Interview: "I once drank 5 bottles of champagne in one afternoon...." - the legend Nina Simone My first ever celebrity interview, fresh out of journalism school in 1999 with the great Nina Simone, while she was on probation for shooting her neighbour's kid in the kneecaps.
Blues diva Nina Simone speaks to Precious Williams. The Big Issue - Feb 99
Nina Simone is furious that there is no alcohol left in the house. It's not even 11 o'clock in the morning, yet the 65-year-old jazz legend has already drunk a whole bottle of Baileys. Through a series of tragedies and betrayals, Simone has become both jaded and strapped for cash. She may still just about be able to retire in a couple of years - but only if she accepts every invitation going to perform her mesmerising renditions of classics like 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' and 'I Put A Spell On You'. Simone moves slowly around her cluttered villa in the south of France, hurling insults at Clifton, the gay, black American male nurse who is the latest in a string of personal managers. 'You have no idea of what I can drink, you damned fool. I once drank five bottles of champagne in one afternoon,' she bellows in the rough-edged voice that has sold millions of records. 'Gays like you ought to be lined up and shot. You go against God.'
Years of racial discrimination and dissatisfaction in her emotional life have made Simone intolerant of those around her. 'I hate people,' she says. 'They've wasted my time and they're squandering my life.' Simone says she's angry because tension and worry about money have not allowed her to sleep for three nights in a row. When we speak, she's preparing for a recent London show, and she says she feels daunted at the prospect of going on stage again at an age when most women are enjoying their first years of retirement. 'I hate showbiz. I've devoted my whole life to being a star and yet I've got absolutely nothing to show for it,' she snarls. 'It's an ugly business. I've got no desire to be involved in it any more, with everyone out there re-releasing and ripping off my records. ' I just need the money. It's as simple as that. I get $50000 for a concert, and that money goes straight into my pocket. Noone can take it away from me. If I don't force myself to get up there and perfom live, I won't be able to keep this place up. I won't be able to carry on.' To her adoring fans, Simone represents the last living icon of sophisticated and timeless American jazz tradition. Yet mismanagement of funds and an ill-advised choice of business managers throughout her 40-year career span have resulted in an incredible lack of financial reward. 'My Baby Just Cares For Me', Simone's most recent hit, sold more than a million copies world-wide and was used by Chanel in 1987 as part of an international television advertising campaign. Yet Simone was advised by confidantes to sign away her royalties from the record for a mere $2000. She has every right to feel bitter. Today, living in self imposed exile in a quite, middle-class village situated between Marseilles and Aix-en_Provence, Simone takes pleasure in shutting herself off from the world at large. She emerges from the confines of her gloomy home just three times a week to go for a swim at the local leisure centre.A series of requests for interviews spurt forth from her noisy fax machine. Simone is deeply irritated by these constant interruptions. 'Tell them they can all fuck off!' she screams, accepting her seventh lit cigarette from Janet, her official dresser. One of the world's greatest-ever musical icons, Simone sits on a low, velour stool in front of a chipped baby grand piano and kicks off her shoes. As she regains her composure and strikes a pose, she tells me that her glamorous bronze silk trouser-suit was purchased in London in the 70s. Her famously almond-shaped eyes are glazed and bloodshot.
It is Thanksgiving, and Simone has invited half-a-dozen acquaintances over to celebrate the occasion with her. 'I want a big turkey, mashed potatoes and a whole ham. And bottles and bottles of champagne. Stars drink champagne" she declares to the room at large. Simone was born Eunice Waymon, in 1933 to poverty-stricken parents in America's Deep South. Despite having stunned her Methodist family by giving a flawless rendition of a classic music score on the church organ at the age of two and a half, Simone was denied the chance to fulfill her musical potential. At the age of 18, the child virtuoso was refused admission to the prestigious Curtis institute to study classical piano - purely because of the colour of her skin. The young musician later changed her name to Nina (meaning little girl) Simone in an attempt to hide the fact that she was earning money by performing in a nightclub from her deeply religious parents. Stardom has failed to spare Simone from spending an entire lifetime haunted by memories of her early poverty and lack of opportunity in her native America. By early adulthood she had already witnessed the racist lynchings of childhood friends and the gunning down of her early icons. 'I call it the United Snakes of America,' she says bitterly. 'Words cannot express just how much I despise that place. They [the American government] want to keep their black people in slavery forever.' Simone was further alienated from America during the 60s after she was placed under surveillance by the FBI following her association with civil rights leader Martin Luther King. She finally fled the States permanently 10 years later amid rumous of tax disputes, and embarked on a nomadic tour of the world. After setting up home in London - and then in Liberia, and Ghana in West Africa - Simone purchased her villa in France five years ago.
These days she is observed by local police, who've kept a keen eye on her ever since she shot and wounded the teenage son of her next-door neighbour three years ago. Simone fired a bullet at the boy after his laughter interrupted her piano practice. The $7000 fine and probation order she subsequently received appear to have done nothing to quell her aggression. 'I'm itching to use my gun again!' she shrieks, her face lighting up with enthusiasm. 'Next time I'll use it on him because of his incapability,' she says, gesturing towards Clifton, who smiles nervously. 'Ill do what I damned well like. I hate children. That child should have learned how to stay quiet when I'm playing my piano.'
Judging by her international success and the adulation of her fans worldwide, Simone has left her humble beginnings well behind her. Yet in reality, she remained shackled to the memories of a ghetto childhood. Her first husband, New York detective Andrew Shroud, to whom she bore her only child Lisa Celeste, set a pattern of abuse that was to plague Simone's life. In 1970 he became her first business manager - and subsequently embezzled a quarter of a million dollars from her before abandoning her. 'He was such a ruthless creep,' she reminisces sadly. Simone is currently single. 'I find that even men who are good in bed aren't worth the trouble' she says. A string of unsatisfactory love unions followed her 1971 divorce from Stroud, resulting in four miscarriages and a bitterness that filters through to her songs. 'My problem is that I'm too innocent I trust what people close to me say. I've got to trust someone, haven't I? I make excuses for them sometimes.' Clifton says Simone can earn sufficient money to retire from show business by the year 2000 as long as she plays live as much as she can, appears on television to endorse brand-name terms and agrees to launch her own perfume, tentatively called 'Simone.' Estranged from her 36-year-old daughter Lisa, to whom she hasn't spoken in 10 years, the icon insists that her staff -manager Clifton, dresser Janet and bodyguard and chauffeur Xavier - reside with her in her far-from-comfortable four-bed-room home.
Last year she was invited to join Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and a host of dignitaries at Nelson Mandela's glittering 80th birthday celebrations in Cape Town,n. When it became apparent that Simone was unable to raise the funds to accept the honour of attention, the South African government had to step in and foot the bill for her traveling expenses. As she shuffles up the rickety, winding staircase towards the unmade bed in her bedroom, she turns and says, 'Please tell my public that there aren't many of us geniuses still living. Hardly any of us left at all. It's down to Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Frank Sinatra. 'Except Frank's already dead', she adds, almost as an afterthought. Source : The Big Issue - Feb 99. Interviewer : Precious Williams