Nina Simone - Pastel Blues
The old phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history” certainly rings true with Nina Simone. The sweet little Southern girl taking classical piano lessons across town didn’t stay small and sweet for long. As a young black girl growing up in North Carolina, Simone started playing at the age of three or four at the churches and revival meetings where her mother preached. She walked across town every weekend to take piano lessons from an older white woman who’d taken favor upon her young talent. With the help of her teacher, her family, and her community, she was able to raise money to pursue an education in music in the Northeast, attending Juilliard in New York City for almost two years. After Juilliard, she applied to the acclaimed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but was rejected simply because she was black. Discouraged but defiant, she began performing at bars and nightclubs in Atlantic City, playing everything she could possibly think of, from midnight to sometimes 7AM, earning just $90 a week to help pay for private piano lessons. She never dreamed of being a star or an entertainer, but instead was focused strictly on being America’s first black female classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall, the famed theater in New York City. She only sang because the club owner in Atlantic City forced her to do so, a progression that would soon overtake her dreams in classical music.
Simone’s first commercial success was a cover of “I Loves You, Porgy,” an opera written by George Gershwin. But later on, once she’d already achieved international acclaim for her modest hits and talked-about jazz festival performances, the civil rights movement of the 1960’s came along and stirred up a fire within her, the likes of which she’d never felt before. She even played at the famed Selma marches in 1965, before a massive audience that included Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, Harry Belafonte, & Sidney Poitier, among others. All her life, Simone had surrounded herself not just with actors and musicians, but intellectuals of the times, writers, poets, and playwrights, at one point even living next door to Malcolm X. What made her stand out in this crowd, though, was her outright opposition to Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach to activism. She taught that what America needed was a violent revolution, to gain rights “by any means necessary,” even once walking straight up to King and telling him boldly: “I amnotnon-violent,” to which all he could say was: “That’s ok sister, you don’t have to be.” Her songs becameincreasingly political, controversial to the point that radio stations would return boxes upon boxes of her singles, all snapped in half. “I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself,” she said of this shift in style. “That to me is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. We will shape and mold this country, or it won’t be shaped and molded at all. How can you be an artist andnotreflect the times?” She described American society in the mid-60s as “nothing but a cancer.” I am not the doctor to cure it,” she went on. “All I can do is expose the sickness.”
It was her song ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ that became both the focal point and the breaking point of her career. In it, she let loose her fury with the racial violence that was exploding across Southern states. “Alabama’s got me so upset. Tennessee has made me lose my rest. Everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn.” Inone interviewshe said: “I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave, I want them to be in pieces. I want to go into that den of elegant people, with their old ideas and smugness, and just drive them insane.”
But her love of music was strangled after marrying Andrew Stroud, an ex-cop who assumed the role of business manager and pushed Simone to the limits, both physically and emotionally. She felt that he was working her too hard. It may be that he viewed her as more of a business than a wife, and while their partnership certainly worked wonders for her music commercially, behind the scenes it was destructive. She had difficulty finding people to care for their daughter full-time, reportedly going through 13 nannies in seven years, because Stroud had her playing too much to the point of exhaustion. “He wrapped himself around me like a snake,” she said. “And I was scared like a dog. He beat me up and I was afraid of him.” Several of her friends and family members corroborated the abuse, and Simone finally divorced him after 10 years of marriage, stating: “You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.”
She clearly expressed her dissatisfaction in a private journal, writing: “Every night in these filthy rotten holes called dressing rooms, through the years I’ve wasted away to almost nothing - pretend you’re happy when you’re blue...inside I’m screaming: “Someone help me!” According to Stroud, on the last night of a tour with Bill Cosby she became delirious, spraying cans of shoe polish into her hair and speaking nothing but gibberish backstage. He walked her to the piano where she performed the entire show through as if it was something mechanical.
From there it only took a few short years for Simone to seemingly fade from the public’s awareness, no longer getting any attention for her records. Fed up with the industry, and her marriage, she exiled to Barbados, then Liberia, and then Paris and Northern Europe for years and years, performing small nightly shows to almost no one, but irrefutably happy to have escaped her past. One song from ‘Pastel Blues’ would almost prophesy this point of her life: “Well, once I lived the life of a millionaire...but then I began to fall so low. Couldn’t find me no friends, had no place to go. Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”
It’s hard to believe that she could play the piano with such expressive authority while singing, her hands racing up and down the keys faster than the words could come out of her mouth. It was as if there were two separate performers inside of her, the crowd pleaser versus the virtuoso, each battling for their own time in the spotlight. She sang fully convicted by the subject matter, with songs like ‘Strange Fruit’ (originally performed by Billie Holiday, but most recently sampled by Kanye West in ‘Blood on the Leaves’) so accurately reflecting the political and racial turmoil of the times that it’s almost horrific. ‘Ain’t No Use’ and ‘End of the Line’ are heart-on-sleeve portrayals of her collapsing marriage. And all the while she didn’t sing the blues the way that the rest of the world did. Gone are the mathematical guitar lines, the “down home” distortion, the repetitious lovelorn vocal patterns. There is nothing at all traditional about her playing, aside from the fact that she was classically trained to tear the piano to pieces. It was the kind of music that the Rolling Stones could only dream of making, the kind that could only be sung by those with as much soul as Nina, as Otis, as Billie. It was pop, jazz, voodoo gospel, southern funk, it was everything rolled into one, rooted together by her expert musicianship. On stage, she could sometimes appear to be taken by some sort of spirit,writhing behind the pianoor getting up off the bench to thrash about the stage and clap along with her band, thus garnering her the nickname of “the High Priestess of Soul,” and the “Patron Saint of Rebellion.” Watching her perform is like witnessing a hall-of-famer with a chip on her shoulder, going about it all with ferocious ease, knowing she’d end up in the history books eventually.
Simone had put out many records by 1965, highlighted perhaps by her debut ‘Little Girl Blue,’ and 1960’s ‘Forbidden Fruit,’ which featured the same band that she’d been touring with and featuring on her live albums. ‘Pastel Blues,’ though, remains somewhat of an elusive title. While it may be rooted in heartwrenching soul ballads, it frequently devolves into percussive jams, from the aggressive, 10-minute face-melter ‘Sinnerman,’ to the minimalistic chants of ‘Be My Husband,’ providing freakish folk breaks from the expected jazz playing. And as for listening, it’s not the kind of album that you find in the dollar bin at every record store in America. In fact, nothing she ever recorded would end up in the dollar bin, because it’s simply not that common. The only song that ever made much of an impact on the Billboard charts was that very first single, “I Loves You, Porgy.” The original Phillips 1965 pressings of Pastel Blues run for around $50-100 onDiscogs& eBay, and there is an even more rare double 7” version that seems to be nonexistant on the internet. Reissues are much more common and affordable, with180-gram pressingsavailable starting at just $20.
Nina Simone is the perfect example of an artist being overshadowed by their own celebrity. But in time, the dust settles and all we are left with is their legacy, their records, their art, and their influence.