In a clip from a 1968 television interview featured in Liz Garbus’s new film, What Happened, Miss Simone?, its subject is asked about freedom. “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me, no fear. If I could have that half of my life, no fear…” with that, Nina Simone’s voice trails off.
Whatever fears Simone had, it didn’t prevent her from being a totally authentic performer and brutally honest woman on and off the stage. Little was hidden, her volatile temper impossible to hide and she could snap in an instant. “She was brilliant, a revolutionary, she used her voice to speak out for her people,” says her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly. But whilst other musicians used their position from the stage and turned off once home, Nina couldn’t turn her rage and sense of injustice on and off. “Nina was Nina 24/7” and that was a problem.
That injustice was rooted from an early age. What the young Eunice Waymon wanted was to be the first black classical concert pianist in America. After playing in church from the age of three or four, two white women heard her, then aged seven, play a recital and took her – literally – across the tracks to learn classical music and set up a trust fund to support her. For up to eight hours a day Eunice isolated herself from her peers to study Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Brahms.
After graduating from high school, and with the money saved from the Eunice Waymon Fund, she went to New York to study for a year and then in 1950 applied for a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She had the ability but was rejected on colour. The money ran out. The whole family had moved to Philadelphia to support her, were very poor, so she got a job playing piano in a bar – pop, classical, spirituals, anything and everything. When the owner insisted Eunice had to sing to keep her job, she did. She became a singer out of necessity. Ninety dollars a night – midnight to seven - was great money but as she attempted to hide from her mother she was playing the devil’s music in bars adopted a new name. Nina Simone was born.
Garbus’s film tells her story using archival footage, radio interviews, concert footage (including full songs which makes a welcome change from most documentaries), Nina’s diaries and a small number of new interviews including: Lisa Simone Kelly; her guitarist Al Schackman; two of daughters of El Hajj Malik al-Shabazz (Malcolm X in old money); and excerpts from a 2006 interview with former husband and manager Andrew Stroud. Liz Garbus wisely only includes those who knew Nina well, so relax in the knowledge Bono’s big face isn’t going to hog the screen claiming what massive influence Simone’s music had whilst growing up on the mean streets of Dublin.
Andy Stroud was, in Al Schackman’s words, “a tough, New York, vice squad cop”, who married Nina in 1961 and took over as her manager. By all accounts he did a tremendous job in promoting her and building her career. Mindful of her desire to be the first black concert pianist to play Carnegie Hall he set about making that happen in 1963. When none of the New York promoters undertook the project, he put up the money. According to him Nina was “out of her mind with joy”. In her version that happiness was tempted by the fact she wasn’t playing Bach.
What Nina did play at Carnegie Hall the following year was a new song she’d written in the aftermath of the Alabama church bombing which killed four young girls and the murder of Medgar Evers. “Mississippi Goddam” sparked in Nina a sense of purpose to her music. Al Schackman noticed when they’d met years earlier there was something eating away at her and now it got stronger and had an outlet. It’s interesting listening to that recording of “Mississippi Goddam” and hear the almost exclusively white audience reaction. At the beginning they’re laughing as if the cussing was for jokey effect. Five minutes later they’re in no doubt she was serious and on her way to an almost complete transformation.
As the Civil Rights Movement moved into the Black Power era, Nina’s music and attitude became more militant and delivering a message for a black audience her overriding concern. As an activist she aligned herself with the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X and the By Any Means Necessary philosophy ("terrorists" in Stroud's words), telling Dr Martin Luther King Jr. “I am not non-violent”.
Violent episodes provide the two most shocking episodes in the film. Firstly, in a radio interview Nina recounts a horrific attack by her husband, and then her daughter tells how after she’d gone to live with her in Africa, her mother became “a monster” and was now the one conducting the beatings. At the age of 14 Lisa considered suicide before flying back to New York to be with her father.
During her years in Africa Nina had no manager, no husband, wasn’t performing and hated the piano. Eventually she had to get her career back so moved to Switzerland and then Paris where Andrew Schackman found her “Like a street urchin, in rags”. Medication for manic depression eventually quietened her temperament but even her daughter admits it removed some of her soul. It was neither easy being Nina Simone nor living with Nina Simone. The drugs did help both.
There’s much What Happened, Miss Simone? doesn’t say - it’s a difficult life to squeeze into under two hours – but it documents a unique (often, let's be honest, scary) woman, a brilliant performer and incredible artist who no matter what style of music she played – jazz, soul, blues, folk, pop - occupied a genre all of her own. No one sounds like Nina Simone.
What Happened, Miss Simone is available to view on NetFlix