Friday, March 18, 2016

What Happened, Miss Simone? A Biography

"I was born a child prodigy, darling. I was born a genius." Humility was something that Nina Simone never worried about. From the time she began playing for her mother's church services, she had an instinctive grasp of what it took to sway a crowd. She started with the piano at home, but the community soon became involved and that led to more opportunities as she found instructors and supporters. After being passed over for a scholarship to study at Curtis as a classical pianist, she found her way into giving private lessons and then to playing in clubs. Year by year her fan base grew and she moved to bigger venues, record contracts, and tours. Sadly, she was never really happy. Despite her renown and recognition, she had poor taste in men and a volatile temperament that only grew worse as she aged. When she died at age 70, she had still never truly connected with her mother or her own daughter.

The author has put together the story of a remarkable woman. By using song lyrics, journals, letters, and interviews (with Simone and with family and friends), Light has pieced together a detailed account of Simone's rise to stardom and her complicated life. She could perform any kind of music, and the accounts tell of her mastery in musical genres as diverse as classical piano, jazz, blues, gospel, show tunes, and protest music. The activity behind the scenes is nearly as mesmerizing as her music. Readers learn of her tempestuous relationship with her second husband, Andrew Stroud (whom she married even after he had beaten her severely), along with her later relationships with political leaders in other countries. There are details about her struggle with mental issues - psychiatrists, hospital stays, drug & alcohol use, possible diagnosis of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, etc. And there are the heart-wrenching observations of her inability to be happy, some written out in her journals and others from those who knew her.

At times readers can only shake their heads in amazement at all her accomplishments, while at others they may grow teary-eyed at her self-destructive actions. Her involvement in the civil rights movement is reflected in her friend Andrew Young's statement, "There were two things that people in the movement would fight over. One was if you took their books. The other was if you took their Nina Simone albums." Songs like "Mississippi Goddam," "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," or "Four Women" put the truth out there for everyone around the world to hear. Her friendships with notables like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and the family of Malcolm X are also included in this biography.

Whether you are a fan of Simone's from her start back in the 1950s, learned about her from protest music in the '60s, or perhaps found her through the inclusion of her songs in commercials or movies such as the 1992 "Point of No Return," you will come away from this book with a much clearer understanding of the woman behind the music. 

I am one of those who first fell in love with Nina's voice in the songs on the soundtrack for "Point of No Return," and immediately had to buy a CD of her songs. Since then I have recommended her music to many people, and point out her songs when I come across them. Most recently it was "Take Care of Business" during the closing credits of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E" that put her back into everyone's ears.

You may click to find out more about the book or the author. "I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

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