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'Why?': Remembering Nina Simone's Tribute To The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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'Why?': Remembering Nina Simone's Tribute To The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

'Why?': Remembering Nina Simone's Tribute To The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

American cities were burning 40 years ago following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He had preached non-violence and racial equality, but his murder provoked both pain and anger on the streets. On April 7th, 1968, three days after Dr. King was killed, singer and pianist Nina Simone gave a concert at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island, New York.

Active in the civil rights movement, Simone was known for songs like "Mississippi Goddam," which pulled no political punches. The concert was a cathartic event. Simone was at the height of her powers and filled with anguish. The king is dead, she said into the microphone, the king of love is dead.

That night, Simone and her band performed a new song.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. NINA SIMONE (Late Singer): We want to do a tune written for today, for this hour, for Dr. Martin Luther King.

NEARY: The name of the song was "Why?" It went on for 13 minutes. Nina Simone sang and played and sermonized and asked the questions no one on that day could answer.

The song was written by her bass player, Gene Taylor. Simone's brother, organist Samuel Wayman, was on stage with her that day.

Mr. SAMUEL WAYMAN (Brother of Nina Simone): We learned that song that day. We didn't have a chance to really, like, have two or three days of rehearsal. But when you're feeling compassion and outrage and wanting to express what you know the world is feeling - we did it because that's what we felt.

(Soundbite of song "Why?")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Because he'd seen the mountaintop and he knew he could not stop. Always living with a threat of death ahead. Folks, you'd better stop and think because we're heading for the brink. What will happen now that he is dead? He was for equality for all people, you and me, full of love and goodwill, hate was not his way…

Mr. WAYMAN: Yeah, she didn't know what she wanted to do. She didn't know whether she could do it. Through the tears, the hurt, confusion, what do you do at a moment like that?

(Soundbite of song, "Why?")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) For the murders never cease, are they men or are they beast? What do they ever hope, ever hope to gain? Will my country fall or stand up or is it too late for us all? And did Martin Luther King just die in vain?

NEARY: So many questions she had - so many questions that song has.

Mr. WAYMAN: Yeah, yes, yes.

(Soundbite of humming)

Mr. WAYMAN: You just touched a nerve.

NEARY: Do you remember what that felt like as you were listening to her?

Mr. WAYMAN: Yes. Just like I'm feeling right this minute: pretty emotional. The questions in the song are the questions that are still being asked today about hatred and justice, discrimination, lack of peace around the world that's going on today. This song is timeless.

(Soundbite of song, "Why?")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) He has seen mountaintops and he knew he could not stop, always living with a threat a step ahead. Come on, Sam. Folks, you'd better stop and think because we're almost to the brink. What will happen now that the king of love is dead?

(Soundbite of applause)

NEARY: Nina Simone in a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. She was performing 40 years ago, three days after King's assassination in 1968. We heard memories of the concert from her brother, organist Samuel Wayman. He was on stage with Nina Simone that day at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island.

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