Nadine Cohodas’s biography of the passionate, talented and difficult, but ultimately lovable, Nina Simone is an object lesson in American life. With thorough interviews and research, much new material and information that has never before come to light, Nadine tells the story of Eunice Wayman, born in Tryon NC in 1933, with a stunning musical talent that was spotted early by family and friends.
Trained as a classical pianist through the charitable auspices of a local white woman who paid for her lessons and made sure she had access to a first-rate piano teacher, Eunice became Nina Simone only after the devastating disappointment of not being accepted at the highly exclusive Curtis Institute of Music. She had planned to be a classical musician, and much of her life and career were colored by this fact — as was her music, making her attack on a typical jazz tune uniquely heady and virtuosic.
In the summer of 1954, in order to make a living, Eunice took a job playing the piano at a bar in Atlantic City, and before long she was not just playing but singing and was becoming Nina Simone, the marquis name she picked for these first gigs. The rest is history, or becomes so with Nadine’s ministrations.
We watch the exciting rise of Nina’s discovery of herself as a singer (by 1959 she had a hit with “I Love You Porgy” and had sung Town Hall, was well received and on her way), her unique and challenging relationship with her audiences (she would “shush”; them angrily — as a classically trained musician, she didn’t believe in cabaret chat ), her involvement in and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement (through songs such as her seminal “Mississippi Goddam” and friendships with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hainsbury and Langston Hughes), her marriage and brief family contentment with the police detective Andy Stroud, with whom she had her daughter Lisa.
Alongside these threads runs a darker one: Nina’s increasing and sometimes baffling outbursts of rage and pain, her isolation into a confused world of perceived wrongs against her (some turned out to be real wrongs — such as the lack of royalties paid on her work, which was later legally addressed), and the erratic behavior that caused her trouble and gave heartache to her true fans over the years.
Ultimately she turned away from America and settled abroad in search of equilibrium. (In the mid-seventies Nina relocated to Liberia, then moved to Switzerland, Paris, and finally settled in the south of France.) Nina was a grande dame late in life, given a boost when Chanel used her “My Baby Just Cares for Me” in a TV perfume ad in 1987. She returned to the States to perform in 2000, and died at the age of seventy in 2003. At the end, Nina sang to devoted crowds, even when she wasn’t always at her very best.