“When I was a child, no one was ever proud of me, and my people were never proud of themselves or anything they had ever done,” she declared. “Well, that’s different now. I’m proud of myself, and I’m proud of my music…” – Excerpt from Princess Noire- The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
Nina Simone appeared most stately, if not regal, when her mane was coiffed into an elegant labyrinth of cornrows that spiraled to the crown of her head. Her trademark jumbo earring, fistful of rings and intricate ballroom gowns only heightened her queen-like semblance, but did little to diminish the aloof persona that characterized her life in the public eye.
Her reign as America’s leading lady of jazz was indeed an unruly, and at times, virulent one.
In Princess Noire – The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, author Nadine Cohodas paints the award-winning pianist and reluctant vocalist carefully, paying equal attention to the ebb and tide of her career and the pensive woman behind the music – the little girl from Tryon, N.C., born Eunice Waymon.
Cohodas introduces Simone as an extraordinarily talented child growing up in the racially charged 1930s. Through extensive interviews with the musician’s siblings, instructors and lovers, the author believes the Waymon family lived a pleasant, unassuming lifestyle despite their poverty. But not even a year into her life, the child that would evolve into Nina Simone had been stamped remarkable.
“When she was eight months old, my daughter hummed ‘Down by the Riverside’ and ‘Jesus Loves Me,’” said the provocative artist’s mother, Kate Waymon. “…Every time she saw a musical note, she tried to sing it.”
And while the little girl’s musical gifts exceeded those of her peers, young Simone was part of a profoundly religious family and was taught never to “get a swelled head.” As Cohodas describes Simone’s eccentric and heady behavior as an adult, readers will question whether the entertainer remembered her parent’s stern warning.
The Tumultuous Reign follows Simone from her childhood years, where she received formal piano training from a benevolent White neighbor, into her teenage era, where the first inklings of Simone’s stern, no-nonsense character became prevalent.
“She was so focused on her music; she didn’t spend a lot of time joking around,” one of Simone’s high school classmates told Cohadas.
With few friends, Simone’s most passionate and sincere relationships existed amid the sophisticated arrangements of Bach or Mozart, classical music arrangers she aspired to emulate. Even as a married woman, Simone struggled to develop a concrete bond with her White husband, and they soon divorced.
Her career was unaffected by her personal demons, although music industry insiders and critics called her an “angry woman” and admonished her authoritative air, particularly during an appearance at Harlem’s renowned Apollo Theater.
“Some of the audience giggled – or at least Nin thought they did. She dropped all pretense of politeness. ‘For the very first time in your lives, act like ladies and gentlemen at the Apollo,’” Simone chided during a performance.
A local columnist later wrote the crowd had been “overly generous” in their applause for the unpredictable entertainer and that it was Simone, not her audience, that suffered from a behavioral problem.
The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone includes a number of photos capturing the singer on stage, but in each photo she is stone-faced and solemn, perhaps a testament to her lackluster attitude toward modern music. According to Cohodas, Simone had always dreamed of being a concert pianist.
The slew of photographs also captures Simone at the height of her militancy when she covered Billie Holiday’s macabre “Strange Fruit” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” But it was Simone’s own irascible off-stage behavior that prevented her from reaching the echelons of superstardom.
The biography concludes with Simone’s death in 2003, months after she’d begun a battle with breast cancer. But in the author’s words, “…Nina never went away. Her spirit lives in her music, whose power to entertain, inspire, and provoke reveals the alloy of talent and turmoil that molded every performance.”