Nina Simone: God Bless The Child

Jim Delehant
Hit Parader, September 1969

NINA SIMONE was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, the sixth of eight children. Her mother worked as a housekeeper and her father was a handyman by day. At night and on Sundays, he wore the robes of an ordained Methodist minister.

Many years later, the name and talent that is Nina Simone sold out the famed Westbury Music Fair, the year-round theater-in-the-round at Westbury, Long Island, long before the scheduled concert date. Two nights before the show, however, one of 1968's unbelievable series of tragic events occurred: the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

The immediacy of the tragedy was captured in a poignant, sometimes bitter, song called 'Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)', written by Nina's bass player, Gene Taylor, less than 24 hours before the beginning of the concert. The emotional height of performer, writer and audience was so true and real that it could never be recaptured. The tremendous impact of the tragic event was at its peak that evening and an indescribable bond between Nina and the audience made this reading unforgettable. By sheer stroke of fate, RCA Victor had, weeks before the concert, made arrangements to record Nina Simone's performance live. This album managed to capture the spontaneity as Miss Simone sang this song for the very first time.

HP: Do you feel close to Ray Charles?

Nina: Not any more than I do to ten or twelve others. Why do you ask?

HP: Something in your passionate involvement with songs. Who do you feel close to in the male category?

Nina: The way you put it, I'd say Ray Charles. I never thought of that. But thank you, that's a compliment. I do love to sing Jacques Brel songs, intensely. I get terribly excited, just by reading a couple of lines in any one of his songs.

HP: Are you from a gospel background?

Nina: The same old thing. I was reared in the church from the age of three. I've played piano since I was three. I performed at revivals and for my people around North Carolina for several years. People around town collected money to send me to school. By the time I was eight I was taking classical piano lessons and I wanted to be a concert pianist. But that didn't work out. I graduated from high school and my formal education ended.

HP: You have a very cultured manner of speaking.

Nina: Well, that depends on the time of day (laughter) understand? I've toured a lot and been to Europe. It depends how I feel. My name sounds French but that's just a stage name. I live in Mt Vernon, New York now.

HP: Did you ever have vocal training?

Nina: Not really. I used to accompany students in a popular vocal studio in Philadelphia and that influenced me. At the time, nightclub techniques rubbed off on me. But never formal training. My singing, if you want to call it that is merely another medium of expression. Just an instrument I play. That's how I see my voice.

HP: To me one of your most moving performances is 'Don't Smoke In Bed'.

Nina: Oh thank you. I heard that a long time ago in a movie. Maybe thirty years ago. It's one of many pop songs that stuck with me as I grew up. When I choose material for an album all these songs I grew up with pour into my head.

HP: Are you aware of your highly unique style?

Nina: Yes, I am. I know I'm different, but I don't think about it. You can't be different if you look at it. Being gifted is different. I had that in my piano playing. I'm very thankful for that. I'm very aware of that. The style and what I fed is just me. I never worked at it. It just happened.

HP: Do you feel a lot of female singers still try to sound like Billie Holiday?

Nina: Yes. But less and less now. Many of them turned up when Billie died. I have many warm thoughts for her ideas. You couldn't find a better influence than Billie. God, she was something else. I got 'Porgie' from her which I did in 1958. Billie happened to hear a tape I did of it long before it started selling and she wrote me a note saying she liked it and hoped I would be successful. That autograph is very precious to me

HP: Can you remember particular songs that knocked you out as a child?

Nina: Oh yes, an old hymn called 'God Be With You Till We Meet Again'. I remember it vividly, because it's the first song I picked out on piano at the age of three.

HP: When did you move from gospel to pop?

Nina: After my classical training when I was twenty-one. That's when I started going to nightclubs and hearing all kinds of music. I had heard blues and jazz all my life but I was never aware that it was associated with nightclubs and drinking. We didn't have a record player, but we had a radio and a piano and somebody in my family was always singing or playing or dancing. Oh, I heard a lot of boogie woogie too. That killed me, because I loved to dance. I had to play that when mama was out of the house because she didn't allow it. Somebody would watch out the window to see if mama was coming.

HP: What made you come to New York?

Nina: Right after high school I came to a summer course in piano at the Julliard School of Music.

HP: Did your parents want you to be a classical pianist?

Nina: When a child is gifted, people try to help that child. I had been playing by ear and when I was seven a white woman heard me playing in a theatre and went to my mother with an offer to give me piano lessons. That's a very high goal to have, study eight hours a day to be a concert pianist. I didn't even think about it. I just got into it. I was very young. As I got older though I wanted a life of my own. The classical training was very demanding and thorough. It was a very sheltered existence. Even though I heard blues and gospel on the radio sometimes, it was always back to the piano and study and give recitals.

HP: So you have a good technical knowledge of music?

Nina: Yes. I can read and arrange, but I can't write. If I get an idea I put it on tape and somebody else writes it out.

HP: Now, most soulful musicians don't have that technical knowledge. Did that knowledge change the way you might have played before?

Nina: No. There was no conscious thought of that knowledge. When I studied for all those years, it was to be a concert pianist. Now that has nothing to do with the music of my people. It's two separate things. But, I realize the advantages I have in composing and taking blues one step farther. Theory and harmony broadened my mind in music. I know what music is made of. The Beatles are doing it with their thing. If I want to take a particular form of blues somewhere else I have the equipment to do it But I never even thought of it.

HP: Your classical training didn't make you look down your nose at funk?

Nina: Are you kidding? Me? As colored as I am? Shoot, I couldn't wait to get back home, and do some dancing. You don't know. What my people have is much more relaxing. (laughter)

HP: Why do you think some musicians can really get into funky music and others can't even play a funky chord?

Nina: It's very simple. Funk, gospel, blues is all out of slavery times, out of depression, out of sorrow. It's logical that people from bad times will reflect their feelings in their communication. Music is part of the communication. If you lived it, you can do it. It's even talking be-bop words. Now you noticed that I have a cultured manner of speaking. Tomorrow, I might be in a different mood and you wouldn't recognize my voice. My people have very subtle slang, inflections and ways of saying things that has little to do with words. If you're from the same place, you'll feel the jargon and know exactly what's happening. Same with any neighborhood cat. What he sees and hears and feels and lives makes him what he is. That's what blues is. I believe in racial memory too. I'm sure I've got ancient African blood in me that has something to do with what I am.

HP: Do you ever feel some other blood in you? Maybe something white or something Spanish?

Nina: Sometimes, yes, when I think of reincarnation. Many times I feel different like a different person.

HP: Do you fed a strong closeness to any music other than Negro music?

Nina: I love all music. I mean that. But, I can't stand loud guitars that make me deaf. Music is the center of my life. I love to travel to hear different kinds of music.

HP: Would you ever do an album of classical music?

Nina: Perhaps. I don't think I can play it anymore. I'm going to do a concert of my own music with a symphony orchestra but that's probably the closest I'll ever get to it. I love the classics but there are many new ideas to be made into reality. I'd rather be concerned with my own thing. There are many masters of classical piano so I'll leave it to them.

HP: Who are your main influences on keyboard?

Nina: Oh many. Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Horace Silver and even John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. They don't play piano but their music feels the same to me. I'm also a nut for Bach as a composer. I'd say those are my major influences. I love the sound of the harpsichord too, especially Wanda Landowski when she plays Bach.

HP: Very often your music is filled with melancholy but the feel of the music, I guess the chords, aren't funky sad. It's like Jacques Brel. Sad but not funky sad. Do you think you play chords that way because of your classical training?

Nina: Now wait. That's loaded. You're talking about ME. I don't want to analyze myself that close. I have no idea. It would be ridiculous to try. That's like saying what might have been if some change in plans happened. But, I'll tell you, my friend, last night I was alone and I was thinking what would I be now if I had been born in some other place, if I had lived a different life. Who could possibly know that? What, for instance, would I be now if I were raised in a non-racist society. But I'm sure many people wonder about these things.