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Thoughts on I Put A Spell On You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone with Stephen Cleary

This is the story of Nina Simone the Freedom Singer who refused to be shoved into boxes such as jazz, pop, classical, folk or blues. She didn’t want to be called a jazz singer because jazz was just one aspect in a sea of many other things in her music. Nina Simone the musician who wanted to be a classical concert performer and nothing else. She didn’t even want to sing! Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 in North Carolina, United States of America. Seven siblings, a devout Christian mother and a fairly flexible father made up her family. Nina Simone, a stage name that she made up so that her staunch Christian mother would not find out that her little girl raised in the church was now playing in bars, after being rejected by the Curtis Institute. The woman with a fighting spirit, who sang because that was the only freedom she knew. From the weight laid on her back ever since she was a little girl by her family, her community and consequently herself as a ‘prodigy’ to the volatile nature of show business, this book revealed a lot of things to me about Nina the artist, the daughter, the sister, the lover, the friend and the all round human with flaws. There is so much to say about the High Priestess of Soul’s life behind the music and within the music. Two things stood out for me.

1. Love and Friendship

Nina takes the reader through her loves and friendships throughout the years. The first love that the reader is introduced to is her father a man who appears to have wanted the very best for her yet he is also a man who died calling out for his daughter who had cut him off, out of principle. They do say that there is a special relationship that colours the world of fathers and their daughters. It was special to see that relationship bloom in one of the biggest stars the world has ever seen yet to watch it whither hurt as much. Nina shared her life with many men throughout the various stages of her life, men whom she respected. From the book one can tell that Edney was the love of her life (a love that she sort of desired long after it had called it a day), yet I am glad that she chose herself and her dream when it came to that. Nina was bold and tried out relationships to see what worked and what didn’t, she literally ‘moved’ as they say these days. She did not give up on searching for that companionship that she knew she needed. As wavering as it was, she lets us into the joys and horrors of her marriage and her lonely journey through motherhood.

Nina made a lot of friends because of the nature of showbiz. The friendships that still linger even after I have closed the book are Miz Mazy, Lorraine Hansberry, Miriam Makeba, James Baldwin and Al Shackman. Miz Mazy a brilliant pianist who was firstly her piano tutor who did everything she could to secure a musical future for Nina and secondly a friend until the day she died. Miz Mazy who made Nina see that Juilliard and the Curtis Institute were possibilities within reach. Lorraine a dedicated friend, the first black writer to have a hit Broadway play, ‘A Raisin in the Sun, the woman who taught Nina about the class rights revolution and political radicalism. The woman who opened Nina’s eyes to the fact that she was part of the civil rights struggle and had to do more. Oh the joy of finding out that one of my favourite Nina songs ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ was written as a dedication to Lorraine who died at a young age while working on a new play, ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black.’

Nina’s friendship with Miriam Makeba makes me chuckle a bit. They had the same taste in everything: food, drinks, men, jokes, clothes etc. They shared the journey of the civil rights struggle. After Nina’s divorce it was Miriam who took her to Liberia, for a break. Miriam who organized six men for Nina as soon as they touched down in Liberia, all wealthy and single for her to mingle with! A friend who had Nina’s back even after the disasters of life had struck. Some of Nina’s friends stood the test of time and some didn’t but that’s the way life goes.

2. Mental Health

Nina battled with a lot of things ranging from being a ‘failure’ (not being a concert pianist as had been planned for her her whole life), producers who shortchanged her, the pressures of stardom, an abusive marriage, loss, her turbulent relationship with her mother, financial problems and the piracy of her albums. Nina says that she was always tired and she was still expected to do back to back tours, be a wife, be a mother when Lisa was born, be a friend and record more albums. In a year she rested for three months. When she was eleven she experienced a moment of great prejudice that cut her raw and radicalized her. Even the rejection by Curtis Institute cut deep, she spent years thinking that she hadn’t been good enough only to realize later on in life that it had been because she was black.

This book deals with a lot of betrayal ranging from family, friends and the music business. Even the revolution which was a shared experience, came with its own betrayals that took a toll on her. Nina highlights that the fight in her life had always been about belonging, finding that place where she could be free. Her life had depended on so many structures like family, civil rights groups, her marriage and husband’s management. So when all those structures came tumbling, she was left alone, lonely and in a fragile state of mind. In as much as she wanted to use what she had (her talent) to fight oppressive systems, she did not take a break, something which could have been useful. But here’s the story, when Nina started missing shows which had been booked by her managers without her knowledge and stretching her strength, those were acts of self preservation. After using alcohol and escapism for most of her life by that time, she was protecting herself. She wished she could let promoters down gently, in a professional way without cancelling shows/not showing up. What she would not do was give substandard performances due to fatigue and overworking. At some point one must know where to draw the line. Despite all this there is a sense of gratitude for a life lived the way it should have been.

Here are some quotes from the book:

‘So I was a busy child, hardly stopping to catch my breath. All the time there was the weight of my community’s expectations on my shoulders.’ page 25

‘Momma’s too: she wanted me to become the first black American concert pianist. It was ironic that Momma’s ambition was so tied to race when she spent the whole of her life trying to ignore the reality of her colour.’ page 32

‘Lorraine started off my political education, and through her I started thinking about myself as a black person in a country run by white people and a woman in a world run by men.’ page 87

I highly recommend this book to all Nina fans and anyone looking to know more about her. It feels like there might be some gaps but this is her story as she told it, perhaps in the way that she wanted to be remembered. In the end Nina says she didn’t regret a single thing about her life, years of pain and pleasure. Nina Simone finally rested in 2003 in France.


Book Details

Title: I Put a Spell On You: The Autobiography Of Nina Simone

Author: Nina Simone with Stephen Cleary

Genre: Autobiography

Pages: 192

Publisher: Da Capo Press; Illustrated edition (Sept 2003)

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