'Princess' Nina Simone: The Voice Of A Movement

Nina Simone i i

Nina Simone's hits include "I Put A Spell On You," "To Be Young, Gifted And Black" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." Ian Showell/Getty Images/Hulton Archive hide caption

itoggle caption Ian Showell/Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Nina Simone

Nina Simone's hits include "I Put A Spell On You," "To Be Young, Gifted And Black" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."

Ian Showell/Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
By Nadine Cohodas
Hardcover, 464 pages
Pantheon
List price: $30

Read An Excerpt

From lovable to intimidating, singer Nina Simone left people with widely varying impressions of her — but her talent was indisputable.

In Princess Noire, Nadine Cohodas chronicles Simone's life and the passion she expressed in songs that became anthems of the civil rights movement.

Cohodas was inspired by Simone the Woman, and the tumultuous period in American history in which she grew up and became an artist.

"What interested me was the intersection of race and culture," Cohodas tells NPR's Tony Cox.

She says Simone was someone "whose art was so completely fused with her identity. She wasn't simply an African-American woman who sang, but she was someone who wove that into the art that she made."

Simone's racial consciousness was raised at a very young age when she was asked to perform in a piano recital at the library in her hometown of Tryon, N.C. Her parents were seated in the front row, but before she started to play, Cohodas says, "she noticed that one of the white leaders in town came over and quietly asked them could they please move to the back, as was the custom then, because another white couple had come in and should have the front-row seat."

Simone, then known by her given name, Eunice Waymon, objected. Cohodas says she "just looked at that and said absolutely not, and announced publicly that if anyone expected her to play this recital, she had to be looking right at her mother and father, sitting in the front seats."

Later in life, Simone moved in pretty gifted circles and counted Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin as her friends.

"These tremendous talents were her circle of inspiration," she says.

According to Cohodas, it's only when you come to know Simone for her deep engagement in the civil rights movement and as a proud African-American that you can begin to understand her better as an artist.

Excerpt: 'Princess Noire'

cohodas cover
Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
By Nadine Cohodas
Hardcover, 464 pages
Pantheon
List price: $30

The Arrival of Nina Simone

June 1954 — June 1956

It was through her students that Eunice got to Atlantic City, New Jersey, the beachfront resort town about an hour's drive from Philadelphia that was famous for three things: the annual Miss America pageant, which had been held at the convention hall since 1940; the Boardwalk; and the topflight performers who entertained the white tourists flocking to the grand hotels. As segregated as any Southern town, Atlantic City had its own black section, here a few blocks north of the Boardwalk, with nightspots that drew the best black talent. Blacks were also found on the Boardwalk, but as the mainstays of the housekeeping and custodial staffs at the hotels. Carrol had been a bellhop at the Claridge for a couple of summers after he got out of the service.

Eunice got curious about the place when she learned that a few of her college-age students took summer jobs at the hotels. One of them said he played the piano in a bar, and Eunice's surprise must have shown on her face—she didn't think he was very good. "Yeah, I know" — he shrugged — "but they're going to pay me $90 a week." And that didn't include tips. It was nearly twice as much as Eunice made on her own. She was intrigued enough to follow up, and through the student, she found an agent who in turn booked her into the Midtown Bar on Pacific Avenue. It was one block away from the Boardwalk and in the heart of the white entertainment district. Carrol remembered that her first booking was on the weekends. They would go together, and she could commute back and forth from Philadelphia.

Early in June 1954, Eunice made her way to 1719 Pacific Avenue, a nondescript one-story building with a sign out front that said "Midtown." She didn't know what to expect, having never been in a bar before, but standing outside, she took a deep breath, opened the door, and went in. She stopped abruptly, overwhelmed by the smell of the place and barely able to see. The smoky air made her eyes water, but she collected herself, walked to the bar, and asked to see Harry Stewart, the owner.

What did she want? the bartender asked. Eunice told him she was the new piano player. The man said she'd have to wait a few minutes because Stewart was busy, but would she like a drink in the meantime? That would be nice, Eunice replied, and asked for a glass of milk. The request brought good-natured laughter from a few of the regulars sitting at the bar. Eunice blushed, and looked around to get her bearings while she waited.

The Midtown was a long, narrow room with a bar that stretched about two thirds of the way down one wall. A few tables and chairs were laid out in the remaining space, and a piano stood on a tiny raised stage at the back. Eunice noticed sawdust on the floor. Locals thought of the place as "just a plain bar — almost a neighborhood type bar," as one put it, for working people. A kitchen was in the back, "Open All Night" under the direction of "Chef Alberto," a newspaper ad announced. Stewart advertised himself as "your host."

"He was a little Jewish guy and had a fat cigar in his mouth as a permanent fixture," Eunice remembered, though she didn't recall how she knew he was Jewish. Perhaps it was just a guess, given the standard view that men who ran nightclubs were usually Jewish. Stewart took Eunice over to the piano, which was no worse than many she'd seen, but it distressed her to see water dripping down from a leaky air conditioner exactly where she would sit. Stewart noticed the same thing, excused himself for a moment, and returned with an umbrella. He opened it and jammed it up into the ceiling near the air conditioner so that now the water was rerouted into a bucket in front of one of the tables.

How did Eunice want to be billed? Stewart asked. The question brought her up short. In the excitement over the new job, she had forgotten about what her family, particularly her mother, would think about her playing in a bar. She might as well tell Kate she was consorting with the devil. But even if Kate never found out, Eunice also realized she could lose students if their parents knew she was slumming in Atlantic City.

"Nina," Eunice replied on the spot.

"She'd always liked 'Nina,'" Carrol explained, noting that Nina was Spanish for little girl.

Fine, Stewart said. But what about the last name? "Simone," she said without hesitation.

"It was not contemplated," according to Carrol. "It was a natural. It seemed to go with it."

The two names together suggested a certain panache. And when pronounced with a Latin flavor, they sounded vaguely foreign:

"Nee-na ... See-mone." "I chose the name Nina because I had always been called Nina — meaning little one — as a child," she told the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin in 1960, though neither Carrol nor her older siblings had any recollection of the nickname. In a different interview the same year with the magazine Rogue she said "Nina" was adapted from a boyfriend who called her Nina. "I don't know where the hell I got Simone from." When she published her memoir in 1991, Nina said that "Simone" came from her appreciation of the French film star Simone Signoret. Variations on the theme, "Nina Simone" felt right as soon as Eunice put the two names together.

Stewart told her to come back in an hour and start to work. When she returned, the regulars at the bar stared in bemusement. Apparently they had never seen a black woman entertainer in the Midtown dressed like Nina. She had changed into a chiffon gown, applied makeup, and fixed her hair as though she was performing at one of her classical recitals. She didn't mind the customers, but she was anxious in this new setting because she didn't know what was expected of her. She calmed herself by ticking off all the pluses: she had talent, she was well trained, and whatever these snickering men at the bar thought of the way she looked, she was the finest pianist they had ever heard. She didn't know anything about this Count Smith, who got top billing in Stewart's ad, but he couldn't be any better than she was even if Stewart advertised him as "royalty at the piano." Nina might be playing at a bar for a bunch of men who were drinking too much, but if she closed her eyes and thought only of the music, she could be onstage at Carnegie Hall.

Once she sat down Nina drew on more than a decade of experience, though she was only twenty-one: gospel from church, Bach and the others from her work with Miss Mazzy, Carl Friedberg, and Vladimir Sokoloff, plus all of the popular tunes she had learned playing for Arline Smith's students and her own. She could mix and match and meld, improvising as she went along. She wouldn't be tied down to three-or-four-minute songs like most piano players, and that first night what she played weren't really "songs" at all but extended poems made up of musical notes instead of words, none of it on paper, all of it in her head. Some of them went on for thirty minutes.

Shortly after four a.m., when the last of the diehards had shuffled out of the bar, Nina asked Stewart for his opinion. The piano playing was very nice and interesting, he said, but why wasn't she singing?

"I'm only a pianist," Nina replied.

Not according to Stewart. Tomorrow night, he told her, "you're either a singer or you're out of a job."

On the ride back to Philadelphia with her brother, Nina realized she had only one alternative: turn herself into a singer. She had used her voice before only as sidelight, when she sang as one of the Waymon Sisters or when she gave occasional pointers to her students. Her limited range allowed her to do only so much with her voice, so the solution was to make singing just one element of her performance rather than the centerpiece. Her voice, she decided, would become "the third layer complementing the other two layers, my right and left hands." To put theory into practice, at her next performance she picked an easy popular song, sang a lyric, and then played around with it, repeating a line once or twice and then moving on. In another song, she repeated an entire verse and then started to improvise the lyrics as she went along. She reminded herself of the congregants at some of those revivals she had played in Tryon, when folks got up to testify, shouting out their revelations over and over. When the night was over, Nina had her own revelation: she was having fun. But more important, Harry Stewart enjoyed it, too.

Nina got more comfortable with each performance, and it dawned on her that she was creating something uniquely hers, even if what came out was Eunice Waymon of Tryon, North Carolina, filtered through Johann Sebastian Bach of Eisenach, Germany. But however unusual, she welcomed the synthesis. For the past year Nina had kept the different parts of her musical life separate. One part was her storefront business, the work to make money. The other part was her real life spent with Bach, Liszt, and the other great composers. She practiced every minute on her own time and then polished the various pieces once a week with Vladimir Sokoloff. She could tolerate the work at the Midtown by making her sets as close to classical music as possible, even though she had to play popular tunes and sing. "The strange thing," she recalled later, "was that when I started to do it, to bring the two halves together, I found a pleasure in it almost as deep as the pleasure I got from classical music." What's more, Nina had to admit that after so many years of feeling pressure to achieve at the keyboard, "the Midtown had made me looser."

Excerpted from Princess Noire by Nadine Cohodas. Copyright 2010 by Nadine Cohodas. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc.