I Put a Spell on You is an autobiography about the life and career of Eunice Waymon, a singer, songwriter, and pianist known professionally as Nina Simone. Unlike typical autobiographies, you get the sense that the book was likely created from interviews that she had with her co-author. And because of that, the book has a very informal tone that makes you feel like you’re sitting down and having a regular conversation with her as she tells you her life story.
As a history buff, I liked that Waymon didn’t begin I Put a Spell on You with her birth or a moment from her life. Instead, she took a step back into the past (1855 to be precise) and told the history of her place of birth, Tryon, North Carolina. She then moved down her family tree and told a bit about each of her ancestors, beginning with her great-great-grandmother. Within just a page or two you get a wealth of information that gives you a sense of Waymon’s hometown and family.
It was impressive to hear about how Waymon’s father, an uneducated Black man in the early 1900s figured out how to support himself and his family. He started out working for others but eventually learned various trades which he then used to set up businesses. The family lived a relatively comfortable life but then like many others were hard hit by the Great Depression. Her father lost some of his sources of income which negatively affected the family’s financial stability. Waymon was born amid this turmoil.
The family’s resourcefulness and hustle were amazing. Despite having limited means and education, they still figured out a way to keep afloat. During her family’s period of prosperity, her mother had been a housewife but with the family’s change in fortunes, she had to find work. I don’t think job titles or salaries define the worth of a person so I have more respect for someone working a humble job to earn an honest living more than someone having too much pride to work. Waymon’s parents doing what they had to do to survive showed a lot of grit.
Unfortunately, Waymon’s dad experienced a very serious illness that prevented him from working for quite some time. There were pros and cons for Waymon that were caused by this event. Mrs. Waymon found work and became more involved with the church while Waymon’s older siblings spent much of the day at school and some found jobs. Waymon was too young for school so she stayed home with her dad and the two took care of each other. This provided an opportunity for her to develop a strong bond with her father. He’d always been a doting father but because Waymon had multiple older siblings, she had to share his attention and affection. With just the two of them at home, she had him all to herself.
Up to that point, Waymon had mostly spent time hanging from her mother’s apron strings. When her mother began working she clung to her father but also her eldest sister who was now left in charge of the younger siblings. Waymon formed a close bond with her older sister who became like a second mother and was the person who taught her about makeup, clothing, and boys.
While she relished in these relationships, I got the sense that Waymon held some resentment towards her mother. Her mom worked and had become a minister in the church which required her to travel a lot so she wasn’t at home as much. And when she was home, there was a husband and several other children who also wanted her attention. She felt like her mother put the church and God before everything including the family. There’s a feeling of neglect from her mom being gone at work and involved with the church.
The family was deeply religious and very into church life so most of their social life and interactions revolved around the church. Waymon started showing some degree of musical talent and ability at a very young age. Eventually, she began traveling with her mom, playing the organ while she preached.
The woman that Mrs. Waymon worked for decided to sponsor her lessons for a year. In the meantime, her first teacher, Mrs. Muriel Mazzanovich, was an English woman who had just recently moved to town. Her teacher provided musical training but also the care and attention that she was missing from her mother. The lessons became a part of Waymon’s weekly routine which she thoroughly enjoyed and looked forward to. But with her family still being financially unstable, there wouldn’t be enough money for the family to pick up the tab for her lessons after the first year.
Mrs. Mazzanovich established a fund in the town where people could donate money to pay for Waymon’s music lessons. This allowed Waymon to continue her formal training on the path to becoming a professional musician. These kinds of examples prove the point that it takes a village to raise a child or in this case, it takes a town. Things worked out for Waymon but imagine what might not have been if people hadn’t pitched in and donated money to support her studies. Her music career could have stagnated in childhood, sending her down a completely different path, depriving the world of Nina Simone.
Yet, all was not well in the town. Tryon was supportive of young Eunice Waymon but it was still a town in America. And this being the South during the 1930s and 1940s, Jim Crow segregation was a fact of life. There were both Black and White people in the town and facilities such as the schools, bathrooms, etc. were segregated as they were in other areas of the South. But because of how the city had developed the boundary lines between Black and White neighborhoods were not as obvious so Black and White people lived fairly close. She became well-known in her community because of publicity around the fundraiser and residents took pride in her being from their city.
But she noticed and saw things differently as she got older and began moving around town independently going to her music lessons. As an adolescent, she became aware of the difference in how the two races were treated. For example, stopping to get lunch on the way to her lessons, she realized that she was able to purchase the food but people seemed annoyed by her presence and she wasn’t able to eat in the store. This treatment was so normalized within the town that it took her a while to pick up that something wasn’t quite right with this arrangement.
When Waymon got to around the age of 10 or 11, she was now fully subjected to the social norms dictated by Jim Crow. Thus the rules, barriers, and boundaries became more visible. It was decided that a solo recital would be given to thank the town for its support. What should have been a great experience was instead memorable for negative reasons. Initially, Waymon’s parents were seated in the front row but when a White family came along the usher attempted to move them to different seats. Waymon saw what was going on while she was waiting to be introduced and told the crowd that if her parents were forced to move there would be no show. Likely caught off guard by this kid standing up for herself and her parents, the usher gave in, allowing her parents to remain in their seats while finding different seats for the other family.
Living in the present, it’s easy for people to be dismissive of some of the anti-Jim Crow aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. But reading about Black people living under the weight of that societal structure, it’s clear that the system was intended to crush the spirit. Reading about the pettiness of that incident was infuriating as I could only imagine what it must have felt like to be the child or adult in that situation. The feeling of confusion at being supported by this community and performing on stage while knowing that her parents as members of the audience were being treated like second-class citizens. It’s like appearing on stage, Waymon was good enough to entertain the crowd but as a Black person would have been treated far differently if she weren’t on stage.
As a child growing up in that environment it was like being naive to the ways of the world and believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. But then there’s a point where you get older and realize that stuff isn’t real. Waymon’s childhood blinders were falling away and she began to see things through new eyes. It was a loss of innocence that was made even more traumatizing because her parents had a limited ability to shield her. And at that point, she began to feel the slights of discrimination. Instead of allowing them to have their intended effect of wounding her pride and eliminating her self-esteem, Waymon reacted by speaking out and developing a thicker skin.
The Great Depression ended and her father eventually recovered from his illness but things didn’t return to how they were before. Waymon’s father had an independent streak and wanted to work for himself but his aspirations were stifled by his circumstances. He was simply unable to work as he had in the past and there weren’t a lot of other options for him. Waymon’s mom and her older siblings found work and pitched in where they could to fill the gaps and help support the family. This left him feeling frustrated and likely emasculated as at the time a huge part of the concept of manhood was a man being able to provide for his family. Despite his shortcomings, Waymon’s father was my favorite person in the entire book even more so than Waymon herself.
Her mom on the other hand sounded like a bit of a “Debbie Downer,” a stickler for the rules and constantly fussing. As Waymon got older, there was a degree of distance between her and her mother. It sounds like her mother might have never been a touchy-feely physically affectionate person. But there was some degree of intimacy that seemed to get lost with time. Waymon compares the difference between how her mother and music teacher treated her as a child. Mrs. Mazzanovich would greet her with a hug and kiss or a pat on the head when she arrived for piano lessons. Conversely, her mom very rarely if ever showed her affection or acknowledged her talent.
Thus at the very same time that Waymon was beginning to grapple with the reality of being Black in America, she was also dealing with feelings of isolation. As a child, Waymon felt a profound sense of sadness and loneliness that started or at least became more acute when her older siblings started leaving home. Seriously practicing the piano left her with far less free time than her friends and siblings which resulted in feelings of isolation. She had been consistently playing and studying piano since the age of six and her talent took her away from home, setting her apart from the rest of the family.
Everyone needs love and affection, and we first receive it as children. Or at least we should. And because people are different, how they express and need to receive love differs. Some parents express love for their children by working hard and otherwise sacrificing to provide for them. Other parents express their love by nurturing their children, whether that be making them nice meals, teaching them to play sports, taking them on excursions, etc. But even with all of that, some kids still need to be told that they are loved and given hugs or a kiss on the forehead now and then.
I’ve always gotten the impression, though I could be wrong, that back then people weren’t as touchy-feely with their kids. And it sounds like young Eunice Waymon was the kind of child that needed her mother’s presence and physical affection to feel loved by her. Without those words and actions of affection, a feeling of distance emerged between Waymon and her mother. It also didn’t help that in efforts to avoid over-inflating Waymon’s ego, her mom made it a point to not applaud or openly celebrate her achievements. It was different from the relationship with her father because they talked, he openly supported her, and he made time for her.
Waymon met and began a relationship with a local boy who she continued seeing until her late teens. I don’t take teenage relationships seriously but in their case, it was different because they and their families assumed that the couple would get married after graduation. Yet, as often occurs in life, their plans were thrown off course when an opportunity for Waymon to attend a boarding school and study music appeared. The school was some distance away but still allowed Waymon and the guy to see each other and continue their relationship. But the distance between home and that school was nothing in comparison to the distance between Tryon and New York where she would study after graduation in preparation for applying to a conservatory.
The reality is that their plans for the future were not compatible. Waymon dreamed of becoming a concert pianist while the young man she was seeing planned to remain in Tryon and follow in the footsteps of his family. It was a possibility for them to date long-distance though it might have been difficult. But the guy wasn’t interested in any scenario that didn’t include her staying in Tryon.
I thought the guy was a bit selfish, in that he wanted the life that he wanted but wasn’t willing to compromise. But then again it was his life and he had as much of a right to decide what he did and didn’t want. He ended up living a normal life but seemed quite miserable with the choices he made. Most likely he didn’t consider a different life because he just never thought about what else might be out there.
Waymon didn’t have a picture-perfect life but I think it’s better to go for it and have things not work out as you imagined rather than to regret never having tried. She was understandably heartbroken about the breakup and lamented what could have been. But, I felt like she made the right choice as there is no guarantee that her life would have been any better if she had married him and remained in Tryon. And there’s a good chance that she might have resented him for asking her to give up her dreams.
Waymon had gone away for high school but the school kept a close watch on the students so she was fairly sheltered. While studying at Juilliard she lived in Harlem which was unlike any other place she’d been. It meant leaving her small town in the South for a large city in the North. She stayed with a friend of her mother’s who ran a boarding house which offered a bit of freedom though she still had someone to provide guidance and supervision. When it was nearing the time for her to audition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania she relocated to join the members of her family who had already settled in the city.
There’s this oft-repeated situation of Black people striving for progress or attempting to go outside the realm of what’s considered typical for Black people and being met with resistance. Sometimes to the point of being told that you’re not good enough when the real reason is your race, not your capabilities. I’d previously heard the story of Waymon being rejected from a music school where she hoped to continue her training to become a classical pianist.
It was heartbreaking yet a familiar story to read her words detailing the experience of working hard towards this moment and being rejected. Sacrificing so much of her youth to study the piano when her friends were out playing and living their lives. Leaving behind her hometown and childhood sweetheart. Moving to New York to study at Juilliard for a year with the plan of auditioning. To get there and have them dismiss her with the excuse being that she wasn’t good enough.
So much of her identity had been based on her being a pianist that it made her question her talent and herself. If it was any consolation, she found out that up to that point the school hadn’t had any Black students. And they had a very specific idea of the kind of Black students they wanted to accept if they were going to admit Black students. In their eyes, Eunice Waymon didn’t fit that vision.
The rejection came as a shock and was devastating. But, finding out the truth made her realize that her talent and abilities weren’t the problems, the school’s smallmindedness was. It would turn out to be their loss. Sometimes “rejection is protection.” Without Eunice Waymon being rejected by the school and taken off the path of becoming the first Black concert pianist there likely would have never been a Nina Simone.
Living in Harlem was a transition period into independence but Philadelphia saw Waymon fully venture out onto her own. She briefly lived with her family but then got a job and a small place of her own which offered some privacy and more independence. What I found interesting was that until this point, Waymon only played piano and hadn’t considered singing. She got a job playing accompaniment for a vocal teacher which led to her giving music and voice lessons which then led to her taking bookings in Atlantic City and elsewhere on the East Coast.
These little moments of happenstance that become pivotal moments in a person’s life are one of my favorite things about reading autobiographies and biographies. It started from a terrible place for Waymon but I thoroughly enjoyed how these chance encounters and events came together to set her on her path. Waymon had trained with the expectation of playing in upper-crust concert halls and venues so the atmosphere in Atlantic City’s dive bars required some adjustments. Breaking out of the conservative constraints under which she’d trained, Waymon began combining show tunes, pop music, and classical.
Being taken out of her element required her to set aside the expectations she’d created for herself as a concert pianist. Instead of continuing to lament the loss of her “shot at greatness,” she began to work towards a new future for herself despite not quite knowing where it would lead. Patrons of the bars wanted more than just background music and so she began singing. And then needing to expand her repertoire, she began writing music and lyrics. The challenges of this new environment gave her more musical freedom and she began branching out to other genres. Waymon was worried that with her mother now also living in Philly, she might find out and disapprove of her playing music in bars. To get around this, Waymon adopted the stage name “Nina Simone.”
She finally told her mother when she began regularly playing closer to home and as expected she wasn’t too pleased but accepted it. Throughout I Put a Spell on You, you get a sense of unease between Simone and her mother. But you don’t get as good a feel for her mother as with her dad, largely because I don’t think Simone had a good read on her mom. There was a brief overview of her mom like some of the other family members but I was curious to learn more about her as an individual. She loomed large in Simone’s story but was a bit of an enigma.
In a twist of fate, the teacher who would have been her instructor at the music school from which she was rejected recognized her talent and became her private tutor. Along the way she met musicians with whom she vibed and began working relationships. Playing the clubs, she met Sid Nathan who was the owner of Bethlehem Records in New York and he signed her to her first record deal. Yet, she didn’t approach the situation as professionally as she should have as she was naive about the industry and not yet serious about singing or being a recording artist. She didn’t have a manager, lawyer, or accountant at the outset so her first contract cost her in the long run despite the record being fairly well-received.
To be honest, I think Nina Simone is a cool artist but not necessarily someone that I would want to hang out with. She sounds difficult as a person and a bit snotty with regards to music. There’s a sort of uptightness with regards to audiences at performances. Granted, I’ve never understood the point of going to a show whether to see a comedian or musician, paying for tickets, and then heckling them or causing a disturbance. It’s like paying money to be annoying and disrupt the show.
Something that crops up pretty early in I Put a Spell on You is her sense of loneliness and sadness. I’m not a mental health professional but it sounded like some of these moods that she would fall into were depression. It wasn’t just having a sad day but extended periods of being sad and depressed. This resulted in her allowing people into her life and forming relationships, especially with romantic partners, that weren’t built on mutual love but rather her trying to stave off this feeling of loneliness.
There had to be something deeper going on because she’d had these feelings since childhood and they would persist through the rest of her life. I knew she was married at one point but didn’t know that she had been married twice. The first husband was sort of a fan who probably should have just remained her friend. The second husband, Andy Stroud, was a hot mess of red flags and as their courtship continued, I found myself screaming at her to leave that man where she found him though I already knew otherwise.
The first red flag was that Andy lied about his job being a police officer out of concern that she would disapprove. It doesn’t bode well for a relationship if you start off lying about who you are or your values. Then he was pushing for things to become serious immediately rather than allowing the relationship to develop at its own pace. It’s different if both people feel a connection and are on the same page versus one person dictating how things will go.
Early in their courtship, she became very ill and Andy remained by her bedside, caring for her and being supportive. In a relationship, most people want someone that will be there to offer support so it was understandable why that attracted Simone. But then he decided, not asked, but decided that they would get married when she got better.
At this point, Simone had experienced a bit of success playing in and around the famed Greenwich Village in New York City following the release of her album. But she was still in her mid-20s and trying to figure herself and her career out. I got the sense that Andy was a bit older as he had already been married and divorced three times and had multiple children. Children aren’t necessarily an issue but if someone has been married and divorced three times I would have some questions. Especially given that he’s just met and started dating Simone but was already talking about marriage number four. Instead of being impulsive, I would think you’d take your time getting to know this person and trying to figure out if you’re compatible so you can build a relationship on a solid foundation.
I’d previously seen “What Happened Miss Simone?” so I knew that they would end up getting married. But that didn’t stop me from yelling at the book as she got further into the details of the dysfunction of their relationship. The couple went out one night to celebrate their engagement and Simone was approached by a male fan who passed her a note which she slipped in her pocket. The exchange was a bit rude as I think most people’s romantic partners would take offense. Thus it would have been reasonable for Andy to be upset but it’s something that they should have talked about.
Andy had been drinking heavily throughout the night and since their engagement, becoming unusually quiet and a bit weird. After the exchange between Simone and the fan, he immediately wanted to leave. And once they got outside to wait for a cab, he began hitting her and it continued the whole way to her apartment. The incident progressed from assault to torture as he pulled out his gun and began interrogating her about her past relationships to rape. It’s an understatement but Andy had major boundary, control, and anger issues. The documentary made mention of similar events later in their marriage and it all seemed to revolve around his need to control and dominate. It was a terrible thing to experience but better to know his true character before getting married so she could leave without the rigmarole of a divorce and dividing assets.
When dating or courting, I think it’s perfectly fine to ask someone about their past relationships within boundaries. Past behavior can tell you a lot about the possibilities of their future actions. But, unless it’s currently affecting their lives or could have an impact on your budding relationship, I don’t think you’re owed intimate details.
I could only imagine the day-to-day terror of being in a relationship with someone of whom you are afraid. Especially with Andy being a police officer with a reputation on the street for aggression and violence. I know that all men are not aggressive or violent abusers as most of the men that I know are regular people. They feel and experience the same emotions as anyone else, hurt and anger included, but they express their feelings and conduct themselves like decent human beings. The problem is that some people play into this idea of aggression and violence being masculine traits so they don’t regard it as being problematic when displayed by men. Thus they excuse possessiveness, lack of self-control, and immaturity as manliness.
Despite Simone being understandably terrified of this man to the point of escaping while he slept and going into hiding for weeks, she still questioned herself. He continued to show clear signs of boundary issues in attempting to track her down and force her to speak with him. I don’t believe that closure is a thing or at least it’s not required to move on from a relationship. It’s fine if both people want to speak to clear the air but if one person is pushing for a final sit down, it’s most likely to argue about why they don’t want to break up. And that’s for a regular, “I’m just not feeling you anymore breakup.” But someone pulls a gun on you and tortures you throughout the night? You shouldn’t have anything to talk about.
I’m not trying to victim blame here, but I really couldn’t understand moving ahead with the marriage. I get not wanting to be alone but I would think your health, safety, and peace of mind would outweigh any concerns about loneliness. But then again a lot of people, men and women included, remain in relationships that aren’t meeting their needs to avoid being alone. I’ve never experienced the overwhelming sense of loneliness that Simone describes. And in that state of mind, it didn’t help matters that Andy completely denied that the event ever took place which was a form of gaslighting. Sure, he saw a therapist but not for a meaningful amount of sessions and while they offered insights, he certainly didn’t do any work to improve his behavior.
And to make matters worse not only did they get married but he also became her manager. So he was now part of her personal life and heavily involved with her professional career. This is something that I’ve noticed with a lot of female entertainers, especially from this period. There is a tendency to defer control and direction over their career to their romantic partner whether or not the man has any experience in the industry. I think this is a byproduct of their belief that men should automatically be in control. Meanwhile, Simone defaulted to overseeing the people they hired to help maintain their household.
Simone’s manager shouldn’t have been Andy. But she did need a manager and most importantly a good manager as she wasn’t interested in business. Yet, she put no effort into finding proper representation so she just took whoever came along first, in this case, Andy. And with that he took over booking shows; managing investments; setting up businesses for publishing, songwriting, and performances; and all other manners of business. Andy brought some organization to her career but he’s not the only person that could have done that and it would later turn out that he made a lot of mistakes that would prove costly in the long run.
“Eunice Waymon” was a person but within the context of the music industry, she was performing under the name of “Nina Simone”, a business entity. Simone was the money-maker but Andy took control of everything including the finances. It’s fine to have professionals manage your affairs but completely abdicating control of your business and finances is a terrible idea. Granted this period of Simone’s life was taking place during the 1950s-60s but since then there have been countless stories of athletes and entertainers losing everything because they handed off control of their business and finances.
Simone had been living in Greenwich Village and then relocated to Harlem before settling in Mount Vernon where she bought a home and gave birth to a daughter. The move coincided with a trip to Lagos, Nigeria where Simone was part of a delegation that visited the country to open an office for an organization. Visiting Lagos was a life-changing experience and sparked an interest in the continent in Simone. She’d also known Lorraine Hansberry from the Village but the two now lived near each other and became closer friends. Hansberry had already been very involved with the Civil Rights Movement and encouraged Simone to become active. Being in the mix pulled Simone into the Movement and started her off on the path of not just being a musician but also becoming an activist in her own right.
She had been aware of racial injustice and discrimination from her personal experiences. Yet, it had been her family’s habit to deal with racism by not speaking about or directly acknowledging race. They passively fought back against prejudice by pushing themselves to work harder and do better. But it was becoming death by a million cuts. Being out on her own and seeing more of the world combined with the microaggressions that she had experienced growing up in her hometown. Sacrificing so much for her plans to attend music school only to be rejected.
All of these hurts and slights built up until the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement shifted into overdrive. Hansberry had been in her ear about getting involved with the Movement by figuring out how she could contribute. By this point Emmitt Till had been murdered, the Montgomery Bus Boycott had taken place, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had penned his letter from Birmingham Jail.
Simone still wasn’t politically and socially awakened until Medgar Evers was assassinated the night after President Kennedy announced that he was planning to present a new Civil Rights bill to Congress. She then fully exploded after hearing the breaking news of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham which resulted in the murder of four little girls. Turning the cheek to all of these personal and public incidents of discrimination and racism became unbearable. Blinded by rage, she initially felt the urge to retaliate but couldn’t find the words to express her feelings when her husband intervened.
Ironically, from that chaos and momentary inability to form words came a sudden clarity and one of her most iconic songs. Simone realized that her music could be her weapon in the fight for justice and civil rights. Redirecting and channeling that anger brought about the passionate and controversial “Mississippi Goddam.”
Her mother not supporting her being a secular entertainer might have played a role in Simone not enjoying the success of her early career. But also the mix of music that she’d created playing in bars and clubs brought her success but not necessarily artistic fulfillment. Simone experienced financial success and increasing popularity but because she didn’t necessarily feel anything for the music, it felt empty. She lacked a sense of purpose because she felt she wasn’t making serious music.
But that began to change with “Mississippi Goddam” as she moved more into protest songs and came to be regarded as a singer for the movement. Her music gained more weight and importance because there was more meaning and intent behind them. She might not have been doing music exactly the way that her mother thought she should but she still saw herself as doing God’s work in trying to be a voice for the Civil Rights Movement and Black people.
Simone was somewhat hostile towards popular music because she thought that hard work and dedication were required to master classical music. Whereas popular music was simpler and the audiences were easily satisfied. She had considered herself settling for popular music because she didn’t make it as a classical musician. But she then came to regard herself as having surpassed classical music because there was historical significance to what she was performing. It filled her with a sense of pride and she felt it gave her self-respect.
I’ve known of Nina Simone but it was pretty cool to read about her awakening and development of Black consciousness. It’s inspiring that her philosophy developed through seeing and questioning things allowing for development over time. And I particularly liked that she explained her take on the different organizations and philosophies as well as her decision-making process. I enjoyed the discussion of integration versus separatism as well as reformation versus a complete rebuilding of society.
I agreed with her perspective that if the foundation is flawed and the house is severely compromised, past a certain point it’s better to rebuild rather than to keep reforming. If your goal is equality for everyone then you have to eliminate and eradicate the things that unnaturally create disadvantages. Yet, people with power and advantages generally want to keep them so they typically won’t willingly give up either. It’s unrealistic to expect power to be handed over without some kind of effort or activist agitation.
Instead of sharing power to make a meaningful change, it becomes easier to give people the low-hanging fruit and a select few a seat at the table. This gives the appearance of progress while having to make little in the way of change or sacrifice. What America needed was not for Black people, women, low-income people or any other underprivileged groups to be brought into the fold but rather for society to be rebuilt on an equitable foundation.
Throughout her journey, she met and had a weird exchange (on her part) with Louis Farrakhan and befriended Miriam Makeba, Stokely Carmichael, and Betty Shabazz. History can sometimes feel cold and impersonal but these historical figures feel warm and human through the stories that are shared.
Like some of the other activists who survived the turmoil of the late 1960s, Simone had to leave the country for some sense of relief. Spending time in Africa offered an opportunity to just take a break and relax away from everything. That’s not to say that there weren’t problems but despite being Black she was living in Africa as a celebrity coming to the continent, so she was visiting from a place of privilege. It also gave her a break from her real problems at home.
The relationship between Simone and her father throughout I Put a Spell on You was incredibly sweet. She grew up an absolute daddy’s girl and seemed to be his favorite child despite having several other siblings. But getting older, relationships change, and going through rough periods in her life, her father had always been someone that she could depend on. He was a haven and so she sought him out when she was going through a divorce from Andy. (Sidenote: I think a lot of people end up getting divorced because they had no business getting married from the beginning.) But then having a falling out with her dad was a bit too much at one time and unable to deal with her problems, she fled.
During the period of Simone’s career when she was managed by Andy, he kept her consistently booked for performances. And with all of the activity, she hoped for a time when she could slow down and take some time off. Now living overseas and not performing, she had a lot of downtime. And it seems like with artists they alternate between being very busy when they’re on tour and/or have an album out but then things can be dead quiet when nothing is going on. An artist can be blazing hot one day and their career can be cold the next so most try to take advantage of opportunities while they can before the music stops. The rollercoaster can be difficult to manage.
Throughout I Put a Spell on You, it seemed that Simone would enter these periods of what she described as an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation which sounded like depression. Most concerts take place in the evening and the high of performing combined with hanging out afterward can keep someone up until the early hours of the morning. Not getting enough sleep combined with extremely busy periods of activity left her feeling physically and mentally exhausted.
Constantly being on the go without taking breaks to rest and recharge was a recipe for disaster. There’s one point in I Put a Spell on You where she described being about halfway through a tour and falling apart. She hit a roadblock and it triggered this frantic energy where she was moving about, crying uncontrollably, and incoherent. It sounded like an out-of-body experience where she was operating as a shell of herself but not present. On a basic level, she needed a vacation but long-term she could have greatly benefited from speaking to a therapist.
Simone seemed very intense and a little off. In some ways she kind of fit the stereotype of celebrities being a little bit self-centered. That’s not to say she was heartless but rather that she came across at points as being selfish and not having any real regard for other people’s feelings. Given the opportunity, she didn’t sound like the type of person I would have wanted to hang out with as friends. I honestly didn’t understand her reasoning and handling of certain situations.
Simone felt like the record industry turned its back on her in retaliation for her becoming involved with the Civil Rights Movement and being viewed as militant. That could have very well been the case. But I think it might have also been that after she and Andy split, he was no longer working as her manager and she wasn’t picking up the slack. With nobody in place to find and negotiate record deals or tours, how would it get done? By the 1970s, record labels probably didn’t know what to do with her and she likely wasn’t doing the best job (if she was doing anything) to position herself.
Because her personal and professional relationships with Andy had become so intertwined, ending one would have a tremendous effect on the other. But, being impulsive she took a personal break from Andy without considering or making any plans for how it would affect her career. During this time she was also dealing with additional issues with family members facing serious illnesses. And then the IRS popped up asking questions about missing tax returns. Both her and Andy vacated the Mount Vernon home which fell into disrepair and became an albatross. Truly, when it rains it pours. Simone needed a solid business team in place to help her deal with these problems so she could focus on her personal life but instead she chose not to deal with any of it which was just kicking the can down the road.
And somehow in the midst of this, she felt the best thing to do would be to find a new man to replace her husband. This mission to have someone in her life was a hot mess but very entertaining. It started with a boyfriend in Barbados (more accurately a lover), then carrying on with a married politician, and then what can only be described as an old-school untelevised reality dating show in Liberia. I will say that Mariam Makeba sounded like the ultimate wing-woman as she lined up six potential husband candidates for Simone to sort through. She goes into details about two of the men, one about her age who was a bit of a perv and the other was substantially older and stressful.
It was questionable that she complained about being away from home and her daughter when Andy had her constantly performing. To be clear, I don’t have any issues with women having a career or pursuing their interests outside the home. But thought it was a bit hypocritical that she spent much of I Put a Spell on You lamenting her mother being away from home working and active in the church. But then after she separated from Andy she enrolled her daughter in a school in Liberia and later a European boarding school and went off about her business.
I’m a fairly patient person but I get irritated with people constantly complaining about things and doing nothing to change the situation. Throughout much of this period, Simone alternates between not wanting to perform and complaining about her lack of work. She briefly resumed a completely professional relationship with Andy and he arranged a tour in America which got her back to work. In this capacity, he was described as being more mellow, less pushy and controlling. But then she complained about their relationship being more formal and distant and him not exerting full control and handling all the details as he had in the past. The tour showed that there was still interest in Simone as a musician and performer but the problem was that she needed to get her affairs in order.
But even in briefly returning to Andy professionally, it mostly happened because he pitched the idea of a tour. She might have figured he was better than nothing but she really should have put in the time to find someone else as he was part of the reason she had issues with the IRS. Yet, she once again left it up to him to pay off the fines and take care of the judgments that had been decided against her. And unsurprisingly he dropped the ball again. How many times does someone have to mess up for you to pull the plug on that working relationship?
I couldn’t quite figure out if the issue was performing in general or specifically not wanting to perform in America. I got her not wanting to perform in America as by this point she was haunted by negative memories. But then performing in Europe she complained about not having management to handle the business side of things so she could focus on the music. Yet, when she moved to Paris and made inquiries about management and promoters she complained about the people who were willing to fill these roles because she wanted to be in control of everything. What I gathered was that she didn’t know what she wanted and was finicky and indecisive.
By this point, her situation had been a mess for years and she’d had more than enough time to speak with other people in the industry, request recommendations, and put together a new professional team to represent her interests. Eventually, Simone buckled down, found a new manager, and arranged for herself to appear at a small club in Paris. Exactly what she should have done years before. She performed in the club for quite a while and slowly rebuilt her career. But the back and forth with wanting and not wanting a manager to take control versus her being involved in the business side continued.
She returned to America to shop audio and video recordings of her Paris performances which seemed to go nowhere but did allow her to connect with a new manager in America. He delivered by procuring a record deal, organizing a tour, and finally getting her tax situation sorted out. Fixing these issues helped improve her finances and cleared a path for better deals that provided greater financial stability. She was free to do more of the things that she’d planned and aspired to. But then she turned around and let him go for reasons I didn’t quite understand.
I lost track of time around when Simone moved to Liberia because she would discuss different situations without any clear context of time. The turnaround of her career takes place within the last ten or so pages of I Put a Spell on You which completely threw me off. It seemed like she was talking about weeks or months but it was likely several years.
This is the first book that I’ve read specifically about Nina Simone and I have seen the “What Happened Miss Simone?” documentary. I Put a Spell on You includes her early life while the documentary for the most part begins with and focuses on her career. I specifically remember the documentary discussing Simone dealing with depression or some other form of mental illness that was eventually brought under control with therapy and medication. It’s obvious that something is wrong but it’s not explicitly labeled in the book. She spoke briefly about her daughter in the book but didn’t touch on what her daughter described in the documentary as extreme discipline bordering on abuse. Simone spoke about her night of torture at the hands of Andy before they got married but she then made it seem like it was a one-time thing and those issues went away after they married while the documentary stated otherwise.
Overall, I Put a Spell on You is a good introduction to the life of Nina Simone in her words but it’s not the definitive Nina Simone book. It provides good insight into her life and career but there are still gaps in her story. The book is rather short though the story is fairly dense. I felt like she held back a bit which I completely understand as I and most people wouldn’t be open to sharing their insecurities and deepest secrets. Still, I found her story compelling and would be open to reading other books to get another perspective on her as a person and the creative process for her various songs and albums.
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