- Nina Simone: The Biography
- Aurum Press, 368 pp.
Chasing an Elusive Subject
Fifty years after she was rejected by the Curtis Institute, a classical music school in Philadelphia, Nina Simone wrote, “I never got over it and I never will.” Both Simone (in her autobiography I Put a Spell on You) and David Brun-Lambert, the French author of Nina Simone: The Biography, believe that was the defining moment in the life of a musician who, above all, resists definition. Her piano playing, as well as her singing, alternated between, and sometimes blended, pop, gospel, jazz, blues, funk and spirituals. Nor was she above throwing in riffs of the classical music which she always professed was her first and greatest love.
Whether or not that moment actually defined her, there is no doubt that Simone was a musical prodigy. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, she was one of eight children in a family that became impoverished during the Depression. By the time she was three, she was playing hymns on a Tryon, North Carolina, church organ, and had progressed to Bach by age six. The young phenomenon felt not only the weight of her family’s, but the whole town’s, expectations when she was rejected by the Institute at seventeen.
Not long after, she became “Nina Simone” – Nina was for niña, the endearment given to her by a Spanish-speaking lover, and she chose Simone after admiring Simone Signoret, the French film actress, in an art-house showing of Casque d’or. She professed to have changed her name so that her mother, a minister, would not find out what she was doing. In an Atlantic City dive called The Midtown Bar (at which the air conditioner dripped on her back as she played), she inauspiciously began the experimentation with standards that would precipitately lead her to stardom.
Shortly after, during her first session in a recording studio, Simone would execute several of the songs that made her famous, and which she would continue to sing and play for the rest of her life. Among them were “I Loves You, Porgy,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “He Needs Me,” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” The latter – although considered by Simone to be “one of the slightest I’ve ever recorded” – became something of a signature for the artist, and kept coming back for her, most notably in the 1980s when it was chosen for an international ad campaign for Chanel No. 5.
The granddaughter of slaves on both parents’ sides of the family, Simone’s stardom coincided with the civil rights struggle in the U.S. If it is necessary to find a defining moment in her life, it may have come even earlier than the Curtis Institute rejection. At her first public concert, at age ten in Tryon’s Town Hall, her parents were asked to give up their seats to a white couple. The child protested out loud until her father and mother were allowed to stay in their places. (This was the first time that the musician threw a tantrum while onstage – something for which she would become all too well-known later in life.)
For a time, Simone recorded protest songs (such as “Mississippi Goddam”), felt at home among black activists and even encouraged violent uprising at some of her concerts. Brun-Lambert is good – perhaps too good – at explaining the history of racism and civil rights in the U.S. while telling Simone’s story. While every good biography should include the context of the times in which its subject lived, Nina Simone, which was published in France in 2005, two years after the singer’s death, includes a great deal of historical detail that reads as overly didactic and sometimes numbing.
For instance, when purportedly describing the friendship between Simone and the writer Lorraine Hansberry, Brun-Lambert hardly mentions either woman but goes into great detail about Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. To what end will leave some readers flummoxed. Even when he describes the civil rights leaders who were Simone’s contemporaries, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, an American reader will likely feel that their ground has been covered better and to greater purpose before. Simone lived briefly in Liberia in the 1970s, yet when Brun-Lambert delivers the country’s history until 1997, I began to wonder whether he had simply padded the manuscript of an elusive subject.
Brun-Lambert clearly loves and admires Simone, but the stars in his eyes are not sufficient for a work that has as many shortcomings as virtues. His descriptions of many of the venues where Simone played (from the Midtown Bar to New York’s Town Hall) and where she lived (from Tryon to small towns in Switzerland and France) are vivid. He is excellent at nailing many of the people in Simone’s life, from Don Ross, her useless alcoholic of a first husband, to Andrew Stroud, her sinister and violent second husband (an ex-New York cop), and to various men with whom she had liaisons during sojourns in Liberia and Barbados (including Erroll Barrow, the latter country’s first Prime Minister).
Brun-Lambert doesn’t flinch at detailing Simone’s desperation and disintegration, including fits thrown onstage, offstage, backstage and in studios; her threats (complete with knives and guns) toward music executives; her desperate search for love; her neglect of her own daughter (which disturbingly mirrors her own mother’s coldness and distance toward Simone). Sometimes you wonder if he isn’t exacting a kind of revenge on his subject, particularly after he has repeated several times that she paid for sex, or mentions variously how fat she was later in life, how many times she stripped in public, and so on.
Brun-Lambert alleges – mostly citing earlier biographies – that Simone was mentally ill, perhaps bipolar. You Tube clips hardly vouch for her stability. Yet the author bandies these accusations without having found any documentation to back them up. I wondered how much of her aberrant behavior had to do with inherent illness and how much was a natural reaction to the mounting pressures and stresses of overwork, separation from her family and her country, poor choices in male companionship, and so on.
There are also far too many factual errors. For example, in a relatively brief span of pages describing Simone’s life in New York in the 1960s, Brun-Lambert places the legendary club, the Village Vanguard, at 178th and 7th Street, a nonexistent intersection. (Less than a minute on the internet would have verified the address at 178 Seventh Avenue South.) Soon after, he writes that Simone’s New York apartment on 12th Street had a view of Central Park, interesting given that the green space is located a mere forty-seven blocks further uptown. Brun-Lambert repeatedly refers to the New York neighborhood Greenwich Village as Greenwich, which, last time I looked, was a city in Connecticut. (Residents of Greenwich Village call it “the Village,” hence institutions like the Village Vanguard and The Village Voice.) The accumulation of so many mistakes will make some readers wonder how much, if anything, Brun-Lambert got right.
One also wonders whether Aurum, the book’s publisher, has any editors on its staff: There are open quotes that never close; a footnote number eight followed by number ten; and so on.
When Brun-Lambert describes a period in which Simone lived in Switzerland, he is winningly candid about how difficult it was to find any information. People who were supposedly around the artist at the time slammed the door in the author’s face, or on more polite terms refused to speak to him. Indeed, in an author’s note at the end of the book, he confesses how difficult it was for him, during his research, to find anyone who would speak to him at all. “A code of silence shrouds her memory,” he writes.
Such admissions beg questions. If Nina Simone: The Biography is just being published in its English translation now, it came out in France four years ago, before her corpse turned cold. I wondered if Brun-Lambert had been in less of a hurry – if he had spent another year or two on the project – whether he would have been able to produce a better book.
Perhaps more time wouldn’t have helped. Simone is above all a contradictory figure, and as such difficult to nail down. Although she considered herself a classical musician, she made her fame as a pop star and never returned to concert piano, even after she became famous and may have been able to do so. While political activism gave her life some meaning at least for a while, her protests against the U.S. while living in the south of France – where she lived, at least in part, to beat tax debts in her own country – tended to fall on deaf ears. When she finally lived in Africa, it was ironically in Liberia, a country where former slaves from the U.S. enslaved the indigenous population.
A complex, conflicting and mysterious subject deserves better – or else silence.