DAVID NATHAN'S DIARY OF A BRITISH SOUL MAN: Dateline: London, April 21, 2020

Nina Simone
Photo Credit
Nina Simone

I got some memories to look back on…” (Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, lyric line from “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”)…

Personal reflections on NINA SIMONE….

….Almost a month on from my last post and we continue to live and deal with ever challenging times.  One of the great comforts has been listening to great soul music (and sometimes other genres!) which provides comfort, hope, kinship and solace. Thinking back to what first drew me to what we called ‘R&B’ back in the mid-‘60s before ‘soul music’ became the popular term for the genre – fitting indeed given how in my own experience, the glorious recordings that I loved and cherished truly ‘soothed’ my soul at a time of teenage heartbreak (I used The Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to initiate my first break up with a ‘no good heartbreaker, liar and a cheat’ – thank you, Aretha, for “I Never Loved A Man”) and constant unrequited love (Dionne, “Anyone Who Had A Heart”)…

Soul music in its many different forms has sustained me as it has so many the world over. I never dreamed it would become my life’s passion, one that would develop into a five-decade-plus career. It seems appropriate – on the occasion of the 17th anniversary since she passed in 2003 -  to delve into my bank of precious memories and share with you some personal reflections on a musical legend who had an enormous impact on my life, starting back in 1965…We’re talking NINA SIMONE…

… After I bravely wrote to Philips Records in London in March 1965 asking if I could start a fan club for a woman whose music I had only become aware of months earlier (even though she was already six years into her career) thanks to her original recording of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and to a Saturday job at a record shop to earn pocket money: I asked the store manager if we had any LPs by Nina who he referred to as a ‘jazz singer,’ promptly heard “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” and starting crying, connecting to a voice that was hauntingly beautiful and achingly sad…

Nina Simone
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

June, 1965…at Heathrow airport, now her first-ever British fan club/appreciation society president (aged 17), greeting Nina on her first-ever visit to the UK with a bunch of flowers as she arrives in the company of her four-year-old daughter Lisa (who remarkably remains a dear and important presence in my life, 55 years later and who has blossomed and bloomed into a wonderful, distinct and gifted multi-talented singer, songwriter and stellar performer in her own right) and husband/manager Andy Stroud.  Nina: ‘Whose music do you listen to other than mine?’ I timidly respond, “Dionne Warwick…”  Nina asks Andy who she is, Andy says ‘the girl who works with Burt Bacharach,’ Nina says, “I’ll check her out when I get back to the States” before launching into a short tirade about Dusty Springfield who she says “is [vocally] imitating” Aretha Franklin!  Remember this is ’65, two years before Aretha’s major commercial breakthrough. “You know Aretha’s music?” I reply, still in awe that I am face-to-face with Nina herself, ‘I have heard of her…” to which Nina replies, “You gotta check her out, she’s great!”  Never knew how much Aretha would also play a major part in my life from 1966 on….

January, 1971….Amsterdam. I’m there to catch up with Nina (who has been through some turbulent times, splitting from Andy) for an interview for “Blues & Soul.”  I go with Nina and her brother Sam (Waymon) - who is helping reorganize her business affairs – to a television taping in front of a live audience but when things don’t go according to plan through lack of rehearsal with the Boy Edgar Band, Nina walks off.  I meet her in her dressing room and she asks me what I think she should do. I suggest she accompany herself at the piano and sing “Strange Fruit,” the Billie Holiday song she had cut for her 1965 “Pastel Blues” LP which had had a profound effect on me personally. As only she could, Nina memorized the audience with her bone-chilling rendition leaving the Amsterdam audience begging for an encore. 

Summer, 2000…Philadelphia. Nina is being honoured by The International Association of African-American Music (IAAAM).  I have worked fastidiously with the organization’s co-founder Dyana Williams to arrange for Nina, who is performing for the first time in many years on a U.S. tour, to receive a Diamond Award for Excellence. There are a few ‘touch-and-go’ moments until Nina is being honoured in front of a guest list of luminaries including PIR founder Kenny Gamble, poet Sonia Sanchez, Queen Latifah, Eddie and Gerald Levert and others.  I find Nina in the green room before the proceedings begin.  She swings around in her chair: ‘You look fat, man!” are her opening words.  “Well, Nina I haven’t seen you in years!” I protest. She grins and then berates me for describing her as ‘looking stoned’ on the cover of her 1974 RCA LP, “It Is Finished” which I reference in the original text for liner notes I had written for the CD reissue of “Baltimore,” her much-acclaimed CTI album.  Nina’s lawyer has alerted her about the comments and had removed them before the “Batimore” reissue is released.  “Why did you say I was stoned, man?  I don’t do drugs!”   Duly chastened, I escort Nina along with her entourage (bodyguards – which she informs the hang-on-every-word-crowd – are there ‘because the Klan are still trying to kill me!’ – as well as a masseuse and manager) and IAAAM’s Dyana Williams to the packed ballroom. 

Nina is ecstatic that she is finally being given an award in America. I give a short speech recalling how I started the fan club in Britain and sharing how much Nina impacted me as a teenager in understanding about the fight for equal rights and freedom which singled her out as an uncompromising pioneer among her peers…

Event over, Nina asks if I’d like to join her and her team for dinner.  How can I say ‘no’?  Sitting in the back of the limousine with this remarkable magical music maker, I flash back 45 years to the ride she and Andy offered me into London from Heathrow, my first time in a limo!  I take Nina’s hand as we glide through streets of Philly and I ask her, “How are you, Nina?”  In public, I call her “Dr. Simone,” in private, she’s Nina, the woman who cast a spell on me so many decades earlier and literally helped change my view on life, liberty and artistic integrity. “I’m alright, honey,” she grins. “You know, I got a new boyfriend – he’s South African….”  I laugh. “You’re so naughty, Nina!”

She beams and we both know that whatever bond we created way back in 1965 endures…as I quietly muse on how Nina Simone with not a single flinch turned to me on the set of the British TV show Ready Steady Go! (much like America’s Shindig!) and asked me if I liked to dance. Stuttering, a geeky, gawky, bespectacled teen, I reply, “No, I haven’t learned to dance yet…” As only a ‘High Priestess Of Soul’ can, Nina Simone laughs, “Well, you better learn to dance or have sex, you gotta get the rhythm going somehow!”  If black was the colour of my or her true love’s hair, beetroot red was the colour of my face.  Two years later, Nina and I, just the two of us having dinner in London: “Nina, you know what you told me a few years ago about having to learn to dance or have sex?”  A look of puzzlement appears on her face but before she can recall having asked me, I break out into a full-on smile: “Well, guess what, Nina? I learned to do BOTH!”  To lift the title of her 1968 LP, ‘nuff said…’

David & Nina

While it’s been 17 years since Nina passed, her music, her legacy, her impact is stronger than ever – and I smile, deeply grateful for just a few of the cherished memories of a fellow peaceful warrior that I’ve shared here….

Check out my Spotify playlist of my personal Nina Simone favourite tracks…

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5tlxy5ttjrZVeUrpQjJH37?si=2HX0xIe0TuSW6AfxMsOUvQ

Meanwhile, stay safe and take care of yourself and others…

With respect, appreciation and soulful regards always,

David N

Founder, www.soulmusic.com

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