The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Nina Simone

When it comes to Bollocks!, I am a bit of a whore. I didn’t start out that way, but it was easier not to be a whore when only 6-8 people (on average) read my blog. Somewhere in the last three years, more people, some of them total strangers, some of them on completely different continents (my mind = blown), started reading the blog. We get well over a hundred hits a day now, which is chump change I’m sure to your Perez Hiltons and Whoever The Fuck Elses, but I’m pretty proud of my readership. So now Bollocks! posts to my Facebook and I tweet every post on my Twitter and I even link to it from my fucking Gmail g-chat status thinger. Yesterday, my g-chat status thinger read, “I’m tired of telling people politely. Fucking listen to Curtis Mayfield.”

I bring this up not because I want to talk to you about what a massive whore I am (I’m comfortable with my current level of whorishness, which I rank as several steps below that of, say, Dane Cook) but because I suspect I will only have to change the name on my status for today’s post. Because goddamn it, people should fucking listen to Nina Simone.

Nina Simone was Eunice Kathleen Waymon right up until the moment she started playing piano and singing in bars, the first of those being the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City. To hide what was supposed to be a sideline gig from her exceedingly God-fearing ma, Eunice made up the name Nina Simone, taking “Nina” from the Spanish niña (“little girl”) and “Simone” from a French actress named Simone Signoret. The gig at the Midtown Bar & Grill, originally intended to supplement private lessons, helped Simone capture the eye of the record industry. Which was just as well since the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philly opted not to accept Simone – apparently, she believed until her dying day that she was denied because of her race (two days before her death in 2003, the Curtis Institute gave her an honorary degree, which might well have been a subtle way of saying, “Hey, sorry about the whole racism thing. City of Brotherly Love, huh?”).

She spent some time jumping from label to label in the sixties, a decade that would prove transformative for her career. Though Simone had tried to stay away from politics in her music, the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Alabama (four kids were killed) inspired Simone to write “Mississippi Goddam,” a song which would go on to be (predictably) banned in a lot of Southern states, despite the fact that it sounds like “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” Nina Simone spent the sixties (and indeed, the bulk of the rest of her career) doing what Curtis Mayfield spent the 1970s doing: chronicling, through jaw-droppingly awesome music, the experience of African-Americans in a country that forced them to live here and then decided it didn’t want them. On the Philips Records release Nina Simone In Concert, she introduces “Mississippi Goddam” by saying, “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi God Damn… and I mean every word of it.”

So Simone qualifies as a badass woman on biography alone (did I mention she had an affair with a dude named Errol Barrow? No? So I guess I didn’t mention that he was the fucking prime minister of Barbados. Must’ve slipped my mind), but this here is a music blog and Nina Simone most definitely did not want for musical badassery. It’s not all that surprising that she was a great pianist (she began playing at age 3 and had a widely-reported knack for learning instruments by ear); she honed her chops playing in her ma’s church (possibly the place where Ma Waymon learned to refer to singing in bars as “working in the fires of hell”). But that voice. Inspired by Billie Holiday, Nina Simone sang in a voice so singular and haunting that even her renditions of well-known songs by the likes of Cole Porter became her own when sung in that striking alto-tenor vocal range. And Nina Simone could do things with vibrato that would make Mariah Carey quit the music business tomorrow, if she had any goddamn sense.

If you’re gonna own only one Nina Simone album, it should be a live one. Not only do the live recordings capture the versatility of her voice (so jazzy and so fucking angry on “Mississippi Goddam” – which might very well be performed as “Arizona Goddam” today), but her ability to work the audience with humor and grace in between such intense performances was unmatched. She jokes and laughs and pouts and struts and that’s when she’s not blowing the roof of the joint in song.

I haven’t heard a bad Nina Simone song, but I do have a few favorites. Just last week, I mentioned her superb rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and I also get goosebumps every time I hear her version of “Lilac Wine.” In my mind, there are only two recordings of “Lilac Wine” in existence: one appears on Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind and the other appears on Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Speaking of “Wild is the Wind,” I think it’s a perfect example of a song that Nina Simone didn’t write but she might as well have. Anyone who covers that song (Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding did a good job of that on last year’s Chamber Music Society) is covering Nina Simone’s version (I know what you’re thinking: “Chorpenning,” you’re thinking, “I know that the song was written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, but wasn’t Nina Simone the first person to record it?” No, grasshopper; Johnny Mathis recorded “Wild is the Wind” for a film of the same name in 1957, a full nine years before Nina Simone totally fucking perfected it). If you can’t tell from the early bits of this post, I am also quite enamored of “Mississippi Goddam” (by the way, the “goddamn” misspelling is Nina Simone’s, not mine). But, as I said, if Nina Simone is singing it, it’s probably viscerally beautiful in a way that simultaneously elevates and devastates your soul. Unless some hack-fuck DJ is remixing it with bullshit drum beats and samples and shit; if you think you can improve Nina Simone songs by laptop-fucking them, I think I am legally allowed to hit you in the nuts with a shovel (for purposes of this hypothetical exercise and so as not to be accused of sexism: ladies, your ovaries will be referred to as your “inside nuts”).

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3 thoughts on “The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Nina Simone

  1. Pingback: The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Ani DiFranco « Bollocks!

  2. Pingback: The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Neko Case « Bollocks!

  3. Outstanding article. I already saved your website. Keep going. Cheers

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