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A troubled talent

I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone by Nina Simone and Stephen Cleary. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991. $22.00 — 196 pages

Back in the 1930s, the inhabitants of the little town of Tryon, N.C., gossiped a great deal about “the little colored girl who appears to be a musical prodigy.” They were talking about Eunice Waymon, who had been playing the piano before she was 4 years old. She played at her mother’s church (Mary Kate Waymon was a Methodist minister), and as her reputation grew, many of the white residents began attending services to hear Eunice play. In view of the poverty of the Waymon family, a white friend of Rev. Waymon offered to pay for the child’s music lessons. Eventually, a fund was established to send Eunice to a classical pianist, Muriel Massinovitch, who trained the child to play Bach — an experience that would have a profound influence on the young pianist. After further training in Asheville, Eunice went to Julliard.

So begins the amazing story of Nina Simone, who would become known as “The High Priestess of Soul” — an international talent who performed at concert halls and festivals around the world. Simone joined Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, gave a memorable (and historic) performance at Newport, toured France, Holland and Germany, moved to Barbados, then Liberia and did repeated sell-out shows at London’s Ronnie Scott and New York’s Carnegie Hall. In effect, she became one of the most noted musicians in the world.

Yet, this autobiography (first published in 1991) proves to be a disturbing account of a life that is both exhilarating and self-destructive. In effect, the same determination that drove Simone to become “America’s first black classical pianist” also ignited a bitterness and resentment that would eventually alienate her from family, friends and country. This autobiography was written in the Netherlands where Nina Simone died in 2003. Plagued by lawsuits, IRS seizures and mental instability, she died in what most of her admirers called “self-exile.”

Simone’s book does not acknowledge these conclusions, of course. Much of this memoir is evasive. Even though she describes some of the most incriminating episodes of her life, she never accepts responsibility for them. However, it is easy to read “between the lines.” Like all of us, she creates a version of her past that she can live with. Even when this marvelous woman flinches from the truth, prevaricates and rationalizes, she still emerges as one of the most perverse, exciting and fascinating talents of the 20th century.

As a lonely child in Tryon, Eunice Waymon imagined a life beyond her bleak surroundings by creating a new identity. She would be Nina, a name she was given by her first boyfriend. Linked with “Simone,” the name of a French actress that Eunice had seen in a movie, the little girl had a name befitting the “first black classical pianist” in America. Now, all she had to do was fulfill her destiny.

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Eunice’s first encounter with prejudice came when she gave her first musical recital in Tryon, only to see her parents forced to vacate their first-row seats for a white couple. In keeping with an attitude that would be repeated often in the future, Eunice refused to play until her parents were returned to their rightful place.

Early in her career, Nina Simone developed a reputation for confrontation. In her early years as a nightclub performer, she refused to tolerate rambunctious behavior and would stop performing. She would then stare at the offenders until the noise stopped. On occasion, she would lecture audiences on the need to show respect for an artist. Recently, I found an account of such a confrontation that happened at the Montreux Jazz Festival when an aging Simone stood on a stage before an astonished audience of thousands and stared silently at the festive crowd. According to the witness, this strange gaunt old woman won the standoff, and the intimidated crowd grew quiet. Then, and only then, she gave a performance that produced a lengthy standing ovation.

Over the years, Nina Simone either offended or shocked most of the world. Her Civil Rights anthem, “Mississippi Goddam” was banned. Much of her royalties were lost due to her inability to deal with record companies. Her tirades against the music industry became famous, and when she renounced the United States as a fascist country and moved to Europe, everyone assumed her career was over.

However, it was a long time coming. There were countless lovers and a notorious nude dance in a Liberian nightclub. Then, came a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown, hallucinations, sessions with witch doctors in Africa and alcoholism.

Despite her personal troubles, the music never stopped. She remained impossible to classify since she excelled in jazz, folk music and pop – all served with an eclectic mix classical style. She was also a remarkable vocalist. Like the multitude of admirers who collect her works, I have never forgotten the first time I heard the song that serves as the title of this autobiography. (It set all of my short hairs a-tingle!) The same is true of the traditional Appalachian song, “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and the Kurt Weill song, “Pirate Jenny.”

Nina Simone did not accept “retirement” gracefully. To the last, she continued to perform. Sometimes she faltered, seeming to forget lyrics and where she was. Her gaunt figure and aggressive posture caused many young people to think she was a man. Yet, the magic would still happen. She could always perform “I Love You, Porgy” (her first hit) and reap a standing ovation.

The most poignant event in this autobiography is Simone’s memory of her childhood sweetheart, a part-Indian boy named Edney Whitesides. She never stopped loving him and told him that when she was rich and famous, she would come back to Tryon for him. According to her, she did.

I was dressed in red, green and black, put on Yves St. Laurents hat

and set out... “I come to get him, Mrs. Whitesides,” I said ... Edney

was a man broken by hard work and no fun ... forty-six years old. I put my hands out to touch his face ... “What on God’s earth have they done to you?” I said .... His mother said, “Eunice, you waited too long to come for Edney.”

It wasn’t the last time Nina Simone would wait too long before she loved, forgave or accepted a final truth. Of more than 300 songs, perhaps the one that best defines her is this one:

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good

Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

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