Everyone can’t conform to the confines of the “Box” that life tries to put us in… Someone has to holler and scream and say all the things we’re thinking in our heads – out loud…Thank you Nina. You never held back…Musically, personally, or politically. Your truth rang out loud and clear. You refused to let us off the hook. It is almost hilarious to hear the word DIVA thrown around the way it is today…The stakes have been lowered and the playing field is crowded with pretenders but there are lessons to be learned from a true DIVA that only Nina could teach.
I’ll never forget her engagement at our club 20/20 in the late 80’s in New York. We were over the moon. It was a coup to have Nina in a small club in the city and we were walking around like proud peacocks. Nick Ashford (my late husband and musical partner) and I wanted to make her stay memorable and sweet since she’d had some unpleasant times gigging in the city before. We asked her to stay with us. We live in a brownstone on a lovely tree lined street on the eastside of Manhattan near Bloomingdales. This was a big sacrifice for us because although we have four floors, we still didn’t have a real guest room. Nick relinquished his dressing room (replete with round marble sauna bath in the middle of the room.) She was right at home immediately. She marched down to the kitchen and said to Shirley (our house manager of 10 years) “I’d like my eggs scrambled easy, my clothes hung up, and the Jacuzzi drawn.” Shirley never bat an eye and asked simply, “And in what order would you like that done?”
I have noticed in my travels around the country that your environment plays an important part in the way you respond to circumstances. A view, a place for your mind to expand can change how you think about things…What I’m trying to say is if you’re in sumptuous surroundings you often think bigger thoughts, dream bigger dreams than if you’re in a single room at the Holiday Inn. Nina understood this principle perfectly, and conducted her business from our living room which is earth toned and has a wonderful white Yamaha grand piano, overlooking a lovely garden. She held several successful business meetings there – and we were privy to her style and way of wheeling and dealing. We’d listen from the top of the stairs as she would banter about contracts and royalties – the inevitable question always being, “Where is my money?” That followed by some choice four letter words…I mean she could bring a man down to his knees. Verbally she was a tyrant –unrelenting. I remember one gentleman trying to give her two horses as a gift. The intensity of her cursing reached another level and we were shocked when he was leaving – because in spite of all that, she held her hand out to him and he obediently kissed it.
Back to the engagement – we expected Nina to bring her trio which at the time was guitar, bass, and drums. You can imagine our surprise when the first night all we saw was two conga players. I’m thinking is she gonna get enough musical color with this? Is she just trying to keep all the money? Speaking of money, Nina insisted on getting her money upfront – which is customary on the road, but since she was staying with us and we were paying her, her mistrust was baffling. I remember counting it out in the dressing room and she pulled out a money belt and stuffed all of it inside – then wrapped it around her body on the inside of her dress. The personality of a performer often changes right before show time. Some get quiet and reflective. Some get anxious and edgy. Some need a drink – you never know. The room was starting to fill up and it was about five minutes before show time. The stage was still dark. Suddenly Nina announced, “I’m doing it now!” She just started walking toward the stage. Nick and I tried to stop her – pleading that she should let us get the lights working and make the announcement, but to no avail. The audience was still finding their seats but realized something was fixing to happen and everybody was scrabbling. She sat to the piano as the two conga players followed swiftly behind. She began to play – no announcement necessary – this was Nina Simone and everybody knew it. I need not have worried about how she was going to find musical color with two pieces backing her – she really didn’t need anybody’s help. The acoustic sounds of the drums adding a different, raw flavor to everything she did – including getting up from the piano to dance. Sometimes it felt like she had four hands, there was so much music coming from that piano. She held us under a spell for an hour and then let us go. One of the hardest things in the world to do was to get Nina to do an encore. More, more, more meant nothing to her if she was not in the mood. Fortunately, that night we were lucky.