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PRINCESS NOIRE by Nadine Cohodas


The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone

by Nadine Cohodas

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-375-42401-4
Publisher: Pantheon

By-the-numbers biography of irascible jazz singer Nina Simone (1933–2003).

Cohodas (Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington, 2004, etc.) culls his research mostly from Simone’s autobiography, newspaper clippings and other secondhand sources, creating a cut-and-paste patchwork that only skims the surface of the singer’s artistic persona and never gives a satisfying sense of the private woman behind the public performer. However, early chapters isolate certain important factors that would have undeniable and increasingly negative repercussions throughout Simone’s 40-plus-year career. As a teenager, the classically trained Simone (formerly Eunice Waymon) was accepted into Juilliard but rejected by the über-prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Cohodas mildly suggests that this rejection burned its way into Simone’s subconscious where it partly metamorphosed into lifelong resentment—and thus, a compensatory overinflated sense of self. What began as activist zeal and a positive, healthy sense of racial pride swelled into mean-spirited public racial divisiveness. This behavioral shift took place, ironically, just as she began to find more popular acceptance and financial success after years of struggling in small clubs and racking up anemic album-sales figures. The author’s obvious attempt at a conservatively objective take on Simone’s life is admirable, but Cohodas never deals with why Simone’s increasingly erratic, narcissistic—and often downright unprofessional—behavior onstage never seemed to have significant negative financial consequences or elicit any serious career-damaging backlash. Simone continued to pull in huge fees for her concerts well into her waning years just before her death in 2003. Although Cohodas gives the reader a pleasingly vivid sense of what a typical live performance was like, this is anything but a comprehensive psychological portrait of the offstage Nina Simone.

A timid, uncontroversial look at one of the most controversial, outspoken female musicians in history.