HAPPY BIRTHDAY NINA
I was 11 years old when a friend of my parents introduced me to the music of the great Nina Simone. The album was Little Girl Blue. I listened to the first cut on it, Mood Indigo, and said, “WOW, I like her”. But when I got to the title song, Little Girl Blue, my mouth fell wide open. I was sitting there in disbelief. I kept playing the song over and over again trying to figure out how she was doing what she was doing, playing one song and singing another at the same time. I was 11 years old and knew nothing about music, but even for me that seemed like something totally extraordinary and utterly brilliant.
I continued to listen to the album and heard her play Love Me or Leave Me with all of its counterpoint (not knowing then what counterpoint was) thinking that this sounded like something Bach would write (Thank you Leonard Bernstein and The Young People’s Concerts). That counterpoint would lead right into a jazz riff and she NEVER missed a beat.
I was blown away. I continued to listen in amazement. When she got to Good Bait, I WAS HOOKED!!! I realized that what she was doing had to be a gift from God because no human could possibly do the things that she was doing unless God had His hand on hers. I BEGGED my daddy to give me $1.50 so that I could buy my own copy of that album. I was in seventh Heaven when he did because I now owned my own and very first Nina Simone album. Now, if I could just see her, I would really be happy.
In 1963, my dream came true. I attended my first Nina Simone concert. I felt like I had died and gone to Heaven. I even got her autograph at that concert. She was definitely my musical idol. I ate, slept and dreamed Nina Simone. In 1964, God was good to me again, for I attended my second Nina concert. This time I not only got her autograph, but she took the time to stop and talk with me. Thank you, Lord!!! She was so warm and friendly.
She had just released her Broadway, Blues, Ballads album a week before. At that point, I had all of her albums except that one. When I told her that I had all of her albums, she asked if I had that one. When I told her no, she said that she was sure that I would enjoy it and that it was the first one that she had recorded with full orchestra. Needless to say, I went out the next day and purchased it. Oh, yes, I got her autograph again. My only regret about that meeting is that I did not own a camera and was not able to have my picture taken with her. I have attended 12 Nina concerts and was never able to have my picture taken with her. I do, however, have some wonderful memories of her concerts.
My favorite Nina concert was in 1978 at the Warner Theater in Washington, DC. She once talked about being free and spontaneous and just going with the groove. Well, I witnessed that freedom that night. She gave two shows. I hesitantly chose the second show at 11:00 pm, hoping that the audience would not upset her and she would be in a good mood. Well, they must have been on the money, because she came out and did 3 songs and left the stage. I said, “Oh, Lord, they must have pissed her off during the first show.” The audience started yelling, “Nina, Nina.”
Nina came back on stage and PERFORMED like I had NEVER seen her perform. She was in such rare form that the audience was on its feet and had moved into the orchestra pit and grooving with her. Everyone was taking pictures galore, including yours truly and Nina was encouraging everyone to have a good time. She was so free that at 2:00 am, someone from her entourage came on stage and took her off and believe me when I tell you that she was not ready to go. There was a PAR-TAY in the Warner that night. She was freer than I had ever seen her.
The last two times that I saw Nina perform was in 2000 and 2001 at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. By that time, her health was failing her, but she was in rare form. She was waving that fan of hers around after every song, which blew the audience away. Her voice was lower, but her piano facility was still there and her interpretation of a song was still spot-on. In other words, she was still NINA.
Little did I know that this would be the last time that I would get to see my musical idol. I did, however, go down to Tryon, NC for the dedication of her statue on her 77th birthday. It was such a thrill to sit next to her statue and visit her childhood home. Little did I know that years after meeting Nina, I would be meeting her daughter, Simone and sharing with her some of my memories of her mother. That, too, has been a pleasure. Nina is still my musical idol. I love her and still miss her terribly.
Happy Birthday Nina.
-June I. King, lifelong Nina Simone fan