'Princess' Nina Simone: The Voice Of A Movement From lovable to hostile, singer Nina Simone left people with widely varying impressions of her — but her talent was indisputable. In Princess Noire, Nadine Cohodas chronicles the life of Nina Simone and the passion that inspired the anthems of the civil rights movement.
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'Princess' Nina Simone: The Voice Of A Movement

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'Princess' Nina Simone: The Voice Of A Movement

'Princess' Nina Simone: The Voice Of A Movement

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TONY COX, host:

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. NINA SIMONE (Singer): (Singing) Come (unintelligible).

COX: That uniquely unforgettable voice belongs to Nina Simone's, whose life is the subject of the new biography "Princess Noire." Simone died in 2003 at the age of 70. She grew up in Tryon, North Carolina, studied at the Juilliard School, and eventually dived - she might say was pushed - head first into the Civil Rights movement. Her tumultuous career spanned not only a wide spectrum of musical genres but put her squarely in the crosshairs of race and politics at a time of tremendous upheaval across the American south and beyond. Her songs reflected all of those experiences and made her quite frankly loved, admired, fear and even hated.

What does her music mean to you? Was there one defining song that inspired or even angered you? If so, give us a call. The number: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Right now, we are joined by author Nadine Cohodas. Joining us here in Studio 3A, the author of "Princess Noire." Welcome.

Ms. NADINE COHODAS (Author, "Princess Noir"): Thank you. So glad to be here.

COX: My first question for you, and I even told the producer this as we were talking about this before we got on the air, is what made you write this?

Ms. COHODAS: To be sure, it starts with Nina's wonderful music and her presence on the cultural scene. But a little of my own background, very briefly. Before this, I had done a book of Dinah Washington, which meant so much to me. Dinah is nine years younger than Nina and really a different generation. And what has interested me is the intersection of race and culture. And I thought by the time you get to Nina, you get 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.

COX: Let me ask you this, because in the book you talked about how that developed. I mean, she was - she started out to try to learn to play classical piano, which she did. But she also - because she was in the south and because she had this independent streak from what you wrote, it seems as if her encounters, if I can use that word, with race, would ultimately play a big part in who she became.

Ms. COHODAS: I think that's right. But just to go back to one thing that you said. Nina started out as really a fine jazz musician who looks at -look at pictures of her in the spaghetti strap cocktail dress. She had a white audience really before she had a black audience, and it was 1963. And the bombing of the church in Birmingham and her deep friendship with Lorraine Hansberry, the author of the seminal "Raisin in the Sun" that made her realize, as she put it, I was part of the movement whether I realized it or not by the simple fact of being black.

COX: Now she was born Eunice Waymon. That was her birth name. And she became Nina Simone at a little piano bar in Atlantic City.

Ms. COHODAS: Yes, she did, called the Midtown. And to anybody who journeys there, the building is still there. It's not a bar, but that's exactly what happened. And she did so in order to earn money. Why the name change? She came from a religious family. This is nothing new in this genre. Her mother did not at all approve of music that was other than the sacred. And so, at least in the beginning, she thought I can't go out there as Eunice Waymon. I don't want her to know. And on the spot, as she told it, she came up with this combination Nina Simone, which when pronounced like that has kind of continental flare.

COX: Absolutely does. One of the things about her, Nadine, that I'd like you to tell the audience about is she developed over the years, this - I don't know how to describe it other than to say hot and cold relationship with her audience.

Ms. COHODAS: Yes. She certainly did. And I think that part of that came from her original training, which was classical and the little concert she gave. And she assumed - I'm going right now to the notion of decorum. She assumed you come to hear me play. You sit in your seat and you listen. You don't talk, you don't rattle your drink. And so she demanded attention. And then I think later on, when she was angry about whatever might have been going on in the world or the shape of her own career or the amount of money she thought she was owed and hadn't received, that kind of bubbled over in her performance.

COX: It absolutely did. Now, along - at the same time her - I don't know if you would call it civil disobedience or her racial consciousness necessarily, but it happened at a very young age. And you tell the story about a recital that she did at the library.

Ms. COHODAS: Yes. In Tryon, she was clearly one of the most gifted young people, white or black. In Tryon, she was asked to perform a recital. Her parents came in and were seated in the front row. Before she started to play, 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. And Eunice says, she told it, 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 seat.

COX: One of the other things that you wrote about, as we wait for people to call and check in with us and send us emails those who have stories about Nina Simone of their own that they would like to share with us, is that she was not only friends with Lorraine Hansberry, the great playwright, she was also friends with Langston Hughes, the poet. And he - she seemed to me - and I want you to tell me if I'm right about this or not - she seemed to epitomize what he wrote about the dream deferred...

Ms. COHODAS: What happens to a raisin in the sun? Does it dry...

COX: Yeah.

Ms. COHODAS: ...to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? That is an interesting observation. I thought you might be going in a different place because not only was she friends with Langston, he was - and Lorraine Hansberry, but also James Baldwin. And as I note in the beginning of the book, these individuals' tremendous talents where her circle of inspiration. So as we think about the Nina Simone we came to know with this deep engagement, not only in the civil rights movement but with the notion of pride in being an African-American in presence, in wardrobe and everything else, you begin to understand it better. And, of course, Langston gave her his wonderful poem, "Backlash Blues," and said, here, set it through music, which she did.

COX: And we're going to hear that before our conversation is over. Let's take a call. This is John in Des Moines. John, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome.

JOHN (Caller): Well, I love Nina Simone, a haunting voice, a beautiful voice. I love the song "Black Coffee." That just - I could hear it every morning while I'm drinking mine, let me tell you. But I was wondering why she wasn't more sellable, how was she financially throughout her life. And, you know, I just - I have such an utmost respect for her as a blues artist. I'm a blues nut, by the way. But she was very unrecognized during her lifetime.

COX: Thank you for the call. What do you say to that?

Ms. COHODAS: I'll start at the backend first. By the end of her life, Nina started to have the stream of income from her songs and her creations that she should have gotten, but it was a struggle. And the gentleman from Des Moines is certainly correct that it was for many, many years a bitter pill for Nina that some of it was due to bad arrangements with the people around her, the way her contracts read, who got a piece of what.

And the other thing, I must say though - and this is hard to believe sometimes - individuals who were very popular in concert or when they performed in clubs didn't always translate over into big sales. And I think the other part, we might say that apart from the money, which is, of course, very important, Nina had a sizeable impact. And we are still talking about her and will continue to be. But just to wind up - you know, by the end of her life, she had a nice stream of income. She lived in France in a lovely house and could do the things that she wanted to do.

COX: I have a couple of emails, and then we'll take another call. This is from Keith(ph) in St. Louis. Keith says, her cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," without a doubt as Clash front man, Joe Strummer, proclaimed on his BB(ph) radio - BBC radio series, let Nina Simone rule the world.

Ms. COHODAS: Amen.

COX: Thank you, Keith, for that. And here's another one. This is from Corrine(ph). "Time," she says, perhaps the most moving piece of recorded music ever. And we have another caller, actually, from San Francisco. This is Tony(ph). Tony, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHRIS(ph) (Caller): This isn't Tony. This is Chris from Boulder, Colorado.

COX: All right. Hold on. I'm going to come back to you, Chris. Hold on. Don't go anywhere.

CHRIS: Got it.

COX: Tony, are you there?

TONY (Caller): Yes.

COX: Okay. We got Tony in San Francisco. Tony, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

TONY: Well, I've been listening to Nina Simone about 10 years ago and it was such a revelation to find her, somebody that I didn't really know about when I was younger. And at the time, what really got me was her distinctive voice. But as I explored her music more thoroughly, it was her songwriting and her politics that really got to me. And now I'm a teacher and I teach her lyrics to my students because they're so rich in political messages and also in being a poet - poetic.

Ms. COHODAS: Yes. And I would hope and think that you might teach "Four Women," which I think is just an extraordinary song.

COX: It's a great song.

Ms. COHODAS: It's only four verses. It doesn't have very many words, but yet there is a history lesson. I thought, too, you might make another observation or I would just toss this out to you when you go back to listen again, especially in the early and middle years. Listen to the accompaniment underneath and you cannot miss the classical training. And then, remind yourself that this isn't just nice, interesting, churchy, bluesy chords going on. But this is actual things related to Bach and Mozart, and she is singing above it.

COX: Absolutely.

TONY: The kind of music that I listen to is classical and that's, I think, what really got me. And I do teach "Four Women," "Mississippi Goddamn" and "Old Jim Crow." That's the three pieces that I chose.

COX: Tony, thank you very much for the call. Let me go back to - with Chris(ph) in Boulder. Chris, thank you for holding on.

CHRIS: Yes, no problem. Sorry about that before. A couple of things actually. First, the fellow screening the call asked me my favorite song, and I actually quickly pulled out my Nina Simone library. And actually one of the albums that I really liked was "Nina Simone Sings the Blues," which seems to be kind of panned compared to a lot of her other albums for some reasons. And "Do I Move You," the first track, I really, really like very much.

But when I first encountered - I'm kind of embarrassed to say it, to tell you the truth - but my first encounter where I really kind of said, hey, who is this that I'm listening to was actually a remixed version of - I think it was called Nina Simone - it might have been on "Remixed and Reimagined." And it was the "Black is the Colour(of My True Love's Hair)" that really kind of turned me on to her and her music and made me go back and investigate further.

COX: That's an interesting observation. Thanks for the call, Chris. What do you think that Nina Simone would say about her music being sampled?

Ms. COHODAS: My first thought what she would say that's okay but I want to be paid. I don't care if it's 10 seconds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: They got to pay me. I believe because she - that really was an issue for her throughout her career in terms of making sure that the financial side was in order with the entertaining and musical side.

Ms. COHODAS: And she's not alone in that, to be sure.

COX: We are talking about Nina Simone and our guest in studio is Nadine Cohodas, the author of the biography "Princess Noire." We'd like to take your call if you are interested in joining the conversation here at NPR Washington. But first, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Now, come back to talk to you a little bit more. I've got some emails actually, Nadine...

Ms. COHODAS: Okay.

COX: ...I want to share with you.

Ms. COHODAS: Okay.

COX: Here's one from Judy(ph) in Ashland, Oregon. When I was a student nurse at Belleville Hospital in the 1960s, myself and two friends went to the Village Gate - a very famous nightclub for those who might not know. There is that possibly. We could not afford to go in. It was cold and we waited outside on the heating vent. Nina arrived in a silver Rolls Royce and it was driven by a chauffeur who was dressed in a full uniform. She got out of the car and approached us after giving the chauffeur a passionate kiss - this is what she's writing. We told her our story. She took us in and gave us a table in the front. And it seemed like she sang the whole concert to us. We were thrilled and her concert was wonderful.

That's a great story, but it's not one that you hear often in connection with Nina Simone.

Ms. COHODAS: That is correct. These folks were very lucky to get her on a wonderfully good and generous night.

COX: Why do you think she was less than - what's the word? - cordial maybe with her audience? Some artists are afraid to make the audience angry, and she wasn't afraid of that at all.

Ms. COHODAS: Absolutely not. I think some of the time, particularly in later moments of her life, was due unfortunately to a kind of illness and you would have to say, you know, Nina is out of control. In other moments, I believe she just said, this is how I feel. This is the mood tonight. I'm all about moods. You came in, this is what you're going to get.

COX: Toward the end of her life, she moved - she went to Africa, she went to Europe. She was married and divorced a couple of times, had a kid. She seemed to find some peace and in about the time she found hat she was struck with illness.

Ms. COHODAS: In the last few years of her life, that is correct. She finally moved to France, had a small house in a little town called Bouc-Bel-Air, and then moved to a seaside town Carry-le-Rouet for the last couple of years of her life and was, unfortunately, was struck with breast cancer, but did battled it and came through surgery and treatment and continued performing. This is now in 1999, 2000, 2001.

And, you know, some nights were better than others. But by this time, Nina had an extraordinarily deep and loyal fan base. And, you know, the way to recapture what this might have been like is, fortunately, people paid attention. And I think it's fair to say that even when things weren't perfect, there was always a moment or two, several moments where the Nina Simone that you wanted to see and that you remembered came through, and people just couldn't get on their feet fast enough.

COX: Absolutely loved it.

Ms. COHODAS: George Wein said, the great impresario of the Newport Jazz Festival, she became a goddess of culture.

COX: I think we have time to squeeze in one more call. So lets go to Sharon(ph) in Aurora, Colorado. Hello, Sharon. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

SHARON (Caller): Hello. My favorite song is - was called "The King of Love is Dead." On the day that Martin Luther King was assassinated, she had a concert scheduled and some people canceled their concerts. But she went ahead with her concert. And I believe it was band member of hers who wrote this tribute to Martin Luther King. And on the album, it's also joined with his favorite hymn, "Precious Lord Take My Hand."

COX: Thank you very much for the call. That's a good call for us to end on because our time has run short. It's a great book. I appreciate your having written it and having come in and spend some time with us, Nadine Cohodas, to talk about "Princess Noire." She definitely was that.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. And Ira Flatow will be here for a conversation with an Alaskan reporter who covered the Exxon Valdez spill and why 21 years later we are seeing the same story play out in the Gulf. Neal Conan is back on Monday. Have a great weekend.

(Soundbite of song, "Backlash Blues")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Mr. Backlash, hear me now. I wanted you, yeah, somehow someway, yeah. I'm gonna leave you with the blues.

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, in Washington.

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