Nina Simone: The Biography
by David Brun-Lambert
Eunice Waymon grew up poor and secluded from the racism going on in the world. Raised by religious parents in the church, she was taught to pretty much act like it wasn’t happening and get on with your life, which would later result in her being a huge part of the powerful civil rights movement of the ’60s. Eunice Waymon was no ordinary human: a prodigy on the piano, she played at her church and was recognized by the community for being given a gift, and at such a young age this couldn’t just be tossed aside but needed to be fostered. So Eunice was given private lessons and had numerous recitals and finally, after finishing high school, decided to try out at the prestigious Curtis Institute. This young woman was rejected, and left angry at the world. She was none other than our beloved Nina Simone.
Nina Simone. I’ll admit I didn’t know much about her before reading this biography; just listened to the music, tried to figure her out for myself, eventually fell in love with the truth of her words, the heartache in her voice, but knew nothing of her personal life. Brun-Lambert’s book does a great job introducing you to the lady of soul if you don’t know her, but it seems as though he lost his passion in the book somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, his love for her is there in black and white but as you read through the pages you can tell where he started to drift with his research. The sequence of events is very choppy, although I do know that hardly anyone would talk to him for the book, so he did his best with what he had. (It’s a shame that no-one could move beyond petty things and speak with the author.) There’s too much info on certain things; his eye for detail is relevant with the civil rights movement, for which he’ll give you a full report on the Underground Railroad, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X, and so forth. I was happy to see this, but it also felt a little too history-bookish and with the rundown of concerts and venues, too many paragraphs spent. Simone’s financial situation wound up being horrible due to an ex-husband/manager relationship and Brun-Lambert dives into this but doesn’t necessarily let us know how it all ended. And there is no discography at the end of the book, which I was clearly upset about. Having read so many other bios on musicians, it’s just something you look for.
Now, it’s not all sticks and stones, as he does an excellent job on shining light on her mental illness, bipolar disorder, apparently hoping that this would explain some of the outrageous diva scenes that she was so well-known for at her concerts. She was a tortured soul — anyone could see, hear, and even feel it in her music. I don’t know if YOU would call it “magic” or “voodoo” but there is SOMETHING incredible that was felt with Nina Simone’s music and life and Burn-Lambert does wonders with this. Her love-life is well traveled in the book, with her first marriage to an alcoholic white man, and then another to Andy Stroud, who raped and beat her on their wedding night before eventually ruining her financially. Nina would often romanticize relationships, taking last-minute flights to different countries to see lovers, which shows how desperately she just wanted someone to understand, to be there, even if this meant just for a yell and scream. In 2000, few knew that she was suffering from breast cancer, and she locked herself up in her house, refusing most visitors on her deathbed. This is a flawed portrait of a complicated artist and legend but it does what it was intended to do, show the world the soul of a high priestess.