By Bill Dudley

A new biographical film about the life of singer Nina Simone has hit theaters. What Happened Miss Simone?  was originally only on Netflix, but a strong reception at several film festivals has spawned a theatrical release.

All Jazz, Blues, Gospel and even Classical music fans will want to see this one. Nina Simone was truly one of the most diverse talents ever to grace the stage. Born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina in 1933, a preachers daughter with 5 siblings, this unique young black girl’s first musical inspiration was composer Johann Sebastian Bach. She had a lonely childhood, leaning on her talent as a pianist to make her way. Denied a scholarship by the “Curtis Institute of Music” in Philadelphia, primarily because the was black and female, she eventually ended up at Julliard in New York City.

In 1958, a small record label, Bethlehem Records signed the newly crowned Nina (Spanish for little girl) Simone (from French actress Simone Signoret) to a recording contract, which spawned the worldwide hit recording Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” and the timeless “Little Girl Blue” later redone by Janis Joplin.

Ms. Simone has been a strong influence on many others who have followed, but refreshingly, the documentary focuses only on those who actually knew or played with Nina. She had two marriages, including one to an ex NYPD, who according to her daughter, “managed her career like the original Puff Daddy.”

In addition to her many nuances and genres of music she performed, Nina was also an early Civil Rights pioneer, and stepped it up big after the murder of Medgar Evers, and the Birmingham church bombing that killed 4 little girls. Her controversial, yet very honest “Mississippi GodDamn” came as a result. In the recent film Selma, the woman singing at the Selma to Montgomery March was portraying none other than Nina Simone.

It was unveiled shortly after her death, that Nina suffered from bipolar disorder. Along with that, many stories of her bad behavior in public, and abuse by her second husband became known. Nina was a polarizing figure, but gave us some of the most memorable music of the 20th century. Rock n’ Roll legend Eric Burdon appears in the film, and relates Nina’s reaction to his group (The Animals) recording “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”  Even though it became a worldwide hit, Nina thought it was her song.  Along with “I Put A Spell On You” and “Sinnerman,” it may be her finest work.

Nina sang everyone from Billie Holiday to the Bee Gees, Tina Turner and Bob Dylan, not being outdone by any of them. “To Be Young Gifted and Black” and “A Single Woman” are also masterpieces.   “Little Girl Blue” still remains my favorite.

Janis Joplin paid tribute to Nina with her version, shortly before her own death in 1970. Speaking of death, Nina accurately prophesied her own demise, claiming she “would pass at 70.”  Ironically she did on 4/21/03, at the age of 70.  What Happened Miss Simone? was lovingly created by Liz Garber, who also directed biographical films on Marilyn Monroe, and Russian chess king Bobby Fischer.

Nina Simone, somewhat controversial, but always entertaining. Nina said it best: “Sometimes I sound like gravel, sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”

Either way, I loved her music.


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