“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?” —Maya Angelou
So wrote the erudite Maya Angelou, following a 1970 Redbook interview she did with the mercurial ‘High Priestess of Soul’ herself, Nina Simone (b. 1933–2003). Echoing those very same questions that so many have asked over the years, Director Liz Garbus premiered her new Netflix documentary, titled, What Happened, Miss Simone? at the Sundance Film Festival last week.
Piecing together the complex, enigmatic legacy of the extraordinary Nina Simone was no easy feat. Garbus’ archival team combed through personal diary entries and notes, rare archival recordings, video footage, and conducted interviews with her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, and life-long guitarist and music director, Al Schackman. They even unearthed never-before-seen footage from a past interview with Nina’s infamously abusive husband/manager, Andy Stroud.
One cannot judge Nina Simone without first understanding the oppressive milieu into which she was raised. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in the Black South of Tryon, North Carolina in 1933, her mother was a pious Methodist minister; her father a handyman. Early on, she demonstrated exceptional talent and perfect pitch, teaching herself to play boogie on the piano at age three. She’d practice whatever she heard in her daily life until her father would say to her, “Your mama’s coming; you better save that [‘worldly music’] for next time.”
By age seven, she was playing for the church and had begun her classical studies with an Englishwoman she referred to as Miss Mazzy. She recalled, “My early joys were mixed with fear,” as she “traversed two worlds, two cities, two customs, two states of mind each week,” going from the familiar comforts of her hometown to “white Asheville.” It was a heavy weight for a young girl to bear, especially at such an impressionable age.
Unable to afford The Juilliard School and denied a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music (which Nina attributed to racism), she went to work as an accompanist for aspiring white vocalists and taught classical piano until her ‘big break’ came, when she was asked to perform at the dingy Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. To prevent her mother from finding out, she adopted the name ‘Nina Simone’—’Niña’ for little girl; and ‘Simone’ after the sultry French actress, Simone Signoret.
And so began the musical career of the impassioned singer, pianist, and—later turned—civil rights activist Nina Simone, who enthralled so many with her rich, soulful interpretations of works from The Great American Songbook and other standards that she’d learned the lyrics to while working as an accompanist. Nina would go on to craft her signature style, infusing already popular tunes of the day with splashes of jazz, blues, R&B, soul, folk, and classical. She recorded her very first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1958, with her timeless rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy,” which shot to the top of Billboard charts and catapulted Nina to international stardom.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s stoked the flames for Nina’s politically charged anthems like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Four Women,” and “Mississippi Goddam”—the latter of which she performed during the Selma, Alabama, march. But while she became one of the leading voices championing African-American rights, she alienated others by expressing solidarity with the more radical factions of the movement and by advocating violence.
Nina struggled with bi-polar disorder, depression, and an abusive marriage, which, coupled with an unrelenting tour schedule imposed upon her by her husband/manager, drove her to heavy substance abuse. Feeling disillusioned and disenfranchised by the mid-1970s, Nina left America for Liberia and then Europe, before finally settling in the south of France.
The brilliant flame that was Nina Simone’s tempestuous musical career was extinguished almost as suddenly as it was lit. She revealed to us her many faces, each one just as honest and expressive (sometimes painfully so) as the last. Reflecting on her life story, I’m reminded of Nina’s haunting rendition of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” from her 1967 Silk & Soul album. Have a listen, and you’ll understand what I mean.
Nina Simone performs “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”