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Book review: Princess Noire

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Born a preacher's daughter during the Great Depression in Tryon, N.C., Eunice Waymon grew up to become the fiery and famous Nina Simone. The enormously talented singer, songwriter and pianist performed in an eclectic, idiosyncratic variety of styles, but is generally thought of as a jazz singer (a label she rejected). Her peak of fame and influence came during the 1960s and early '70s, as she became linked in the public mind with the civil rights movement and the rest of the seismic cultural changes of that era.

Simone was a musical prodigy who spent much of her Tryon childhood and adolescence training as a classical pianist. She suffered a blow when, after her years of training, she was rejected at age 18 by a prestigious conservatory in Philadelphia, a dismissal Simone always said was based on her race rather than talent. Soon afterward, she began singing in nightclubs, acquired her stage name, and slowly began building a following.

Simone sang jazz and pop standards, as well as blues and folk, all often laced with gospel overtones and classical touches, in an intense style that highlighted her deep, smoky vocal tones; she accompanied herself with a purity and ease on piano that was at times breathtaking. Her fame grew, she became part of the country's black intelligentsia, and began writing more of her own songs. Two of those songs sealed her reputation and linked her forever with her era's social changes: "Young, Gifted and Black," and the angry "Mississippi Goddam," written after the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the Birmingham, AL church bombing that killed four children. Simone eventually wrote over 500 songs and recorded over 50 albums. Angered by record company "pirates," ruinous problems with the IRS, and disillusioned with life in America and the glacial pace of racial progress, Simone left the U.S. in the late 1970s and, after moving around, finally settled in France.

At her peak, she became a must-have performer for the slew of jazz festivals that were starting to sprout up all over the world. Simone was an electrifying performer with a regal bearing, who thrilled audiences with her intensity and talent; that is, when she wanted to. Trouble was, she not only didn't always want to, she also took to insulting audiences that were less than what she expected of them. But it wasn't just audiences; she let journalists have it full-force, too, when she felt they underappreciated her, and friends who crossed her soon found themselves X'd off her list. Brilliance, arrogance and eccentricity are often partners in the lives of talented artists, and Nina Simone embodied all three of those, in droves. Her temperament cost her a portion of her fans, not to mention record industry support, but to most fans and most critics, it only amplified her legend.

Simone returned to the U.S. in 1985 for a six-year visit, earned a lot of money, and returned to France, after which she only occasionally performed. Her private life became increasingly erratic. In 1993, the Village Voice said of her, "She's not a pop singer, she's a diva, a hopeless eccentric ... who has so thoroughly co-mingled her odd talent and brooding temperament that she has turned herself into a force of nature, an exotic creature spied so infrequently that every appearance is legendary."

Author Nadien Cohodas, in her new, doorstop-sized Simone biography Princess Noire, treats Simone's personal story and wrenching changes with respect, but at times, with a puzzling feeling of detachment. Most of the book is marked by the author's fierce engagement with Simone's life, but occasionally the tone veers away, as if Cohodas is watching the singer through a telescope. At other times, her less than lyrical writing style clunks along a little too methodically, even during some of Simone's most interesting life stages.

After awhile, the author's recounting of Simone's bouts of anger and confrontations with audiences begin to seem endless and, finally, unwarranted. We get it: She was a troubled person -- can we get back to the music now, please? But on and on it goes. Then, and much too far into the book, the author suddenly ventures into territory others have reported and covered before: Simone's bipolar disorder, which became increasingly severe during her last couple of decades. Cohodas deals with the subject too casually here, and would have produced a more unified biography if she had better blended in the evidence of mental troubles with the rest of the narrative of Simone's later years.

With that said, this is still the best Simone biography out there, and that includes the singer's thin, "as told to" autobiography, I Put A Spell On You. Cohodas may not be Shakespeare, but she does have a real affinity for Simone's trials and talent, and the singer's elaborate complexity and brilliance come alive enough times to make up for any author deficiencies.

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