Paul Bryant's Reviews > I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone

I Put a Spell on You by Nina Simone
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Oct 20, 2010

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bookshelves: popular-and-unpopular-music, lifestyles-of-the-weird-and-famous
Read from April 15 to 19, 2012


The accidental star, the reluctant creator of something new under the sun of popular music, something no one else did before or since (because not only did no one else think of it, if they'd thought of it they wouldn't have been able to do it, she wasn't jazz, wasn't soul, wasn't cabaret but all of that and everything else), at the age of 60 produced this short account of her strange life in such a way that even the crazy stuff sounds reasonable, and which is a fascinating read which manages to leave practically every question unanswered.

Trials, tribulations, tantrums, tiaras, every concert a psychodrama of audience confrontation, every fan an assassin, every boyfriend either a crook or a president, sometimes both, Nina against the world, fleeing to and from Liberia, Barbados, Switzerland, France, Holland, living anywhere that's not America, nowhere that's home. Despising the popular song that she turned effortlessly into sonic art sculpture, worshipping the classical composers no one wanted to hear her play.

Up until the end of the 60s, this is a completely gripping 5 star read. Imagine. Eunice Waymon, a little black girl living in absolutely nowhere, North Carolina, dirt poor. From the age of three - three - her family and her church realises she's a prodigy on the piano. They all chip in and pay for lessons for her from a posh white woman. Eventually the entire town establishes a Eunice Waymon Fund to make sure she gets the lessons she needs. I never heard of that happening anywhere else. After she graduated the idea was to spend a year at Juilliard School of Music in New York in preparation for applying to the Curtis Institute in Philly which was the top of the tree – then she would get to be the first ever black concert pianist.

She did the year at Juilliard, applied to Curtis and they turned her down. So the floor fell out. Was it racism or because she didn't quite make the grade? So she decided to apply again in another year and moved to Philadelphia. This is where the weird thing happened.

She needed to make money. She got a job as an accompanist for a music teacher who was coaching white kids who wanted to sing. So she had to cram her head with all known popular songs. She had a brain which could store any amount of music and a facility for improvising she got from the hours of accompanying the holy rolling gospel music in church. She thought she could make an easier living if she gave lessons herself. So she opened a storefront office and started up as a music teacher. It wasn't easy. Then a student casually mentioned he'd got a job as a pianist in a bar and mentioned the wage which was twice what she was making herself. She thought well, if this idiot can do that, I think I can.

She found a bar which needed a pianist. It was one room filled with sad Irish drunks. She turned up dressed to the nines because that's how she always rolled, she was nothing but dignified in this cruddy pub, and played to this smokey dive a strange freeform blend of classical music and popular songs, parts of one mashed into parts of the other, classical pop mashups, unique. She had no idea what to play, no idea at all, so she just made it up. At the end of the first night the manager said the piano playing was good but she didn't sing. She said she didn't know she had to. He said either you sing or don't come back. So she sang. That's how Nina Simone happened.

She carried on in this dingy dive and word got around, simple as that. The sad Irish drunks were replaced in a couple of weeks by the beatnik student crowd. They goggled. They were seeing Nina Simone, which nothing had prepared them for.

Well, this ghosted autobiography misses out a thousand times more than it puts in – she acknowledges several very crazy incidents which sound the stuff bipolar people do, and I believe this diagnosis has been read back into her life. She continually soars high then crashes and burns. She is a trenchant hater of practically everything including herself. But the hell with that.


Just Say I Love Him
Four Women
Sinnerman (the ten minute version!)
My Father

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04/03/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Louise (new)

Louise but but but
what about Nina
i love Nina
Youtube Nina and throw away the book.

message 2: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye You need a soundtrack, Paul:

Nina Simone - Just Like A Woman

Nina Simone Here Comes The Sun

Nina Simone - The Sounds of silence - Montreux 1968

Nina Simone- I Put Spell On You

Etta James - It's a Man's Man's World

Pulp Fiction "You Never Can Tell"

Nina Simone - To love somebody

Janis Joplin - To love somebody

Paul Bryant I have been Simoneing on youtube for the last hour- wow.

message 5: by Bennet (new)

Bennet Wonderful soundtrack, Ian. I added a couple of tracks to my Ipod's Jazzie playlist and will be listening on the plane.

message 6: by Bennet (new)

Bennet This is great too -- Love Me Or Leave Me

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