Paul's Reviews > Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone

Princess Noire by Nadine Cohodas
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's review
May 06, 12

bookshelves: popular-and-unpopular-music, lifestyles-of-the-weird-and-famous
Read from April 30 to May 06, 2012

The piano plays a simple four note descending riff, understated drums, bass and very quiet jazzy guitar are way back in the frame, Nina sings My skin is black (it's a song called Four Women) but then My arms are long – you think, what? And then My hair is woolly – you think wait, this sounds - er - stereotypically racist! and then My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/Inflicted again and again/What do they call me/ My name is Aunt Sarah/Aunt Sarah – well, the penny has dropped, already cascades of emotion are washing over me and many other hearers of this song – second and third verses

My skin is yellow, my hair is long
Between two worlds I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is Saffronia
My name is Saffronia

My skin is tan, my hair is fine
My hips invite you
And my lips are like wine
Whose little girl am i?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me
My name is Sweet Thing
My name is Sweet Thing

(It took me a while, listening to blues, to realise there was a caste system operating within the black communities of the USA based on skin colour, I understand it's called colorism. The divisions are yellow, often called high yellow, brown and black. The lighter you are the further up the pecking order you are - allegedly. And just like when I found out that some black performers in minstrel shows and vaudeville performed in blackface, it made me feel so bad.

Some crave high yellow : I crave black or brown
For high yellow may mistreat you : but black won't turn you down (from High Yellow Blues)

This fence will make a high yellow girl turn dark
It make a weak-eyed man go blind
(from Prison wall Blues)

Now they tell me that the Yellow Rose of Texas was that kind of yellow. And while we're on the subject we may also remember the Spangled gowns upon a bevy of high browns / From down the levee in Putting on the Ritz. But I digress. )

The last of the four women :

My skin is brown and my manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see
Cos my life has been too rough
I'm awfully bitter these days
Because my parents were slaves
What do they call me


My Name Is PEACHES!!!

She bellows out this last name. I could never quite understand the significance of the name Peaches. I was wondering aloud about this in some internet space a few years ago and someone said yes, they had wondered the same, and they had got to meet Ms Simone after a concert, and actually asked her! And she said well honey, with a name like that you know her momma didn't mean for her to grow up like that, but look what happened to her.

Nina was four women too, at least. First she was Eunice Waymon of Tryon, North Carolina. Then she was Nina Simone beginning in June 1954. Then she was the High Priestess of black consciousness, starting somewhere around 1963. But lurking in the background, all along, was a fourth woman, the one with the undiagnosed psychiatric illness, which finally got a name, not until she was in her fifties. She had schizophrenia.

Nina was at the crossroads of so many things – classical and popular music, jazz and soul, showbiz and politics, America and Africa, hate and love. No wonder it made her head spin. You went to one of her shows, you didn't know what you'd get. She'd stop in the middle of a song and yell at someone in the audience for talking. She'd play one song then lecture the audience about racism for 20 minutes. She'd take an ordinary little gospel song like Sinnerman, pretty corny, and blow it up into a 20 minute psychodrama. She'd take a piece of pop chart material like Alone Again (Naturally) by Gilbert O'Sullivan, someone who is a whole three or four galaxies away from Nina Simone, and turn this sad little song into a harrowing ten minute confession about the death of her own father. She'd stop the music and perform a playlet about junkies. She'd organise audience participation on a grand scale where they'd have to sing Young, Gifted and Black and she'd scold them if they weren't enthusiastic enough. She played Detroit after the huge riot in 1967 (that summer of love) and sang Just in Time, from the Broadway musical, and adlibbed "Just in time, Detroit you did it, I love you Detroit, you did it". She'd explain to white members of the audience that she specifically wasn't playing for them, but only for the (sometimes few) black audience members.

This is a pretty good biography with lots of local detail, snips from a zillion interviews and accounts of many performances, it all starts to blur together to be honest. But there isn't enough about Nina's music – how she took songs from here, there and everywhere – why this one, why that one? And what she did to them when she got them. Is it right that as she complained many times she was mostly told by producers what to sing? I doubt it. Nadine Cohodas should know and should tell us. I would have liked to know what other performers thought of her, her peers. Or was she peerless?

In the last two decades of her life her deteriorating mental health made her life a chaos and her musical performances often agonising for her fans. In January 1977, for instance, performing at the Midem festival in Cannes, she got into a fight with the audience. She was lecturing them about being lifeless and when someone yelled "Sing!" she snapped "You can't pay me enough to sing when I don't feel like it! I will never be your clown. God gave me a gift and I am a genius. I am not here just to entertain you."

However, let's end with this rather wonderful account of a concert from 2001 at Carnegie Hall. George Wein, the promotor, describes it like this :

She went out onstage and they started cheering. She couldn't sing anymore. She was on stage from 8 to a quarter past 9. People paid $100 per ticket. She sang about six songs and waved her African fan. And the people – they never stopped cheering. The house is totally sold out and nobody complained. The woman was worshipped.

About this same gig the Daily news wrote that it was

A little like trying to glean the glory of Rome from its ruins. But the fact is, they don't make Nina Simones anymore.

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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Leslie (new)

Leslie JUST bought this book yesterday. Looking forward to your review.

Paul I just read Nina's autobiography (
and thought it would be interesting to read some more objective account - so far really good!

message 3: by Mikki (new) - added it

Mikki "It took me a while, listening to blues, to realise there was a caste system operating within the black communities of the USA based on skin colour, I understand it's called colorism"

Yes, deep-seeded within the community, though not as pervasive as in earlier eras (50's - 80's).

I was lucky enough to attend that Carnegie Hall performance and what I best remember, is that at the end, when the applause was calling for a second encore, Ms. Simone came back onstage and basically told everyone to quit clapping and to go home because she was finished for the night and "ya'll ain't gittin no more." So fitting an end for a Nina Simone concert.

message 4: by Leyoh (new)

Leyoh What a fantastically thorough review. I enjoyed it, probably more than I would the actual book. Thanks.

Paul wow, Mikki, an eye witness - how about that! I envy you. She's on my "Greatest Peformers I Never Saw" list.

Thanks for your very kind comments, Leyoh - reviewing books about my musical heroes is a pleasure.

message 6: by L.H. (new)

L.H. Thomson To a lesser degree, the infirmity of age has restricted B.B. King's abilities as well, but the reaction at his live shows is ususally the same, nonetheless.

message 7: by Mikki (new) - added it

Mikki Yes, I was very fortunate as she's always been a favorite. Jimmy Scott is another great artist whose performances I cherish.

Thank you for the thoughtful review; I've added the book.

message 8: by Shovelmonkey1 (new)

Shovelmonkey1 Excellent review and Sinnerman is probably one of my all time top favourite songs.

Paul thanks - I only just recently discovered Sinnerman, not to mention her really weird rewrite of Alone Again Naturally.

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