Book Review: I Put a Spell On You: the Autobiography of Nina Simone
I Put a Spell On You: the Autobiography of Nina Simone (with Stephen Cleary)
Eunice Kathleen Waymon (1933-2003), in memory and spirit, triumphantly returned to Tryon, North Carolina, her hometown, on February 22, 2010, for the dedication of her bronze likeness.
She departed sixty years earlier, determined to become the United States’ first Black classical pianist. To earn money for rent and lessons, she performed, during the summers, at Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar and Grill. Lest her mother, a Methodist minister, discover that she was . . . working in the fires of hell . . ., Eunice changed her name to Nina Simone. To classical music’s great loss, Ms. Waymon’s career changed directions, but Nina Simone returned to Tryon that day the High Priestess of Soul.
Ms. Simone writes, Everything that happened to me as a child involved music. At age two-and-a-half, Eunice played her family’s music by ear on the piano; a year later, she directed her mother’s church services with the prowess of an experienced pianist. From ages 4-12, Eunice played for four Sunday church services and classes, Wednesday night prayer meetings, and Friday night choir practice.
During the Great Depression, her mother worked for Tyron resident Mrs. Miller, who paid for lessons with classical pianist Mrs Massinovitch (Miz Mazzy) to determine Eunice’s (age 6) potential.
Miz Mazzy’s Bach-only repertoire initially intimidated the child, but she eventually resolved: Once I understood Bach’s music I never wanted to be anything other than a concert pianist. . . . When Mrs. Miller could no longer afford lessons, Miz Mazzy established the Eunice Waymon Fund; in return for public donations, Eunice played free recitals in Tyron’s town hall. The community proudly embraced their prodigy and donated generously.
In her senior year of high school, the Juilliard School of Music in New York City offered Eunice a one-year scholarship and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia a full scholarship, if she passed the entrance test. Juilliard reinforced Eunice’s conviction that she was destined to be an eminent classical pianist – until she received Curtis’ decision: They didn’t want me because I wasn’t good enough. Rejected. Eunice soon learned that Curtis rejected her because she was Black, but, whatever the reason, One thing was for sure: [she] was done with music forever.
Her brother Carol, fortunately for musical posterity, persuaded Eunice to resume studying, and she enrolled as a private student with the Curtis professor who would have tutored her. His advice to take the exam again because she . . . really should have been a scholarship student. . . . renewed her confidence and determination. Eunice remained in Philadelphia accompanying singers, teaching piano, and, beginning in 1954, performing in night clubs.
Ms. Simone’s narrative describing her first night as a classical pianist, attired in a chiffon gown, in the seedy Midtown Bar and Grill gleams like a star in the biographical genre. Her first performance complete, the manager ordered her to sing or lose her job. By week’s end, an audience smitten with her luscious blend of blues, cabaret, classical, gospel, jazz, pop, and Rhythm and Blues replaced disgruntled regulars. In Philadelphia that fall, her following multiplied so rapidly that, on her manager’s recommendation, she moved to New York City. With her first concert at Town Hall on September 12, 1959, she stepped onto the road of success – The New York press went crazy over [her]. . . ; by the early 1960s, Ms. Simone basked in international fame and adulation.
With admirable honesty, Ms. Simone relates her confusion about participating in the Civil Rights’ Movement (1954-1968). Her parents ingrained in their children that . . . the Waymon way was to turn away from prejudice and to live your life as best you could, as if acknowledging the existence of racism was in itself a kind of defeat. As a girl, she was relatively insulated from racism because tourism, Tryon’s main industry, relaxed rules so the races could work together – until an incident at her first recital when prejudice was . . . made real for [her] and it was like switching on a light.
As racism grew more violent and prolific, Ms. Simone studied Black history and thoroughly researched the various groups within the movement which, she assures readers, were not harmoniously lined up behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Finally, with the murder of Medgar Evers (1963) and, a few months later, the dynamiting of a Sunday school that killed four children, Ms. Simone . . . suddenly realized what it was to be Black in America in 1963. For the next seven years, marching and performing, speaking and composing, Ms. Simone inspired the movement. Her premier of Mississippi Goddam (1963) revitalized the Civil Rights’ Movement; To Be Young, Gifted and Black (lyrics by Weldon Irvine) was pronounced the National Anthem of Black America (1970).
In the early 1970s, Ms. Simone, for personal, business, and political reasons, plunged into the madness of expatriate wandering, numerous affairs, drinking, and depression. A cursory understanding of those years is necessary to fully comprehend Ms. Simone the woman, but not at the sacrifice of Ms. Simone, entertainer and activist. The insight and discernment of the early chapters disappears into laborious detail about her lost years, a great injustice to Ms. Simone and her admiring legions wondering about issues crucial to a comprehensive autobiography.
How did this genius, with no prior singing experience, launch herself to international stardom from the grungy Midtown Bar and Grill? How did she combine so many musical categories into a genre that fans still argue about categorizing? The appendix lists Ms. Simone’s original albums, but her album covers, even a few, provide an indispensable visual study of Ms. Simone’s rise from night club singer to the High Priestess of soul. If Ms. Simone composed almost 500 songs, according to one source, why are so few discussed? The list of musicians influenced by Ms. Simone’s music, from John Lennon to Mary J. Bilge, reads like a list of music nobility yet her musical legacy, obviously crucial to a musician’s autobiography, is ignored. Ms. Simone readily admits that she heaped disdain and haughtiness upon her audiences, yet her performances always sold out; why? Finally, Ms. Simone, in 1979, declared her goal of reclaiming her life and career, no minor task considering her devastating personal problems and her almost nonexistent presence in the musical world. That Ms. Simone returned to international stardom by the late 1980s deserves much more than a few vague pages!
I suggest, Reading Friends, that you revel in her early chapters, zip through the final chapters, and then look elsewhere for a more substantial portrayal of the complex Nina Simone, musician and activist.
View From My Catio
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
This month, Fans and Friends, I Purringly introduce Morgan James’ second Promise McNeal Mystery, Quiet Killing. (As you will recall, we reviewed Quiet the Dead in May 2011.) Once again, Promise and her neighbors are a compelling group. Fletcher Enloe is grouchier (if possible); the Goddard twins are smarmier (ditto); Daniel is still handsome and charming (if Mary’s sighs are any indication); Susan, his slightly-Goth daughter, remains loyal to Promise; and Hubert, the formerly stinky, lovelorn goat, happily courts Promises’ lovely does Pearl and Minnie. A Redbone Coon Hound blights Cat’s existence, but, since his barking awoke Promise to her burning barn, how can he not be a welcome addition. Determining why someone burned her barn poses questions so disparate that an explanation seems impossible, but Promise, almost murdered, charges forth. For Mary, the most crucial issue is why Promise won’t marry Daniel; is she nuts, or what?