1. An activist’s life that started early
A distinguished pianist who started out by playing Bach and a singer with an incredible voice, the jazz icon only found meaning in her life when she started fighting for the civil rights movement. On her album Nina Simone In Concert, released in 1964, she evokes the racial inequality damaging the United States with the song Mississippi Goddam after an attack on an Alabama church that killed four black children. But Eunice Kathleen Waymon (her real name), born in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, hadn’t waited until she got famous to fight injustice. At the tender age 12, she refused to play the piano in the local library during her first public recital. Why? Her parents had been ordered to stand at the back of the room so as not to bother the whites. She refused to play until they were seated in the front row. An act of bravery in the southern states of America at a time when those who supported the revolution did so with violence. Nina Simone would go on to meet Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and in 1958 she released what would become the anthem of the “black power” movement: To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
“Ain't Got No, I Got Life” – Nina Simone
2. A tumultuous Parisian getaway
The singer had always been fond of France and even her stage name was inspired by Simone Signoret - she was fascinated by the actress. In January 1982, while her career was in a lull, the pianist recorded the intimate and sombre album Fodder on My Wings at the Davout studios in Paris, after being contacted by the Carrère label. She lived in the French capital between 1981 and 1983, residing at Villa Montsouris, opposite the park of the same name. During those years she would perform in small venues in the Latin Quarter, Île Saint-Louis and at the Palais des Glaces on rue du faubourg du Temple before sparse audiences. Some evenings she would play the piano but refuse to sing. Other times she would just stop playing if someone in the audience spoke. But the few souls present certainly remember performances of a rare intensity.
Nina Simone – “Fodder In Her Wings”
3. A violent life
Throughout her career, the diva did what she wanted, getting angry with men, with the taxman, the State and the record companies. Known for her moods, she fell out with a lot of people in the 1970s, pushing her to leave the USA for Barbados. She also left her manager/husband (an ex-cop) who would beat her. As a victim of domestic violence, she was an absent and unstable mother for her daughter, Lisa, a soldier in the US Air Force before becoming a singer. Nina Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 1980s and started taking Trilafon, a powerful tranquiliser to help manage her ups and downs. Her behaviour would switch from one minute to the next, objects were thrown and her anger was barely controlled. Her roller-coaster temper terrorised her loved ones and the audiences whom she would glare at before delivering passionate concerts.
Nina Simone – “I Put A Spell On You”
4. Destructive addictions
Nina Simone's mood disorders were accentuated by the use of all kinds of drugs and alcohol. In the documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis recount their strange meeting with one of their idols at a 1999 festival in London. They remember the badass attitude of the star who stuck her chewing gum on her piano, before starting her live set. At the end, she demanded "champagne, cocaine and sausages". An attitude that recalls the self-destructive tendencies of her closest vocal heir: Amy Winehouse.
Nina Simone – “Wild Is The Wind” (Live In New York 1964)
5. Problems with the law
In 1995, Nina Simone was prosecuted for injuring a 15-year-old boy with a shotgun because he was being too noisy. The boy was spending the day in the villa of a friend's parents, in Bouc-Bel-Air, between Aix and Marseille, located next door to that of the artist. Justice was lenient with the pianist because of her mental health. Nina Simone passed away on April 21st, 2003 at the age of 70 in the South of France in the house she adored and where she had finally found a semblance of peace. Her ashes were scattered, as she wished, in several African countries.
Fodder On My Wings, re-released on April 3rd on CD and vinyl by Verve/Universal.