Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Nina Simone Would’ve Been 80 Today…

“I want to shake people up. I want to shake people up more.” These words were once spoken by international super-artist Nina Simone. It’s safe to say she succeeded with her mission: More than 50 years after her debut, few can match Simone’s supreme gifts as a vocalist, pianist, and arranger, the diversity of her repertoire, and the way those songs rattled consciences. Her music’s agelessness, as well as her delivery, has kept the melodies, as well as her message, fresh. And though her contribution to rock ‘n’ roll isn’t the first thing you may think of when it comes to her virtues, Simone was what we call a rocker: Her fierce attitude and the way she adapted some of rock’s best-known songs contributed toward getting across her message of true liberation.

“What we were looking for then was to shake people out of their complacency,” says Al Schackman, Simone’s musical soulmate and foremost collaborator. Schackman served as the genre-defying artist’s musical director, as well as a multi-instrumentalist, guitarist, and musical companion for just about the entirety of her career; the pair shared what both have described as a rare, telepathic communication that served them onstage as well as off. Much of their work together was compiled in 2008 on the four-disc set To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story, which includes a hefty slice of Simone’s “rock” repertoire alongside the jazz, folk, standards, and originals for which she is otherwise famous.

“If you wanted to classify her, she said she was a folk artist,” says Schackman, a Greenwich Village folk scene regular himself, though that isn’t necessarily the kind of folk Simone was talking about. She sang the songs indigenous to a country’s and people’s origins, from New Orleans and the “House of the Rising Sun” to Nigeria and Olatunji’s “Zungo”; she also interpreted Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and the European ballad “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”, among other folk tunes.

For the album To Love Somebody, she took on “Turn! Turn! Turn!” from the folk-rock canon and turned it into a laidback jam. What Pete Seeger had borrowed from the Bible and what the Byrds turned into a reverent folk-rock cover, Simone deconstructed, finding the song’s soul. Another one of her great performances is the self-celebratory “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” from Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. She turned in versions of singer-songwriter classics like Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Randy Newman’s “Baltimore.” And while George Harrison and Richie Havens were songwriters she relied on more than once, their guitar strums and worldviews apparently music to her ears, she could also sing the blues. Simone was a full-service song interpreter.

“Oh yeah, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins,” says Schackman. “‘I Put a Spell on You.’ He wrote that song like a comedy, like he was the big magician, having fun with it. When she did it, it was dead serious… ‘I put a spell on you, the things you do, don’t you lie’… it was a warning. She’s tellin’ her man, ‘You’d better be cool.’ We did the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin and Screamin’ Jay was there too, and he came back into the dressing room and he kneeled down in front of her and said, ‘The song was never done ’til you did it.’

“When she did a piece of music, she would claim it as her own. Because it would change totally,” he says, pointing to a version of “Revolution” by the Beatles, as customized by Simone for her own purposes in 1969, one of the most famously intense years in 20th century history.

“The people were directly involved and affected by what was going on… she wanted to make sure that they were really shaken out of what she felt was their sleep. One of the ways that we did that was like really blasting off on the tune, ‘Revolution’, where at the end we try to set off an atomic bomb, that kind of thing. People weren’t expecting that out of her at that time. To all intents and purposes, that one particular piece was a real departure from what her music was known for. It bordered on—I can’t say rock—but it kind of had that feeling.

“In the interludes, in the little breaks, she wanted me to get as far out as possible on the guitar. I used a slide to just really be able to make like explosive sounds… I would be playing notes using the slide,” as when Schackman plays the familiar Elmore James lick the Beatles borrowed for “For You Blue.” “But in the end, I took that slide and just went nuts on it, totally explosive.”

Simone had a rare musical gift, and her commitment as a fierce freedom fighter elevated her stature as an internationally understood and sometimes misunderstood vocalist. Her uncompromising attitude at crossing music with politics put her in a class with musical rebels, from Marvin Gaye and Chuck D to Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Not only did she use her originals like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women” to convey her feelings on race matters, she worked in established pieces like Brecht-Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” to rouse audiences. “‘Pirate Jenny’ will scare the hell out of you the way she did it,” says Schackman. “There were people that came to concerts, like a family with a young kid… and during that song they’d leave. They’d get up and leave the concert ’cause of her language. She was ‘Pirate Jenny.’”

I asked Schackman how he tackled Simone’s notoriously fiery nature. “At times it was very difficult. A couple of times it was dangerous,” he says, though he maintains that Simone’s unpredictable disposition contributed positively to her creative process, especially to her unparalleled intensity onstage. “It helped her to be able to take on different characters. On one night, a song might have one type of character, and on another night, it would have a totally different character. It was wonderful—amazing.” He seeks to clarify that drugs never fueled her: “I can tell you she wasn’t a junkie. She didn’t do dope.”

As Simone famously shifted gears from Duke Ellington to Jimmy Webb, there were certain songwriters she favored: She wrapped her voice around Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “Just Like a Woman”, and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” as well as the perhaps unlikely Bee Gees, who she ended up covering four times. She gave a psychedelic soul shot to “To Love Somebody”, turned in a breezy “In the Morning”, and also laid down two lesser-known numbers, “Please Read Me” and “I Can’t See Nobody.” According to the liner notes of To Be Free, Simone was turned on to the British-Australian trio by Animals singer, Eric Burdon.

Schackman tells a story of the night in 1964, backstage at the Village Gate, when Simone and Burdon first met. “One time, Art D’Lugoff, the owner of the Village Gate, brought an artist back to see Nina, and he said he was like, her biggest fan. He told her what a fan he was and that she had inspired him… and she attacked him for stealing her song… this white guy had stolen ‘her song.’  I’ll never forget that. He was scared half out of his mind.”

It was Schackman’s understanding that the Animals scoring a hit with “House of the Rising Sun”, a song sung famously by Simone, Bob Dylan, Odetta, and countless others, was what sparked her ire for him. In Burdon’s take on the meeting, the meeting occurred at least a year later, at which time the origin of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, the 1964 Simone track which the Animals hit with in ’65, was up for debate.

“So you’re the honky motherfucker who stole my song and got a hit out of it,” says Simone, according to Burdon in the book not-coincidentally titled Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. Burdon laid on Simone an accusation of her own song-thievery; she responded by warming up to him, and the pair would go on to become friends.

“If she did a piece of music, she would change it completely, not even thinking about it. She wouldn’t be concerned necessarily of where it came from or whom it came from. It’s only what it meant to her,” says Schackman. Some of her most evocative versions emerge when she does Dylan. “Like ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’ She was very aware of the meaning and the spirit inside of that song,” says Schackman. She delivers Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” in a more somber, less sharp mood than the writer’s own. She also recorded “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, Dylan’s story of a starving farmer who kills himself and his family out of desperation. “It’s one of my favorite pieces I ever did with her, just the two of us,” says Schackman. “It’s an amazing piece of work.

“We were one. We had a telepathy,” he says, and it’s an idea Simone echoes in her autobiography. “… Al was right there with me from the first moment, as if we had been playing together all our lives. It was more than that even: It was as if we were one instrument split in two, I, the piano, Al, the guitar. I had never felt so much freedom in playing; knowing that someone knew where I was going and I knew where he was going. It was like telepathy—we couldn’t lose each other. And Al had perfect pitch, too, so I never had to tell him what key to play.”

“There was never any telling how she would craft a piece of music,” says Schackman. “I honestly have to say, I never really heard her sing or perform a piece of music the same way twice. That’s what I loved about it and that’s what made it difficult for other musicians to play with us. There would be times when we would be playing “The Other Woman” in E flat, and she would take it down to D, three tones, because she was in a certain mood and her voice didn’t want to be that low. Sometimes her voice didn’t want to be that high. She wouldn’t tell you and so as soon as she played her first note, I’d have to whisper over to the bass player the key.

“We were exposed to all kinds of things, and I would bring things to her and she would bring things to me,” explains Schackman. “She listened more to recordings. We’d sometimes hear stuff driving around in the car. She didn’t go in anybody’s direction. She was beyond anyone’s direction,” he says. “A lot of times she was difficult… there were times in her career that she wouldn’t work with anybody and it was just the two of us. I played guitar, bass, conga drums, sitar, vibraphone, running around the stage, depending on the piece of music. To me, that was some of the highest stuff. There was nothing in our way.”

The “Jazz” Age

Nina Simone entered this world on February 21, 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. Her mother was a Methodist minister and her father was an odd jobber; their child’s musical life started officially at four, singing and playing piano as a member of her mother’s AME church choir. Encouraged and supported by teachers and townspeople, she made it to the Juilliard School, though when she wasn’t accepted for further study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she took the blow personally; perceiving her exclusion as an act of racism, she carried the wound with her for the rest of her days.

Out of school, she sought work as an accompanist and developed a following at an Atlantic City piano bar, though fearing her mother would not approve of a daughter in the cabaret business, she went undercover and changed her name to Nina Simone. Her first album, Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club (also known as Little Girl Blue) was released in 1958. It was a huge success—one of those late ’50s records that every American household seemed to have—riding largely on the strength of Simone’s Billie Holiday-inspired take on “I Loves You, Porgy” from the popular musical Porgy and Bess.

“She was put in a jazz category, but she very strongly said she was not a jazz artist,” says Schackman. He and Nina bonded when the two were holding down respective “jazz” gigs in 1957 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “I was playing with my group at a club in New Hope. She was playing solo at a bistro that was part of the Bucks County Playhouse Inn, a very nationally known summer theater. Some people heard me playing and thought it would be great if the two of us would play together, so they asked her, and she said okay, and they brought me down one evening. She looked at me for a second and didn’t say anything, didn’t even tell me what she was going to play and just started her introduction to ‘Little Girl Blue.’ Her introduction was a Bach piece called ‘Good King Wenceslas’—they play it at Christmas. I knew what key she was in and I felt where she was going. So she started on a fugue, a counterpoint, and she got to the first section of it and I came in with a third part. She looked up at me and that was it. She went into her song and we had a three-part invention going and she suddenly comes in with this beautiful little love ballad that was amazing—it blew me away. I’ve never heard anybody be able to isolate music and then sing something totally different on top of it. That was our meeting and we just blew each other away. Afterward she said, ‘I would like you to come for tea… 2 o’clock on Sunday afternoon,’ and gave me the directions to her house. She turned to leave, then turned around and said, ‘And bring your guitar.’”

He explains that they shared bonds that went beyond music. “She was raised in a rural setting, as was I. We both related to that and talked about being footloose and fancy free. She had the church and she came into music through the church and I came in listening to all kinds of music from Hebraic to Indian music. She just totally dug that I went to all those places because those were places she’d go by herself and I’d be able to go with her, playing in the tradition of where she was.”

Schackman says he knew something extremely important happened that day in Bucks County, but where it would lead, he had no idea. Due to a prior studio engagement with Burt Bacharach, he missed the recording session for Little Girl Blue, the album that would begin Simone’s journey away from the piano bars and onto the international stage. In addition to “I Loves You, Porgy”, the album also contained one of her most beloved numbers, “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

Considering the keys and time changes, the mastery of her instruments and the improvisatory nature of her performances, it’s easy to understand why Simone would find herself classified under the catch-all of jazz. A set list that included “Mood Indigo”, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, and “Wild Is the Wind” would perhaps underscore that classification. But as Simone told author LaShonda Katrice Barnett in the book, I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft, “There are those who think jazz is scatting and nonsense. Jazz is associated with drugs, alcohol, and degradation. I have always resented the label because jazz is not what I play or how I live… I play black classical music, which I feel includes all of the forms I experiment with—the classical tradition, gospel, rhythm and blues, popular music.”

Jazz, or any category, simply could not hold a massive force like Simone. Inspired by the Civil Rights struggle and her socially conscious, artistic friends like Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, Simone embarked on her political path. She came out strong with “Mississippi Goddam”, her self-penned anthem that transcends genre description
and is perhaps her most recognized composition.

“When I heard about the bombing of the church in which the four little black girls were killed in Alabama, I shut myself up in a room and that song happened. Medgar Evers had been recently slain in Mississippi. At first I tried to make myself a gun… then Andy, my husband at the time, said to me—he said to me, ‘Nina, you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do,’” Simone told author Barnett.

Schackman suggests that, artistically and politically, things had already begun to break open for Simone following their visit to Africa in 1960. “A big influence was when Baba Olatunji took us to Africa for a big international festival, to Nigeria. That was really the beginning of her African traditions.”

Simone brought to the stage African rhythms as well as style—hairdos, jewelry, fabrics—alongside the politics of liberation. She became emphatic against “the injustices of black people, of third world people.” Her song “Four Women” grew from conversations she’d had with black women about personally political issues like hair, skin tone, and body image. And yet, she isn’t among the voices more associated with the Civil Rights Movement in America. I ask Schackman to clarify this somewhat misinterpreted side of Simone’s life.

“She didn’t want to do benefits. She was not non-violent,” says Schackman, a practitioner of Sufism who was also deeply involved in the movement, as a player for singer and activist Harry Belafonte.

“A lot of people in the movement for a long time thought she wasn’t interested in the movement. She was so much bigger than just that. I remember a time at some kind of a civil rights function, cocktail party thing, I was standing with her and somebody came up to her and said, ‘Nina, how come you’re not interested in civil rights?’ She looked at them and she was screaming, ‘Civil rights? I don’t have to be interested in civil rights. I am civil rights.’”

As time went on, Simone became more and more disenfranchised from America, its politics, and its audiences. In 1970, she moved to Barbados; the singer/activist and her friend, Miriam Makeba, suggested she move to Liberia, where Simone would go on to claim she lived some of her happiest days (she wrote “Liberian Calypso” in tribute). She also lived in Europe, and eventually France became her home until her death from breast cancer in 2003.

“I don’t like this country,” Simone told author Barnett. “I never did. America will sell her soul for money. You see this everywhere. People selling themselves, their mothers, brothers, and sisters for money. Black people don’t get their due here… I couldn’t live here if I wanted to because I have to stand up for my rights and those rights of black people everywhere. I’m sure they would find a way to silence me.

“Now that I am older, I realize I can’t change the world, but I still believe that if anyone can, it is the artist. It is always through art that society changes—not politics or even education. Art and music especially speaks to people more than government and education. Why do you think great nations have patronage for their artists?”

And yet, there is one form of art that Simone did not embrace and that was rap music. “It is another way that America has learned to sell us. Slavery has never been abolished from this country’s way of thinking.” Uninspired by music and America, author Barnett asked Nina Simone, inspiration to so many singers, writers, and activists, where she receives her inspiration.

“Nothing made in America inspires me now. I wish that a young black American leader would come along and lead his people out of darkness. That would inspire me.”

—originally published on June 5, 2009 in Crawdaddy!

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