Simone's voice was filled with soul, spunk

Appreciation

April 22, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

I was a senior in high school, trying to be deep, trying to expand my CD collection. I had heard about Nina Simone, had seen old pictures of this regal, dark-skinned woman whose eyes and carriage radiated pride. I had read somewhere that she believed she was a reincarnated Egyptian queen.

Did she sing the blues, I wondered. Jazz? Classical? When I went out and bought two of her CDs and read her 1991 biography I Put a Spell On You, I found that Simone was, as Chaka Khan would say, "every woman": a classically trained diva, a pop crooner, a down-and-dirty blues belter - and a political activist, a trend-setter, a wife, a mother, a stone soul sister.

In 1995, I wasn't quite ready for Simone and her songs: "Mississippi Goddam," "Sinnerman," "I Want More and Then Some," "Young, Gifted and Black." And even today, I have to be in a certain mood. I have to be open; my spirit has to be ready to receive her music - the penetrating vocals, the raw emotions, the cut-to-the-marrow lyrics.

I later learned that the world may not have been ready for Simone, either, especially the world of the 1950s and the 1960s.

Simone, who died at age 70 yesterday at her home in France, was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, N.C., in a family of eight children. Her parents, deeply religious, supported young Eunice's dreams of becoming a classical pianist. She studied at the Juilliard School of Music in the '50s, a rare position for a black woman. Needing to support herself, she found work as an accompanist. She also gave piano lessons.

She wouldn't find her voice until later.

It was at a gig in an Atlantic City nightclub where Simone opened her mouth and sang. Her sound was raspy, steeped in the blues. But she was never a soul shouter in the tradition of Bessie Smith. Her relaxed, intense approach recalled Billie Holiday. And her range of material had always been broad.

At the beginning of her career, in the late '50s, she was something of a pop-jazz chanteuse, scoring with a moody take of "I Love You Porgy." Her early albums were stews of flavors: folk songs, hymns, R&B rockers, string-laden pop confections. Part of the reason for her limited mainstream success was that she didn't fit neatly into anybody's slot.

And Simone liked it like that. She was a fierce artist, known to curse out promoters, audiences and producers.

Her tempestuous reputation preceded her everywhere she played, casting a dark but intriguing shadow. Her legend - in later years after she had left the United States and slowed down her touring - was more celebrated than her expansive catalog.

As hip-hop dawned, female figures in the genre, particularly Lauryn Hill, looked to Simone as an example of strength. And rapper Talib Kweli sampled "Sinnerman" on his latest CD, Quality. Simone was certainly an undeniable force, a black-conscious performer who adopted towering African head wraps years before Erykah Badu was born. She wrote candid lyrics about revolution - social, political and personal - long before Joni Mitchell found herself in the early '70s, long before Joan Armatrading, long before India.Arie.

Years later, Simone, who had left the United States by 1973, was still angry over the racism she saw in America and the death of her friend, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Last year, I spent an evening with her daughter, Lisa, who was starring in Broadway's Aida. I was profiling her for a New York publication. We were backstage in her dressing room. Lisa, whose stage name is simply Simone, sat on the floor across from me, talking about her mother.

"She did not play, OK?" Lisa said with a wide, knowing smile. "She didn't take nothing off of nobody. She was proud to be a black woman and an artist. But I think the world misunderstood her."

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