What has Nina Simone left us? The sound of struggle, the sound of a soul on fire. She was born in North Carolina, the sixth of eight children surrounded by desolation and music, Jim Crow and the holy dove. Her mother preached, and her father sang. Their brilliant child, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, played piano in churches before she could read. Trained at Juilliard in New York City, Eunice found her stage name in the endearment of a Hispanic boyfriend (he called her "niña") and a dreamland her father promised her, France (her invented last name was inspired by actress Simone Signoret). She found her music in a place female jazz singers weren't supposed to go: bad blood, violent sex, the wildness of unscripted discovery.
With the exception of a few live (and hard-to-find) recordings and the overly lush 1993 release A Single Woman, Simone's recording career effectively ended some twenty years ago. And like many jazz singers in their prime during the 1960s and '70s, Simone recorded too often, too quickly. Her catalog is a brambled field strewn with diamonds and cluster bombs. No anthology could clear a coherent path, though, taken together, Rhino's overview of her early Colpix career and 7-N's Bittersweet: The Very Best of Nina Simone come close. She claimed once that a label head locked her up in a studio and forced her to sing; her more erratic, even bizarre efforts sometimes sound that way. What she saw in Steely Dan's "Haitian Divorce" or Hall and Oates' "Rich Girl" is anyone's guess.
Simone was a commanding, uncompromising interpreter, but she never asserted her authority when it came to production and sequencing. She hated every label for which she recorded; too often she let those she detested have their way. But if we listen closely, with the imaginative freedom she demanded of herself and her musicians, we hear, in her willful, searing voice, the opening of sublime windows, glimpses of how much she, we and music might mean. "Power, Lord! Don't you know I need you," she moaned on "Sinner Man." Yet one need only listen to her many interpretations of Bob Dylan: Simone alone captured that irreducible strangeness, that shock of recognition in a truly free imagination.
"Mississippi Goddam" was darkly funny in the '60s, and it's funny today, but lest we forget, at the time she wrote and recorded the song, people were bombed or lynched for far less. "Everybody knows about Mississippi Gaaaaaaadddaaaaaaaammnnn!" she wailed in a catharsis for those who were told "go slow," to be patient, for her brothers and sisters who chose nonviolent resistance to the deepest brutality. Simone sang what others repressed. "You thought I was kidding," she snarls at a liberal audience she feels might be enjoying their cocktails a bit too much. "We're having a good time now," she seems to hint. "But goddamn. I'm not kidding."
Vietnam, Attica, assassinations; brothers and sisters slandered, jailed and murdered; ghettos burning -- the riot wasn't just going on in the streets. "When would the war stop?" Marvin Gaye asked, but he was talking about "the war inside my soul." The war never stopped; perhaps it never could. You hear that war in Nina Simone's most sublime performances, mostly onstage, in live testaments, which are her truest: the soft lulling, the jazzy insinuation into any self-satisfied mind and then the phrase or climax that cracks it all open. The bewilderment, the rage, the evil even in all that's repressed. It's there in one line, from her composition "Four Women": My name is Peeeeaaaccchhhiiiizzzzzzz! At the height of the folk revival, she transformed the folk song "Cotton Eyed Joe" into a withering, even killing vision of impoverishment. Her voice meant more than her audience was willing to understand, more really than we can understand today.
Tagging Simone the "high priestess of soul" only proves how useless generic labels can be. She could sing anything she wanted, and she certainly did so with soul. She knew and appreciated R&B and influenced popular music in ways that are rarely remembered. She wrote and recorded "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" before the Animals, and Paul McCartney sang "Michelle" with her languid phrasing of "I Put a Spell on You" in his ears. Her underrated piano playing sounded with excited lyricism: as if at times she were guiding the instrument's birth, as if at times she were caressing the dying. And Simone was, when she so desired, as technically gifted as any opera singer, as pure and precise a singer as Sarah Vaughan or Mahalia Jackson. "They only compared us because we were black," she once complained. "They never compared me to Maria Callas, and I'm more of a diva like her than anybody else." She had few hits on the R&B charts -- the one exception, "I Loves You Porgy," was pure jazz.
The U.S. Senate has declared 2003 the Year of the Blues. Seeing as how that aristocratic institution has done more than enough to inspire the blues, it's fitting that Simone, on April 21, at the age of 70, checked out. Her late years, a painful smear bordering on madness and paranoia, offer no redemption for her struggle. Her years adrift in Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Africa brought no solace. Her lovers beat her and cheated on her, and she nearly overdosed on sleeping pills when one more affair curdled. She blasted noisy neighborhood kids with a shotgun, ran over motorcyclists, evaded taxes and alienated close friends and what few allies she had left in the business. She sang until her body gave out; in her exile, few heard.
She never forgave and never forgot. Save your talk of healing and letting go for Oprah and Dr. Phil. Nina Simone's music -- her rage and glory, her talent and freedom, her visions and judgments -- remain ours, dare we listen now without her.