Simone Says

Brantley Bardin
Details, January 1997

Legend-with-an-attitude Nina Simone breaks her silence.
And you'd better listen. 


Is it true that nothing irks you more than being labeled a jazz singer, albeit one of the greatest? 
To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that's not what I play. I play black classical music. That's why I don't like the term "jazz," and Duke Ellington didn't either - it's a term that's simply used to identify black people. 

As in the late '50s, when you became a star and were compared to Billie Holiday? 
Yeah--what an insult! 

An insult not because she wasn't a great artist but because-- 
Because she was a drug addict! They only compared me to her because we were both black - they never compared me to Maria Callas, and I'm more of a diva like her than anybody else. 

Really? How so? 
She was tempestuous. She was a complete one-of-a-kind and she studied her music more than anyone else in her generation. She could make the rules and break them whenever she pleased, and the world would listen because she was Callas

Do you get off on being tempestuous? 
What do you mean, "get off"? That's just the way I am. 

Actually, it's hard to compare you to anybody. 
Well, thank you. 

You studied to be a classical musician, but instead became the High Priestess of Soul. Though you've introduced such classics as "House of the Rising Sun," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and "Lilac Wine" during forty-years-and-counting reign, you don't much like show business. 
Can't stand it! I like being onstage, but when it comes to show business itself and the pirates that run it, no, I don't like it at all. 

You feel you've been ripped off 
Yes, sir! Completely ripped off. I've never been paid all royalties for the five hundred songs I've composed. 

How did that happen? 
Obviously you're naive about show business. 

In a very un-show-business move, you're famous for berating audiences whose behavior isn't up to your requirements. 
My original plan was to be the first black concert pianist--not a singer--and it never occurred to me that I'd be playing to audiences that were talking and drinking and carrying on when I played the piano. So I felt that if they didn't want to listen, they could go the hell home. 

As a child in Tryon, North Carolina, were you always this though? 
Oh, no. I started off very pure and very innocent and I believed till the last minute that I'd be that concert pianist. It still takes a long time for me to accept the fact that it's never going to happen the way I dreamed it. It's just too late. 

Yeah, but instead you became the legendary "Nina Simone." Didn't you change your original name so your Methodist minister mother wouldn't find out you were working a summer job playing piano in an Atlantic City bar? 
Yes, but I'd rather not go into what my name was. I have two honorary doctorates. I am now professionally and legally know as Dr. Nina Simone. 

Ok, but the story of how you changed it from "Eunice Waymon" is right in your autobiography. 
If you know that, you don't have to ask me. 

Should I be calling you Dr. Simone? 
Well, since we don't know each other... 

Okay, next question, Dr. Simone. In Atlantic City, you developed a wildly iconoclastic style that incorporated pop, Bach, jazz, folk, and even Christmas carols. Were you aware of what a groundbreaking brew that was? 
Yes and no--mainly I did it to pass the time. Because I was hired to play the piano for forty-five minutes out of each hour for six hours a night, and since I hadn't played any popular music before, I had to incorporate jazz and classical motifs into what I was doing, and that developed into the difficult role I'm playing now. I didn't start singing until the manager of the bar told me that just playing wasn't good enough. 

And even though you'd never sung professionally before, you were an immediate hit and got signed to record your first of fifty-one albums. Are you excited about the Rhino anthology of your early-'60s Colpix-label recordings that just came out? 
Well, I didn't know about that. Thanks for telling me. 

You didn't know?! It's kind of a big deal. 
Is it, now? 

Yes, and actually the Verve label recently released another compilation. 
Oh, for God's sake, there are pirates everywhere! 

I'm sure these aren't pirates... I really think you'll get paid. 
Well, I'll know as the checks come in. 

Maybe if you lived in America instead of the south of France, you'd have more knowledge of your current popular resurgence here. 
I don't like America, I never did, and I don't want to go back unless I have to. 

I thought you were going to tour this coming year. Anyway, what do you have against America? 
I think they'll sell themselves, their souls, and their brothers, sisters, and mothers for money. And prejudice there is so insidious and subtle--I've never seen anything like it! It's gotten crazy with so many skinheads, everybody gone mad, bang-bang shot dead--I don't know what's happened to the world. 

Is that why, after all your high-profile civil-rights work in the '60s, you left the U.S. pretty much permanently in the early '70s? 
I left because I didn't feel that black people were going to get their due, and I still don't. 

In the late '60s, your song "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" was declared by the Congress of Racial Equality to be the black national anthem. 
Yes, and then black America promptly refused it. 

How so? 
You mean "Why so?" I don't know why--it's just that they're pretty backwards. 

Backwards, hmm... I guess you don't feel much was accomplished in the movement. 
After Martin Luther King and Malcom X got killed, after Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes and Medgar Evers died, and after Stockley Carmichael and Miriam Makeba went to Africa, yes, I felt the movement died. 

So you moved to Africa. How'd you feel when you got there? 
That I was at home. I took off my shoes and walked in the dirt streets, smelled all the smells... They didn't event want me to sing over there, they just wanted me to have a good time! I felt thoroughly at home there. 

So much so that in your book you say that on your third night there, you danced buck naked in a nightclub for two hours. 
(laughs) Yes. I don't particularly like clothes, and when I get a chance to be happy and dance with friends around me, I take them off and I dance. 

And at age sixty-three, do you still do that? 
Well, not here in the south of France. 

You've been married and divorced and had many romances. Do you still get around? 
I had an intense love affair with a Tunisian boy last year, but I don't think I want to get involved for a long time again because he opened me up like a volcano, and it almost put me under. 

I'm happy to hear you have friends, because I recently read a quote of yours that said "I don't like people that much." Why's that? 
Because they're basically undeveloped, stupid, and not very knowledgeable about anything--they don't think for themselves and they're not honest. 

I see. And is the same true for yourself? 
What do you mean? I'm very honest. 

You certainly are. People play your songs when they're feeling bad. What do they hook into? 
I feel what they feel. And people who listen to me know that, and it makes them feel like they're not alone. 

How would you like to be remembered? 
I want to be remembered as a diva from beginning to end who never compromised in what she felt about racis and how the world should be, and who to the end of her days consistently stayed the same. 

But isn't life about evolving and changing? 
Not for me