Nina Simone was a fascinating woman whose life and music continues to intrigue and captivate. I have always loved her voice, marvelled at her piano skills, and admired how she used lyrics to seduce in one song and damn in the next. Yet, appallingly, my knowledge of Simone’s life and character remained appallingly limited.
I unsurprisingly lapped up Liz Garbus’ Oscar-nominated, Netflix produced What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) on its release. The warts-and-all film shows Simone’s undeniable talent – a musical genius whose audiences would be spellbound in her presence – yet whose personal life was extremely troubled and unsettled (loneliness, physical and chemical abuse, illness). She made mistakes. She was a difficult character. Yet she was a transcendental performer whose talent shines brightly on the screen. Would a written biography be able to capture her musical talent in quite the same way?
Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymon and raised in Tryon, North Carolina, was a musical prodigy who dreamed of becoming the world’s first black classical pianist. Playing the piano at her preacher mother’s sermons brought her to the attention of congregation member Muriel Mazzanovich – aka “Miss Mazzy” – her first piano teacher who co-founded a fund for Eunice’s musical education. This fund supported her move to New York to attend New York’s Juilliard School. As the fund dwindled she tried, and was rejected, for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Although she never fully recovered from this unfortunate incident, we can pinpoint this event as changing the course of the young woman’s life, initiating her evolution from Eunice Waymon to Nina Simone.
Alan Light’s biography of the singer, also titled ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?,” is an engrossing companion piece. Due to Simone’s electrifying performances, some individuals may find themselves preferring the faster paced, snappier, musically charged film to the written version. However, the book is richer in detail and includes periods of Simone’s life which Garbus, due to time restraints, naturally omitted. Light utilises additional first hand accounts by those closest to Simone – her musicians, ex-husband Andy Stroud, and her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly – providing a full yet stark account of this flawed but extraordinary artist whose life included numerous love affairs, struggle with sexuality, activism in the fight for civil rights, and career highs and lows. Fundamentally, Light paints Simone as a woman who never recovered from the lack of attention and affection her mother showed her in childhood, setting a precedent that would greatly influence Simone’s relationships with lovers, with her musicians, with her audience, and most significantly, with her daughter.
‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ is a richly personal biography and a fitting companion to an enthralling film. Simone was a tormented genius – a mass of contradictions – who, underneath all of the drama and problems remained Eunice Waymon: the little girl from South Carolina whose biggest regret was that she never became the world’s first black classical pianist.
* ‘What Happened, Miss Simone’ by Alan Light is published by Cannongate Books