Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
By Nadine Cohodas
Hardcover, 464 pages
List price: $30
"I understood fully for the first time the importance of black song, black music, black arts. I was handed my spiritual assignment that night."
— Ossie Davis, after seeing Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial, Easter Sunday, 1939
It was more a path emerging than a promise fulfilled that put Nina Simone on a makeshift stage in Montgomery, Alabama, on a sodden March night in 1965. She wanted to sing for the bedraggled men and women who had trekked three days from Selma to present their case for black voting rights to a recalcitrant Governor George Wallace. Nina was following the lead of James Baldwin, her good friend, mentor, and sparring partner at dinner¬table debates, a role he shared with Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry. They were her circle of inspiration, writers who found their voice in the crackling word on the page—the deft phrase and the trenchant insight that described a world black Americans so often experienced as unforgiving.
Nina linked her voice to theirs, understanding from the time she was Eunice Waymon, a precocious little girl in Tryon, North Carolina, what it was to be young, gifted, and black, even if she couldn't find the words to express it. On that stage in Montgomery, long since transformed into Nina Simone, she sang "Mississippi Goddam," her litany of racial injustice and a signal that she, too, had found her spiritual assignment: to use her talent for the singular cause of freeing her people and not incidentally herself. She never suggested the task was easy, and anyone willing to listen, willing to heed her exhortations, could engage in the struggle at her side.
"I didn't get interested in music," Nina explained. "It was a gift from God." But when private demons besieged her, a rage of breathtaking dimension obscured that gift, blinding her to everyday realities even as the anger informed her creations and at the same time served to attract, provoke, and on occasion repel an audience. Yet through it all came the unmistakable pride of accomplishment. "When I'm on that stage, I assume honor. I assume compensation," she declared, "and I should."
In the best of times Nina could embrace the mysteries of her art, finding comfort in the ineffable. "Did you know that the human voice is the only pure instrument?" she wrote one of her brothers. "That it has notes no other instrument has? It's like being between the keys of a piano. The notes are there, you can sing them, but they can't be found on any instrument. That's like me. I live in between this. I live in both worlds, the black and white world. I am Nina Simone, the star, and I am not here. I'm a woman. My secret self is between these worlds."
From Chapter 1:
Called For and Delivered
~ June 1898–February 1933 ~
The gifts that would turn Eunice Waymon into Nina Simone were apparent by the time she was three, though the passions, the mood swings, and the ferocious intensity that marked her adult life were buried for years under her talent. She was born on February 21, 1933, the sixth of eight children, in Tryon, North Carolina, a town perched at the border between North and South Carolina, on the southern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The beautiful surroundings, the pleasant climate, and the good railroad service established by the turn of the century helped Tryon grow from a rural outpost to a haven for white artists and their friends, many of them from the North. Visitors stayed and put down roots, those with keen business instincts making investments that gave the town its municipal backbone.
Eunice's birth certificate listed her father, John Davan Waymon, as a barber and her mother, Kate Waymon, as a housekeeper. But these descriptions, necessitated by the limited space on the state's official form, failed to capture the creative, entrepreneurial path John had woven through a world both circumscribed and defined by race. Likewise, "housekeeper" did not do justice to the pursuits of his equally determined wife to stretch the boundaries of their lives and give the family its spiritual core.
They were respected members of black Tryon and were treated with the patronizing courtesy whites traditionally reserved for those black residents deemed "a cut above." The Waymons set an example of hard work for their children, underscored by a deep faith that from Kate's perspective could ease disappointment and loss. Eunice had her doubts, and in her troubled moments as an adult, she would take little solace from her mother's lessons. Her father's buoyant spirit and pragmatic outlook, on the other hand, drew her in. "He was a clever man," she recalled. "Although he wasn't educated, he had a genius for getting on."
John Davan Waymon and Kate Waymon came from South Carolina, each the descendant of slaves. John, born June 24, 1898, in Pendleton, a small town near Clemson University, was the youngest of several children. A gifted musician, he played the harmonica, banjo, guitar, and Jew's harp. "He could take a tub and make music out of it," one of his children would say later with evident admiration, noting, too, that his father had the unique ability to whistle two notes at once. "We could hear that many blocks away—Daddy whistling in the night." Tall, with a high forehead and prominent cheekbones, he looked the part of the song¬and-dance man he became in his teens, dressed in a sharp white suit, spats over his shoes, cane in hand when he entertained the locals.
Kate was born November 20, 1901, and christened Mary Kate Irvin (though some family members spelled it Ervin), the baby among fourteen children—seven girls and seven boys. She was never sure what town her parents lived in when she arrived, only that it was in South Carolina, probably Spartanburg County. Her father was a Methodist minister, and while her mother was not officially trained, she had absorbed enough religion to carry on the ministry if Reverend Irvin was called away. Kate's heritage on her mother's side was an unusual mix. She took after her maternal grandfather, who was a full-blooded Indian, tall "and of the yellow kind," as she recalled, and her maternal grandmother, who was short and dark with luxuriant black hair, which Kate inherited. She often wore it in a braid wrapped around her head.
One of Kate's sisters, Eliza, was married to a pastor who led the congregation in Pendleton where John Davan worshipped. Sometime in 1918 he introduced John, then twenty-one, to Kate, only seventeen. Kate remembered that they sang "Day Is Dying in the West" together at church. John was smitten, and he promptly wrote Kate asking to visit her in Inman, where she now lived with her widowed mother. On that first visit they went for a buggy ride, and soon John was coming by every Saturday and staying through Sunday evening. Their routine on these visits usually included a ride in the countryside, the couple entertaining themselves with duets. Kate's alto blended easily with John's tenor on their favorites, "Whispering Hope" and "Sail On." At the Irvins' they sang around the little organ Mrs. Irvin had bought for her daughter. She paid for a few lessons, and then Kate taught herself the rest.
Few of their friends were surprised when John and Kate married in 1920. They moved to Pendleton to live briefly with John's mother, and then they settled back in Inman. Their first child, John Irvin, was born in March 1922. The year after that Lucille arrived, and then came the twins, Carrol and Harold. When he was just six weeks old, Harold contracted spinal meningitis. He wasn't expected to live, but he survived, with a permanent paralysis on one side.
Though he still loved music, John gave up entertainment to take a job in a dry cleaning plant. He learned the business so quickly and with such thoroughness that he decided to open his own shop. He was also a part-time barber, and to earn extra money he took on work as a trucker. Just as important, he moved comfortably between the worlds of black and white, reaping rewards on both sides of the color line. He prospered enough in Inman so that Kate could stay home to take care of the four children. She even found time to take piano lessons to burnish her natural talent.
On one of his truck-driving jobs, John took a load of goods into Tryon, and right away he saw business opportunities for someone with ingenuity and energy. Years later the children remembered the prospect of opening a barbershop as the family's reason for moving, but more likely it was the chance to run a dry cleaner's that would serve the burgeoning tourist trade. John, Kate, and the children moved to Tryon early in 1929, taking a small house just off the main street. John opened his shop as planned, proudly announcing in a small ad in the Tryon Daily Bulletin "Dry Cleaning and Pressing—Called for and Delivered." He even had a phone and listed himself by his nickname, "J.D." Waymon. On March 7, not long after settling in, Kate gave birth to Dorothy, her fifth child in barely seven years.
From Chapter 2:
We Knew She Was a Genius
~ March 1933–August 1941 ~
John Irvin sang in a St. Luke quartet and played guitar with his father; Lucille, Carrol, Harold, and Dorothy sang in the church choir, but even before their baby sister could walk, they realized she had more musical talent than all of them. "When she was eight months old, my daughter hummed 'Down by the Riverside' and 'Jesus Loves Me,' " Kate said. "I had a quilt that I had on the floor for her, and she wanted to look at magazines. Every time she saw a musical note, she tried to sing."
Parishioners at St. Luke commented, when they saw little Eunice at church, that she clapped in time to the hymns. She must be blessed, they told her parents. By the time she was two and a half, Eunice could hoist herself onto the stool in front of the organ, sit at the keyboard, and make sounds come out, and not just any sounds. One time she played her mother's favorite hymn, "God Be with You Till We Meet Again," without a mistake.
"We knew she was a genius by the time she was three," her brother Carrol declared, and it is a tribute to her parents that Eunice's brothers and sisters did not begrudge the attention and opportunities that came her way. "She was preserved," Dorothy remembered, exempted from the typical chores, washing dishes and the like. "Her fingers were protected. She was always special in that way. Nobody was jealous," Dorothy added. "We adored her."
Eunice took this special status in stride because her parents insisted on it. She didn't dare get a swelled head. Yes, she had talent, her parents told her, but the talent was God-given, and she should be grateful. Eunice didn't know what a "prodigy" was when people called her that, and no one at home explained it to her either. All she knew was that she absorbed the music she heard, especially the religious songs her mother sang around the house, "I'll Fly Away" and "If You Pray Right (Heaven Belongs to You)." Kate sang when she cleaned and when she baked, and Eunice loved it when her mother, rarely missing a beat, sat her on the countertop, gave her an empty jam jar, and let her cut out shapes from the biscuit dough about to go in the oven.
As a full-fledged minister now, Kate traveled through the surrounding counties preaching and leading services. When Eunice turned four, Kate took her out on the road to open her events. Most of the time Eunice could barely reach the pedals on the church piano, which made the sight of this little girl dressed in her Sunday best even more arresting. The audience was primed to be impressed before she struck the first note, and Eunice didn't disappoint. Though it might have seemed inappropriate, even cruel, to put a toddler to work, even the Lord's work, Eunice liked the adventure of seeing new places and visiting new churches. If she was tired at the end of these services, she slept in the back seat of the car on the way back to Tryon, undisturbed by the occasional jostling on the bumpy rural roads.
From Chapter 6:
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 Niña 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 Niña—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 Niña. "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. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.