Celebrating on February 21st what would have been the legendary Nina Simone's 80th birthday
Check out the video and photos of Nina, a strong and vocal civil rights advocate who carried the message of universal rights and personal empowerment, freedom, equality and dignity throughout her career. Whether it was political or emotional or personal, she never failed to tell the truth through her music.
"I think she was the greatest female artist of the 20th century" – Elton John
"I always loved the passion in her voice. She’s inspired me as a composer, a pianist, a singer and as a woman with a voice." – Alicia Keys
" Nina Simone’s impact on both jazz and culture will remain monumental; there was simply no one like her.." - Bonnie Raitt
"She was ahead of her time as a concert-level piano player who sang, wrote and spoke her mind…I aspire to be more like her." – india.arie
Please use #HappyBdayNina is you are tweeting in support of the legend on her Birthday.
David Nathan founded the first UK appreciation society for Nina in 1965. He's written countless essays and liner notes about this iconic artist since. He reflects...
There are times when I shake my head and wonder. How is it that God in Its’ Infinite mercy create the amazing Divinely-Ordered plan that brought me together with the great Nina Simone – whose 80th birthday would have been today, February 21, 2013 – to paraphrase an early favourite of mine from one of her treasured Colpix albums , when I was a young boy? Specifically, aged seventeen, living with my mother, father and sister Sylvia above a fish-and-chip shop inthe then-predominantly-Irish-but-becoming-Caribbean neighbourhood of Kilburn in North-West London? The chances of a direct, personal bond being formed between the woman born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, by then six years into a burgeoning recording and performing career and I were beyond lottery odds. But unresolved karma, destiny, fate – whatever you wish to call it – plays out in every life and coincidence, accident and mere happenstance play no part when souls choose to reunite for whatever purpose. For Nina, it was to establish a foundation in a land that would bring her good fortune, success and ultimately iconic status in a way that has only occurred in her country of birth since her death. For me, it was to learn the importance of cherishing and standing for freedom in all its’ expressions, of artistic integrity, of being counted in the constant challenge of always being real in the face of pretence, façade and deception. Indeed, being as wild as the wind.
I had no inkling that the day in March 1965 when I wrote to Andy Stroud, her then-husband and manager, to request permission to run a British appreciation society for my then-new musical heroine, I was sealing my own fate, taking my life in a direction that continues to this very day, forty-eight years later. All I wanted was to be part of the ‘in-crowd’, the hallowed inner circle of R&B purists and die-hard fans who ran U.K. fan clubs for the likes of Doris Troy (another important figure in my own life), Inez & Charlie Foxx, Don Covay, Irma Thomas, Martha & The Vandellas and Dionne Warwick and The Shirelles.
While by virtue of her expansive repertoire – which ran the gamut from spirituals she learned and sang in church as a child (“Children Go Where I Send You”), Israeli folk songs (“Erets Zavat Chalav” – flowing like milk and honey), African chants (“Zungo” and “Flo Me La”), traditional American tunes (“The House Of The Rising Sun”), or her own impassioned pleas for justice (“Mississippo Goddam”) – she was not an R&B star like the rest, I cared not.
Other fan club secretaries may have scoffed (mostly behind my back and occasionally to my face) at my choice and wondered quite how Nina Simone fit into the pantheon of the then-fledgling world of soul music but I – like Nina – didn’t give a hoot about the confines of pigeon-holing and narrow musical definitions. It was, as it would always be with Nina, about emotion and feeling. And be it her masterful interpretations of the works of Jacques Brel (“Ne Me Quitte Pas”), Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“I Put A Spell On You”), Oscar Brown Jr. (“Brown Baby”) or Kurt Weil (“Pirate Jenny”), by 1965, Nina Simone was already a category-defying artist who thrived on bringing her own unique and distinctive approach to whatever piece of music resonated with her. Artistically, as was often the case in other ways in an expansive life in which she resisted restriction, she was her own woman, refusing to give in to the strictures of narrow typecasting and rigid rules.
Looking back, it was incredible that record companies of the day – Colpix, Philips and RCA in Nina’s case – had any interest in giving Nina such power of creative choice. No other artist of her generation dared mix it up the way she did. She could sing of prostitution (“The Laziest Gal In Town”), the fight for civil rights (“Old Jim Crow”), sex (“Gimme Some”), romantic love (“I Am Blessed”) or take a then-little known song of optimism from a Broadway musical and now-classic (“Feelin’ Good”), put her own stamp on each piece of work and no self-appointed record company ‘suit’ would blink when such material was juxtaposed within the space of a twelve-track long player. It was Nina being Nina and the drive to mass market appeal had little if any resonance for her. Compromise was not in her artistic vernacular: if she didn’t ‘feel’ it, she didn’t record it. As a result, she carved out her own niche, marked her own musical territory and no one came close.
Fortunately for literally a handful of teens like me, Nina was smart enough to know that she could also record material that fit her own criteria for expression while appealing to a new audience. Thus it was that songwiters Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus and arranger/conductor Horace Ott (who penned the original melody and chorus lyric line but because of music industry practices at the time had to give credit to his then-girlfriend and wife-to-be Gloria Caldwell) presented five songs for consideration for Nina’s second album for Philips Records. While Ott, who arranged and conducted the LP had originally conceived “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” after an argument with Caldwell, it brilliantly reflected the stance, attitude and life experience of Nina herself.
It was that recording, released originally in 1964, that marked a turning point in Nina’s career and in my life. Suddenly, the woman whose voice carried indigo earth tones and raspy realness had a song that seemingly only resonated with a small coterie of British R&B enthusiasts while being essentially ignored in her backyard. With great irony, it took a U.K. band (The Animals, fronted by Eric Burdon, a self-confessed Simone fan) to bring the tune to the attention of both U.S. and British radio and record-buyers in early 1965 just a few months after Nina’s original recording had –to all intents and purposes - come and gone.
Thankfully for me, it hadn’t. Those words echoed throughout my consciousness as I struggled with acceptance from my parents and my school friends: ‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good…’ It became my anthem, my mantra – and it still is In delivering the lyric lines from “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on a wonderful recording (that featured the recognizable tones of Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston among the background session vocalists), Nina stepped into my world of rhythm-and-blues discovery, a world that was only just being filled for me with the likes of Major Lance (“Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”), Martha & The Vandellas (“Heatwave”), The Drifters (“Under The Boardwalk”) and what would become (and remain) my favourite recording of all time, “Walk On By” by Dionne Warwick. It would be a wonderful world that – as 1965 progressed – would resonate with names like Gladys Knight & The Pips, Betty Everett, Lou Johnson, Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles, Irma Thomas, Brenda Holloway, Betty Lavette and a young woman with a particularly curious name for an English schoolboy, one, Aretha Franklin…
Thus, Nina was now part and parcel of the R&B scene in Britain and while her albums belied any attempt at keeping her within the walls of that tiny segment of the music-buying public in the U.K. in 1965, the die was caste for me. By virtue of that one recording, Nina Simone provided me with entry into the inner sanctum of passionate followers who deeply loved, treasured and respected the work of American-born black singers and musicians. My life changed and would never be (and has never been) the same…
Just months after I got my treasured copy of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on a blue-coloured Philips U.K. single (backed by the inane “A Monster,” strangely also penned by Benjamin and Marcus – I wrote that letter to Andy Stroud. Weeks later, I got my reply. Months later, I was face-to-face with Nina Simone at Heathrow airport, with a four-year-old Lisa Celeste and husband Andy by her side, greeting her on her first ever visit to Britain. The fan club/appreciation society had just thirty members, brave souls who had paid a few shillings after seeing my ad (paid for from my own pittance of pocket money gained from working on Saturdays in a local record shop) in “Record Mirror,” a prominent British music paper of the day.
Over time, through our regular newsletters, Nina’s repeated return visits, her embrace by British pop royalty of the day and a commitment by Philips Records and then R.C.A. Records, her name creeped into the fabric of the U.K. music scene. We were all rewarded when her medley of two songs from the musical “Hair” incredulously gave Nina Simone a breakthrough No. 2 hit with “Ain’t Got No-I Got Life,” a recording that can still be heard regularly on British television thanks to a long-running Mueller yoghurt ad campaign!
My sister Sylvia and I (still running the now-several hundred strong appreciation society) suggested Nina’s version of “To Love Somebody” as a follow-up single and it became her second hit in the U.K. Over the ensuing decades, Nina Simone became an established, renowned and much-loved if oftentimes controversial artist in Britain and in spite of years spent away from her country of birth, her popularity grew in the U.S. and indeed throughout the world thanks to the invention of compact discs and the mining of her extensive catalogue on CD.
It is not without irony that her greatest popularity has come since her passing in April 2003. Her music has been heard by new generations, remixed and reimagined, featured on soundtracks for major films, television shows and commercials. I can say her name on five continents to all manner of people, young, old, gay, straight and to quote a lyric line from “Backlash Blues” to folks who are ‘black, yellow, beige and brown’ and white, pink and every other shade and they know her music. “Feelin’ Good” (inspired by Nina, decades later recorded by Michael Buble) is a staple on television talent show. “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” a 1959 recording she never particularly cared for, was used as the theme for a Chanel perfume ad, giving her another British hit and becoming a required part of her repertoire all the way to her final live performances in 2002. Her contribution to the global musical landscape has been acknowledged and given due respect through the release of box sets, DVDs and anthologies. She is known now, as she was in 1965, as an artist of immense integrity and justifiably as an important figure in the civil rights movement, a woman whose anthem (“To Be Young, Gifted And Black”) has empowered people the world over. She’s been the subject of books (including one, “Break Down & Let It All Out,” written by my sister Sylvia Hampton, to which I contributed) and of a forthcoming biopic that (sadly) will stray far from truth in telling her story.
But truth, Nina’s truth, lives on through her legacy of incredible music and through the tireless work of the little girl I met at the airport in 1965, now the wonderful artist-in-her-own-right and executrix of her estate, Lisa Simone Kelly.
I still shake my head in wonder. I could never have known all those many years ago, in 1965, that Nina Simone, then little-known beyond the faithful few in the U.K. and a discerning audience in the U.S. would – beyond her passing – be a global icon. Real, real (to quote the title of one of her RCA recordings) she was and indeed, wild as the wind. Beyond her music, Nina taught me well. She showed me that being true to myself was always the benchmark for living a fulfilled life. During our first meeting in 1965, she told me I had to learn to dance – or have sex. I triumphantly let her known a few years later, that I had done both and I will never forget the broad smile and sly grin she gave me back.
When I think of Nina Simone today, I smile. I am so grateful that our souls reconnected in this lifetime, person-to-person, knowing she has been played such a pivotal role in my own destiny. I know today she smiles too, aware that she gave us an amazing musical legacy to cherish and treasure and reminding those of us who have been touched by her work and her life that, at the very core, her essence is one of contribution and love.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.