As I was getting ready for class, running late as ever, I couldn’t help but stop and listen to a program streaming from my alarm clock radio entitled “Dr. Nina Simone: Forever Young, Gifted, and Black.” Narrated by NPR’s Vertamae Grovesnor, the hour long documentary is a fitting introduction to the dynamic Simone. Prior to hearing the broadcast, I only owned one song by the “High Priestess of Soul” as many call her. “Wild is the Wind” is the loveliest ballad I’ve ever come across, with Simone singing in a slight alto drawl over cascading melodic piano keys: “Love me love me / say you do / let me fly away with you.” It’s stripped down vulnerability lacks the bombast that most of her creations have but it’s a treasure nonetheless.
Simone is a favorite among a number of my friends, but the 59 minute reel is what truly opened my eyes to her stunning body of work. I’d never heard her speak prior to listening to the broadcast, but how elegant a voice she had, a perfect match to her regal proud manner and elaborate stage costume of dramatic draped fabric and glorious headdress seen in concert photos from later stages in her career. It was not gaudy or for show, it was just Nina Simone being Nina Simone. She was fly. The tape is full of anecdotes and kind words from the many lives she touched. A next door neighbor of Betty Shabbazz for many years, one of Malcolm X’s daughters recalls fond memories of Aunt Nina at the icon’s funeral in 2003. Patti Labelle remembers meeting with Nina Simone after a concert and being lightheartedly scolded for wanting to drink wine out of a paper cup. For Simone, wine was only consumed out of crystal.
The documentary focuses not on the ups and downs of Simone’s turbulent career, or the fact that the fame and fortune that many of her contemporaries like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight achieved alluded her. It rather pays tribute to Simone’s larger than life prowess, and unique organic style and sensibility, and I think it is better for it.
Commentary is properly placed between segments of Simone’s most well known recordings, both live and in the studio. Its title is a variation of her prized “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” which was written for her dear friend Lorraine Hansbury, who created a play of the same title. The tape includes an excerpt of the song from a concert in later years, where Simone reveals to the audience that it will be the last time she performs the song that embraced black intellect and achievement; she confesses it makes her miss the deceased Lansbury too much.
Over the years, Simone built a stunningly diverse and wide ranging and beautiful repertoire, from covering and translating classical standards, to a number of well known songs that tackled pressing social issues, including “Mississippi Goddam” and “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” in honor of the slain Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Simone was at home when singing about social struggles, but also when performing pop material like “To Love Somebody,” personifying a french chanteuse in “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” or a soul tune like “Pour Some Sugar Into My Bowl.” Simone had the uncanny ability to draw from injustice, classical influence and the blues, and sound authentic in each genre, to command a multitude of sounds all in her own remarkable way.
Nina Simone didn’t ask for respect or an audience, she demanded it, in every emotionally charged performance and every defying lyric she wrote. Her masterpieces have managed to remain current and relevant through reworkings by Pop and Soul icons as well part of the Verve Remixed canon of classic numbers tweaked by dj’s. I read more about the virtuoso and learned that Mary J. Blige is set to play Simone in an upcoming autobiographical movie, which ensures an electrifying performance like that of Jamie Foxx’s Ray. Maybe the movie will spark a revival in appreciation for Simone’s body of work.
Nina Simone was an early bonafide diva, a term that is thrown around too loosely these days. She probably wouldn’t have appeared in a “Divas Las Vegas” medley to prove it either; Everyone knew she had “it,” and she owned it completely.