I was fortunate to get to know Nina Simone while Music Director and doing Morning Becomes Eclectic. I’ve always loved her music, and sometimes would listen to her classic songs when I needed a good cry. “Little Girl Blue”, “Plain Gold Ring” and “I Loves You Porgy” always worked. “You Can Have Him” worked even better when hurting from a breakup.
I interviewed her first in the mid 1980s. I suspect she was on her meds as she walked in, holding a friend’s arm. She seemed delicate and fragile. She told me about Miss Mazzy, her music guru and White Mother, her bitterness at not being accepted into the prestigious Curtis Institute—she always thought it was racism—her singing career beginning in a New Jersey Irish Bar.
Later, at the LA club she was performing at, The Vine St. Bar & Grill, she criticized her musicians, fired one of them, stormed off stage, came back very agitated but calmed down once she touched the keyboard. Her classical training helped anchor her wild emotional swings. So did her love of Johann Sebastian Bach. Listen to the piano part of “Little Girl Blue” and you hear Bach in there.
Just before the second interview I got a phone call from a guy who said he was a neighbor who lived near her Hollywood flat and that she once demanded sexual favors from him, even though he didn’t know her. He was terrified. On another occasion I got a call from the SMC Parking Kiosk from a frightened attendant who was being screamed at by Nina. She then got on his phone and demanded we send the KCRW studio grand piano to her apartment so she could rehearse.
The second time she visited us she slammed Ariana Morgenstern’s door so hard that the side view mirror broke off. She was a fountain of anger, a human volcano in the studio that day. Then she broke down in tears. It was quite a test for me as host. She even referred to herself as “Dr. Simone” and claimed ancestry to female pharoahs in ancient Egypt.
She lived out her later years in France. Chanel started using “My Baby Just Cares for Me” in a perfume commercial and the Chanel headquarters got an unexpected visit from a chagrined Dr. Simone. My favorite anecdote, however, is this one. A friend and colleague of mine was working at RCA Records in New York in the 1960s. Nina recorded for Bethlehem, Philips, RCA, and, later on, Verve. She made an appointment to see my friend the RCA executive, went into his office, sat down, pulled a revolver out of her purse, and putting it onto his desk, told him “Hello, I’m here to discuss my royalty payments”.
Here is her classic sad song “Little Girl Blue”:
Nina. There will never be another one like you. My 2003 tribute to her, shortly after her death, can be found here: http://www.kcrw.com/music/programs/mb/mb030101nina_simone