“For Nina Simone, art was closely related to the desire to live as a free person”, defines the music critic Dave Marsh, author of dozens of books on rock history, in the introduction to Victim of my spell, memoirs of Nina Simone (Kultrum, 2019), the acclaimed autobiography of the “High Priestess of soul”, as she was called more than once.
That freedom that Marsh emphasizes should be understood in all its possible meanings: gender freedom (“If it really made any sense to pigeonhole me in some way, folk singer would probably be the most appropriate label, since there is much more folk and blues that jazz in my interpretations “, assures Simone); political freedom, due to the confluence of his “militant commitment to the movement for the defense of civil rights as his own way of singing”, writes the critic; freedom to say what she wants, when she wants, even if that forced her to live in exile. Free, after all, because nothing else matters.
The memoirs of Nina Simone are signed by Eunice K. Waymon, the real name of the singer who was born on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, a small mountainous town in North Carolina, in the United States, and died on April 21 2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, a seaside resort in the south of France, after a long fight against breast cancer. Seventy years of life in which Eunice, her father’s spoiled babe, the hustler John Divine Waymon, became the legendary Nina, that beautiful and strong woman that director Liz Garbus was able to portray with precision in the Netflix documentary What Happened , Miss Simone? (2015).
When Eunice came into the world things were turned upside down. She is the sixth of eight siblings and her birth came right in the middle of the final blowout of the so-called Great Depression that plunged millions of Americans into poverty. The large Waymon family, which before the crash of 1929 seemed to have found their economic stability, was no exception. And they had to be searched anyway. When she was just turning four years old, little Eunice abandoned her childhood to help her father recover from a complicated stomach operation. Thanks to those months of complicity and accompaniment, they became inseparable.
Music has always been part of his life. “Everything that happened to me when I was a child had to do with music. It was part of everyday life, something as automatic as breathing,” says Nina in her memoirs. His dad played the piano, guitar, and harmonica, and also led the church choir. They were Methodists and their entire social life revolved around religion. His mother also played the piano and sang, as did his brothers and sisters. “We never attended formal studies; we learned to play in the same way that we learned to walk, as something natural,” he says.
When I was a baby and would not stop crying, there was no better remedy than music. He would stop doing it the moment a piano began to play. In church they discovered that from a very young age she clapped to the rhythm of the songs, they said she had a gift. The day her mother heard her playing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again”, one of her favorite hymns, she only confirmed it. By then Eunice was not even three years old and they called her “child prodigy”. At six she was the stable pianist of the church. Then he began taking piano lessons – with Mrs. Massinovitch, who in time was to become his “white mother” – and met Johann Sebastian Bach. He fell in love with the mathematical perfection of the baroque master and decided that he wanted to dedicate himself to music. At the age of eight he gave his first concert in public.
Segregation seemed invisible in Tryon, at least to Eunice, but like every southern town in the United States, it existed. It was so naturalized that it was already part of the landscape. She had always lived it closely but she really felt it firsthand when she was 11 years old and was asked to give a concert at the town hall.
“When I looked up I saw that my parents, who were in their best clothes, were being expelled from their seats in the front row to put a white family in their place. And that Mom and Dad were allowing it,” he says in his memoirs . Eunice refused to play until her parents’ seats were returned, which they did, but from that day on she began to see the world differently.
Skin color was never discussed in her house, neither her own nor that of her neighbors. But the little girl who was already beginning to grow began to understand that all the effort, the desire to progress and the behavior that her parents had instilled in her had to do with the pride of being black in a context that was always going to be adverse to her. When she was rejected at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she realized that racism could go too far, even to the point of restricting the dreams of that child prodigy.
Eunice Kathleen Waymon adopted the stage name Nina Simone out of necessity. He had the opportunity to play the piano in a bar – they paid much better than the lessons he gave his students – but if his mother found out, the apocalypse could come. “I once had a boyfriend of Hispanic origin, Chico, who nicknamed me Niña, in Spanish. Chico called me that all the time and I loved how he sounded. And I also liked Simone since I had seen Simone Signoret in French films. So there I was, Nina Simone, “he synthesizes in his memoirs.
In a short time she stopped being a simple pianist and began to sing. He had to play seven hours a night at a drunken joint in Atlantic City, so he combined his knowledge of classical and gospel music with what came from within. She improvised, she composed live, original songs that even she didn’t know existed. Midtown was packed with people enjoying the magic of Nina Simone. There he forged that special relationship with the public. If someone bothered her, everything would rot. He demanded respect and he gave himself one hundred percent.
From Atlantic City to Philadelphia, then to New York and Pennsylvania. Nina was beginning to conquer the United States and her biggest hits, “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”, “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, “I Put a Spell on You”, “hadn’t even reached the racks.” I Loves You Porgy “or the stainless” Feeling Good “. Over time, he would record more than 40 albums (this April is the 50th anniversary of Here Comes the Sun, the Beatles song to which he imprints his characteristic interpretation and with which he gave his name to the album on which he also performs “Just Like a Woman “by Bob Dylan)), would become a world-class singer and huge influence on artists of all genres, from Aretha Franklin to Madonna to Elton John, Adele and even Kanye West. He would live in Liberia, Switzerland, England and France, where he died in 2003.
The greatest recognition, however, came late. More precisely two days before his death. The Curtis Institute, the one who had rejected her in her early youth because of her skin color, and who almost caused her to give up music forever, awarded her an honorary degree. Perhaps only then did Nina, or rather Eunice, feel definitely free.
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Nina Simone, the artist who always fought for freedom