she left the label and signed with Columbia Records, and at 27 years old, opened at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard backed by the Kenny Burrell Trio. She scored a chart hit with a song she disliked but mainstream audiences loved, the show-tune “I Love You Porgy.” Even as Nina headed to work the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago, she considered the money as a means to pay for a career as a classical pianist.

 Nina’s peers thought she felt herself superior to her genre. She toured Africa with the American Society of African Culture in 1961 (actor Brock Peters, choreographer Geoffrey Holder and classical pianist Natalie Hinderas traveled with Simone). After her first North Carolina gig, her drummer was accused of stealing a white woman’s purse and stashing it in the restroom of the Raleigh train depot. Nina lashed out at the local police until the matter was dropped. She was rehearsing or composing in her den on Sept. 15, 1963, when she heard radio news of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Sunday School bombing in Birmingham that took the lives of four young Negro girls.

“All truths that I had denied myself for so long rose up and slapped me in the face,” she later wrote, comparing the sentiment to St. Paul’s epiphany at Damascus. The entertainer thought of fashioning a weapon to hurt someone with. Her husband discouraged violence, telling her all she had was her music. Out of that hurt came her famed composition “Mississippi G—dam.”

In the mid-1960’s, Simone achieved a popularity and niche not reflected in record sales. She performed benefits for the Civil Rights Movement, and in an area the author dedicates far too little attention to, was one of the first nationally recognized Negro women to wear her hair naturally. Cohodas excels at painting vivid pictures of Simone in concert, her sullen glares at noisy fans, her trendy or cultural attire, and her moods.

In what would become another of her trends, Simone sued a former record label for $1 million dollars when they released old studio work without her approval. Her objection was as much based on the technical inferiority of the production as the absence of permission. As controversial as “Mississippi G—dam” was, two radio stations discontinued playing her “Four Women,” largely because the dramatic offering featured a stanza about a prostitute named “Sweet Thing” and a street tough named “Peaches.”  White listeners were also uncomfortable with the lyrics mulatto character “Sephronia” sang, “My father was rich and white; He forced my mother late one night.”

Simone continued to connect better with live audiences than she did on wax. In London in ‘67, she slammed a piano lid and walked offstage. She shouted “Shut up” to West Indians in the London audience who vocally requested, “My Baby Cares For Me.” The author recounts a number of times she insulted white patrons, often declaring her performance was really for the black attendees. Simone’s anthem “Young, Gifted And Black” became late 1960’s hit and tour favorite, for a decade supplanting “Lift Ev’ry Voice” as an unofficial black national anthem. Simone was a seminal cultural figure of the Black-is-Beautiful era. Maya Angelou profiled her for “Redbook.” She posed for a fashion spread in 1971 for a new magazine for Black women called “Essence.”