What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography

What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography

by Alan Light
What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography

What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography

by Alan Light


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Inspired by the Academy Award-nominated Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, an intimate and vivid look at the legendary life of Nina Simone, the classically trained pianist who evolved into a chart-topping chanteuse and committed civil rights activist. 
From music journalist and former Spin and Vibe editor-in-chief Alan Light comes a biography of incandescent soul singer and Black Power icon Nina Simone, one of the most influential, provocative, and least understood artists of our time. Drawn from a trove of rare archival footage, audio recordings and interviews (including Simone's remarkable private diaries), this nuanced examination of Nina Simone’s life highlights her musical inventiveness and unwavering quest for equality, while laying bare the personal demons that plagued her from the time of her Jim Crow childhood in North Carolina to her self-imposed exile in Liberia and Paris later in life.
Harnessing the singular voice of Miss Simone herself and incorporating candid reflections from those who knew her best, including her only daughter, Light brings us face to face with a legend, examining the very public persona and very private struggles of one of our greatest artists.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101904879
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/09/2016
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 2.20(d)

About the Author

A veteran music journalist, ALAN LIGHT is the author of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" and Let's Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain. Light was previously the editor-in-chief of Vibe and Spin and a senior writer for Rolling Stone. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times.

Read an Excerpt

People seem to think that when she went out onstage, that was when she became  Nina Simone. My mother was Nina Simone 24/7. . . . She couldn’t be herself, and she wasn’t loved for who she was when she was not at the piano and not singing.
The summer of 1969 saw perhaps the most rigorous tour schedule Nina Simone ever faced. With plans put in place by Andy and spurred by her recent chart success, she played a full slate of shows in the United States (including  the Harlem Cultural Festival appearance) and also made a quick trip that took her to France  for a festival in Antibes and then to Algeria for the first Pan-African Festival.
As the “folk-rock”  boom  had given way to psychedelia  and then the first  stirrings  of  the singer-songwriter  movement, pop songs had an increasing  sense of gravity and ambition that seemed  to appeal  to Simone.  She followed  her  hit from  Hair with  another single  from  a current pop  source,  covering  the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” and reaching  number 5 on the UK  charts. The  song also became  the title track for Simone’s next album,  which had the most contemporary song selection she ever attempted: three songs written by Bob Dylan (she was one of the few truly great Dylan interpreters), Leonard  Cohen’s “Suzanne,” the folk song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (with lyrics taken from  the Bible  and  credited to Pete Seeger,  the song  had  of course been a huge hit for the Byrds a few years earlier).
She also cut two more  Bee Gees compositions and a modi- fied version  of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” later praised  by John Lennon  himself.  Such a track list broadened her audience  and inevitably interested young, white rock  fans, which  led to her first  booking  into Bill Graham’s  famous  venue,  the Fillmore East.
A review in the Village Voice indicates that Simone was at the peak of her power in the East Village rock mecca. “She now pos- sesses an absolute mastery of her material,” wrote Don  Heck- man. “Like all great singers, she has passed  the point of sheer technique and takes for granted nuances  of performance that other singers would have to make  strenuous and conscious  ef- forts to achieve.”
In August, she also recorded the song that would be her final contribution to the protest repertoire—though it was one  of inspiration  and  uplift  rather than fury. Lorraine  Hansberry’s ex-husband and estate executor, Robert Nemiroff, had adapted some of her writings into a new off-Broadway  play titled To Be Young, Gifted and Black. One  Sunday morning,  Simone  opened the New York Times and saw a story about the production, with a photo of her old friend Hansberry.
“This picture caught hold of me,” she said. “In her eyes, she kept trying to tell me something, and the memory of being with her many times kept flooding back. I sat down at the piano at that moment and made up a tune. I knew what I wanted it to say, but I couldn’t get the words together. So I called up my mu- sical director, Weldon Irving, Junior, and I said, ‘Hey, Weldon, I got a song, and I want you to finish writing it.’ I hummed it over the phone,  told him what was on my mind, explained  to him a little bit about Lorraine  Hansberry. And he captured the mood, and it was finished on Tuesday, forty-eight hours later.”
Like all great anthems, the lyrics to “To Be Young,  Gifted and Black” are simple and clear, the melody forceful and memo- rable but not cloying.

  To be young, gifted and black,
Oh, what a lovely precious dream
To be young, gifted and black,
Open your heart to what I mean

In the whole world you know
There are a billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black,
And that’s a fact!

Young, gifted and black
We must begin to tell our young
There’s a world waiting for you
This is a quest that’s just begun

When you feel really low
Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know
When you’re young, gifted and black
Your soul’s intact!
Young, gifted and black
How I long to know the truth
There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth

Oh, but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gifted and black
Is where it’s at!
Speaking  about the song at the time of its release,  Simone revealed  a true sense of purpose,  a look beyond  the historical outrage of “Mississippi  Goddam” and “Four Women” to a mis- sion for the future. “To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, black people,” she said. “I mean that in every sense, outside and inside. We have a culture that’s surpassed  by no other civilization, but don’t know anything about it. So my job is to somehow make them curious enough, or persuade them by hook  or crook,  to get more  aware of themselves, and where they came from, and to bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them, and I will do it by whatever means necessary.
“As far as I’m concerned, my music is addressed to my people, especially to make them more  curious  about where they came from and their own identity and pride in that identity. We don’t know anything about ourselves. We  don’t even have the pride and  the dignity  of African  people.  We  can’t  even  talk about where  we came  from,  we don’t know.  It’s like a lost race, and my songs are deliberately to provoke  this feeling of ‘Who am I? Where did I come from? Do I really like me, and why do I like me? And if I am black and beautiful, I really am and I know it, and I don’t care who says what.’ That’s what my songs are about, and it is addressed to black people. Though I hope that in their musical concept, and in their musical form and power, that they will also live on after I die, as much as they are universal songs, too.”
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was a Top 10 R&B hit and, peaking  at number 76 on the pop charts, also Simone’s biggest crossover  success since “I Loves You,  Porgy.” The  song would be covered  by Aretha Franklin  (who made it the title of a 1972 album) and the masterful soul singer Donny  Hathaway; a few years later, Simone even performed the song sitting on a stoop on Sesame Street. The Congress  of Racial Equality named  it the “Black National Anthem,”  and  the themes articulated by the song would be explored by such artists as Stevie Wonder and the
Staple Singers.
“I’m born  of the young, gifted, and black affirmation,” said Attallah Shabazz. “It wasn’t that we didn’t know it. It was daring to proclaim it, and then share it joyously. It’s stated in a way that you know your African-ness without apology, without explana- tion, and it’s put into a contemporary, hip song, which  means you get to hum it in public. And you didn’t have to be black to sing it, because it was just a truth.”
The studio version of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was released only as a single; Simone’s next album would be another live set, titled Black Gold and recorded at an October show at New York’s Philharmonic Hall. The closing number was a nine- and-a-half-minute version of the new hit, which she introduced by saying, “It is not addressed to white people primarily. Though it doesn’t put you down in any way . . . it simply ignores you. For my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get.”
As  the focus  of  her  work  increasingly  shifted to singing about and for her black audience,  Simone’s political thrust had moved from the drive for civil rights and racial equality to the priorities  of  independence  and  self-sufficiency   that defined the Black Power  agenda. “She made the transition from move- ments demanding the acknowledgment of our rights as citizens to insurgent  movements  calling for  the economic and  politi- cal restructuring of our  society,”  wrote  Angela  Davis.  “With her, I moved from an assimilationist project to a revolutionary project.”
Black Gold would be Simone’s only gold-selling album  with RCA  Victor. It was nominated for a Grammy  for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (although she would once again lose to Aretha Franklin).  A separate LP containing an interview with Simone was mailed to radio DJs for promotion; in this conversa- tion, she expressed her satisfaction with the record.
“There  is a great deal of electricity in this album,” she said. “There  is a great  deal  of rapport between  the audience  and myself, which has been missing in so many of the previous  al- bums.”
Simone  was finely attuned to her  audiences,  and  to which nights she was truly on her game. If this meant that her perfor- mances could be uneven, it also resulted in her ability to maxi- mize her powers  when she felt in command. “If I’m in a good mood,  in very high  spirits,  I can tell  how I’m  going to move them,” she said. “But, on the other hand,  if they are in a very different mood, they may be able to sway me their way. Usually I know as time goes on how it’s going. Sometimes I may know the minute I get onstage.”
Following the run of “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life,” “To Love Somebody,”  and  especially  “To Be Young,  Gifted and  Black,” the mainstream media began paying attention to Nina  Simone in a way they hadn’t since the days of “I Loves You, Porgy.” In the fall of 1970 alone,  there were features about the singer in LIFE  magazine,  the brand-new black  women’s publication Es- sence, and Redbook, who had Maya Angelou—a cultural icon with the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings the previous year—pen an extensive, ambitious profile that was presented in an introduction as “the impressions of a poet.”
“Nina Simone is able to stand upon  a shadowed  stage, take in all light and then return that luminescence to her audience in opulent, pulsating rays,” Angelou wrote. “At other times and with  no  seeming  reluctance  she  rejects  the audience,  rejects their physical fact, rejects their loyalty, rejects their devotion.”
But despite her sudden  turn as a media darling, she was still plagued by the same issues. George  Wein said that he booked her for a successful show at the historically black Hampton In- stitute but that when he put her on the bill at the Playboy Jazz Festival  she  was acting  strangely.  “You  really could  not grab ahold of this woman.  You could not do it, much  as you tried,”
he said.
Trouble seemed  to follow her. Wein had a house  in France near James Baldwin’s house, and the two men had become friendly. Simone came to visit Baldwin and got into some alter- cation. Whatever transpired, it was ugly enough  that Simone was asked to leave. “I don’t know the details, but Jimmy could put up with anything,” said Wein. “Jimmy Baldwin was one of the most generous, sweetest, nicest people, but he couldn’t make it with Nina, and that was very bad.”
But Baldwin’s friendship ran deeper than one bad night, and he would return to save Nina during a dark moment at the Vil- lage Gate in New  York.  Tickets for the show were ten dollars (expensive  for  a nightclub),  and  the set started about ninety minutes late. “She had a certain kind of regality, mixed up with a kind of pretentious arrogance,” said Stanley Crouch, who was covering the show. “She was really a very frightened person; she wasn’t as arrogant as she seemed.  She was definitely afraid  of being rejected, but she was ready to go out and tell the audience, ‘I am here, I am Nina Simone, I don’t care.’ ”
Al Schackman remembered this particular set. “At the Vil- lage Gate, she wouldn’t have anybody play with her, just the two of us. We’re on, and somehow  she gets this thing going about Jews, ‘That Jew, he owns this club, all these Jews,’ and I’m going to myself, ‘Oh, shit, Nina, most of your audience is Jewish.’ ”
Song after song collapsed midway through, with Simone complaining about the microphones and the lights, until even- tually  Baldwin  came  out and  sat with  her  onstage.  He  said, “Nina, I think you should sing,” and she replied, “James, yes, of course—I like you, I know you like me, so if you think I should sing,  I will sing.” Schackman recalled,  “Jimmy  was an  angel come to earth, he really truly was.”
“He  was  a  little drunk,  and  you  couldn’t  tell  if  she  was drunk,”  said Crouch, of Baldwin and Simone  that night. “She stopped and said, ‘I bet you all think I’m drunk—well, I am not, and you better remember that, because if you act as though you think I’m drunk and you abuse me, I will just stop and leave and you still have to pay and I am still going to get paid.’
“She had that kind of thing in her, that if you actually outdid her  in a form  of obnoxiousness, she could  be more  obnoxious than you could. And at a certain point, you would just surren- der, because  you would realize that you were not going to win, because she was going to be more obnoxious than you could be.”
Still, when she turned it on, she could transport crowds  to incomparable heights. If she and an audience  could  feed each other’s energy, the results were something beyond a concert ex- perience. A breathless review in the San Francisco Chronicle  by John L. Wasserman offers an example of her still-incandescent potency.
“She is Priestess and she is Leader, mystic and political scien- tist, dancer,  actress, play wright and chemist,” he wrote. “I have never, ever seen a singer exercise the kind of control, the kind of benign manipulation that Miss Simone did on Saturday night.” Wasserman described the show as “one hour 35 minutes of spiri- tual sex . . . if one talks about sex in singing, Tina  Turner is a stripper, Nina is a woman.” She is, he concluded, “a person mak- ing the final merger of life and art.”
“If you’re striking at the heart of five thousand people, there’s more being plugged into you,” said Simone. “There’s more elec- tricity coming  from  you, because  you’re  getting  it from  them and they’re getting it from you. It’s like when lightning strikes a town, or a hurricane or a tornado, it builds. If it’s getting ready to capture or to hurt thousands of people, it comes stronger as it goes through the oceans and the waves get bigger—it gets stron- ger all the time, because it’s been building wave by wave by wave all that time. That’s the way I think of myself.”
If Simone saw herself as a force of nature, her young daughter was just becoming  aware that hers was not a typical upbringing. “I didn’t know that my mother was famous, or that she sang for a living, until I was maybe ten,” said Lisa Simone. “I just knew that Mom was always traveling, and I never knew half the time that she was leaving or when she was coming back. I looked  at her passport, and I saw the name ‘Eunice K. Stroud, aka Nina Simone.’ And  I asked,  ‘What’s aka?’ And  she’s like, ‘It means “also known as,” ’ and then I started to really consciously realize that my mother had two different lives.”
But this awareness  wouldn’t be something that Lisa would have much  chance  to work through with her mother. “By the time I started to put things together, and get a wider sense of our family and the roles taking place in our home, [my parents] divorced.”
She doesn’t  remember Simone  and  Stroud  ever telling  her that they  were  splitting  up.  At this point, her  parents didn’t seem to know what to do with her. She had already spent third grade in Rutherfordton, North Carolina,  where she lived with her aunt Lucille for a year. But then one day her father was gone, and her mother was still touring. Lisa went to stay with the Sha- bazzes. Betty Shabazz couldn’t reach Simone, so eventually she enrolled Lisa in school with her own daughters.
It was confusing  and painful  for a nine-year-old girl to be abandoned by her  parents, but Lisa still  found  something  to be positive  about. “They  stayed  together ten years,” she said. “That’s a long time, so there had to be something fantastic to balance out all the other stuff. Maybe that was me.”
Her  love for her daughter may have been strong, but left to her own devices, Nina  Simone wasn’t always able to meet even the basic requirements of responsible parenting. “I went to the camp  where  we all went and I saw the director,” said Ilyasah Shabazz,  recalling  research  she  had  done  for  her  own  book. The  camp  director reminded her  that one  year, at the end  of the camp season, all the kids were gone, but Lisa was left there alone—her  mother hadn’t come to pick her up.
“When  he  mentioned it, I started to understand why she was with us,” said Shabazz. “And it was never anything that my mother ever talked about, we never even addressed it. She was with us for about six years, from when we were six to twelve or thirteen, on and off. I had no idea that her parents had split up. I had no idea.”
“The  breakup was really sad,” said Al Schackman. “There was so much  that they offered  each other in the relationship, and Nina was always fighting it. Nina was just against Andy pro- moting her and making  her work. He  would say, ‘Nina, you’re making  money.  We’ve got a career  here,  and that’s not gonna continue if you don’t nurture it.’ And she couldn’t care less, and she could get violent, she could get really physical. She came to resent Andy, and he represented a part of her giving of herself that she only wanted to give when she wanted to give it.”
For the rest of her life, Simone would blame Stroud’s role as her manager for their breakup. She resented how hard he pushed her and hated what she perceived as the grueling pace of work he insisted upon. “He treated me like a horse, a nonstop workaholic horse,” she said in 1999.
Stroud maintained that even if he had wanted to drive her harder,  there was only so much  he had control over. “All con- tracts were with her approval,” he said. “She had to approve ev- erything. I could never push her or make her do anything.
“But I took her out of the big booking agencies, because they were  taking  15 percent of the expense  money.  I took her  out of the clubs and put her in concerts where she made twice the amount in one night that she made in the clubs for one week, two shows a night. I made her have hit records.  That’s all that I did.”
The  people  who surrounded Nina  later in life would take a more nuanced  view of Andrew  Stroud and his ultimate impact on her career  and her attitude. According  to Gerrit De Bruin, Stroud was “the best husband  for Nina that she could have had. Andy was a good guy, and I know he loved Nina very much.”
Others agreed  that Stroud was one of the rare people  who could motivate Nina.  “He was a strong guy who could control her,  who  could  take care  of  her  and  her  career,”  said  Roger Nupie.  “And up to the very last years, she kept on calling him, and deep inside I think she still loved him.”
The most immediate need upon Andy’s departure was to de- cide on a new manager. Simone again opted to keep things close to home,  asking her brother and sometime band  member Sam Waymon to take over the job. Having toured and recorded with her in the last few years, he was in the unique position of being close at hand  and being someone Nina  trusted. And Sam, not surprisingly, had a less generous opinion  of Stroud.
“Andy was a son of a bitch,” said Sam. “I think he realized he had a good thing, a workhorse. I think he realized that she was not as knowledgeable about contracts, about the business end of the music industry.”
When Simone first offered  the job to Sam, he talked it over with their mother and indicated that he was aware of how severe her issues were becoming. “Mom, she’s my blood,” he told her, “and nobody  is going to hurt her as long as I’m around.  If I can be of some good to her, if I can keep those bastards away from her, if I can show her that things are not like she’s been used to, if I can show her that ‘if you keep hanging in there, Sis, day after day, you’ll see some  improvement, things will get better’—the paranoia, the voices that she hears.”
Al Schackman was not convinced.  “I always had a problem with Sam. . . . It was like a push-pull  relationship, and I really didn’t want any part of it. When Sam was around, I was not.”
In addition to the change in her business  structure, the di- vorce also meant a new chapter in Nina’s romantic life. In fact, she told Stephen Cleary that after splitting from Stroud she had the one real same-sex affair of her life. “I’ve had sexual relation- ships with one woman that I loved very much,” she said. “And it’s just one. I’m not bisexual. I prefer men. I’m essentially a het- erosexual person,  and when I left Andy is when I had this rela- tionship with this girl. But I loved that girl.”
Simone said that she was “stupid” to break  off the relation- ship. “I wouldn’t dance with her in public,” she said. “I was more hung up about music than I was about her.”
As she navigated this uncertainty in her love life, Simone had moved,  along with Lisa, to a Manhattan apartment near  Lin- coln Center. It was a different existence than they had in quiet Mount Vernon, but, at least  for  the time being,  mother and daughter were together—even during Nina’s frequent travels.
Perhaps not surprisingly  given all the upheaval  in her  life, she  released  only  one  album  in  1971,  the mostly  indifferent Here Comes the Sun, which again focused  on recent rock  songs (more Beatles, more Dylan) and was most notable for a radical up-tempo reworking  of “My Way.”  In Rolling Stone, Timothy Crouse  wrote  that “unfortunately,  neither Nina’s  grande dame intensity nor  her  old musical  bravado  find their way onto her new album.” He felt that her signature eclecticism had become a distraction, noting that “except on her very first LPs, Nina has seldom found more than two or three really good songs to put on each album.”
Her  biggest  priority  at this time seemed  to be  spending time in Barbados, where she continued her affair with Paul, the hotel porter with the motorcycle, and where the actor Geoffrey Holder was showing her the sights of the island. Though she was blissfully happy there—“All I saw was its beauty”—she felt that Paul, who refused  to come  visit her in New  York,  didn’t fully appreciate her  celebrity  and  was taking  their relationship  for granted.
“One day I got mad,” she said, “put my clothes on, took my daughter, and said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna show you who I am, Paul, you dirty  rat.’  I said, ‘Take  me to the prime  minister.’  Went, walked in, said, ‘My name is Nina Simone, this is my daughter,’ and before  I said scat—a southern term there—there were re- porters all around us. We were on the TV news that night.”
The prime minister—the first in the island’s history, in fact— was named  Errol  Barrow.  A member of the Royal  Air Force during  World War  II, he had helped  lead his country to inde- pendence from  Great Britain as a founder  of the Democratic Labour  Party and would later be named  one of ten official Na- tional Heroes of Barbados  by the country’s parliament. When he met Simone,  he was approximately fifty years old and had held the top position in Barbados since 1966.
Barrow was immediately taken with the island’s larger-than- life new celebrity, and he invited Nina and Lisa to live in one of the cottages on his beach estate. A servant named  Mrs. Drake was delegated to take care of them. He would come to the cot- tage every night about one o’clock, when he finished  the day’s work. In light of this luxury and the attention from the island nation’s most powerful man, Paul the hotel porter was soon left in the dust; Simone and Barrow began an affair.
Simone  returned to the island every few months, breezing past customs and being picked  up in a waiting Mercedes. She begged Barrow to divorce his wife, which he refused to do, but when he came to visit her in New  York—showing the respect that Paul refused to grant—she decided that she would officially move to Barbados and live there full-time.
“I moved everything down to Barbados—my piano, the rugs, the furniture, everything—and didn’t tell him I was moving,” she said. “I took the stuff to [luxury resort] Sam Lord’s Castle, and I didn’t see hide nor hair of him. Someone came to the Cas- tle and said I had to post a bond  to live there, that the Queen didn’t want any foreigners  there. I somehow  got the bond,  but I was surprised  that Errol Barrow didn’t come to my aid at that time. To  my surprise,  he wasn’t particularly happy  that I had moved down to Barbados. So I rented a cottage on the estate of Sam Lord’s Castle and moved into that.”
Barrow moved her into another house, but she became frus- trated with the limits of their relationship. Though he treated her  with  genuine  affection  and  tenderness,  she hated that he wouldn’t say that he loved her. She sought his constant atten- tion in dramatic ways. One day, she stripped naked in a meadow, just to get him to run after her. “He was chasing me all over,” she said, “the prime minister chasing this naked woman, and he cooked  for me that night and made  Chinese  food,  and sang a song called ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill.’ ”
“Out of all her boyfriends, Prime Minister Errol Barrow was the only one I liked,” said Lisa. “He was very sweet, very kind, and he was different from my dad. His energy was different. I remember when he would come around,  I always felt good, he was very nice to me, and that wasn’t something that happened a lot with people at that time.”
“I think [the Errol affair] was all theater,” said Schackman. “I think he was infatuated with a star. And she was very mag- netic, but it wasn’t this wild love affair. She was having fun with it, she was having a good time. We went dancing at night, swim- ming in the sea, and it was good, it was good for her.”
Whether the relationship was ultimately impossible  to sus- tain, as much  fantasy  as reality,  Al Schackman captures  the good humor of this era in a story from his first visit to Barbados, which he arranged  as a time to rehearse  with Simone. Upon his arrival, she had asked him, with little explanation, if he could change the locks on her doors because someone had been com- ing around  the house and scaring her, so he went into town and got a new tumbler and new keys. When he got back, Simone was gone and he set to work alone. As he was fiddling with the lock, a Town  Car drove  up to the house and a black man got out. He walked over to Schack- man and asked, in a British accent, if Miss Simone  was home. Schackman replied that she was out, prompting the man to ask who Schackman was. “I’m her guitarist. I’m a friend of hers,” he said, adding with some suspicion,  “Who  are you?” The stranger said casually to tell her  that Errol  came  by; then the stranger returned to his car, and left.
A few nights later, Simone  and Schackman were invited to a dinner  reception at the prime  minister’s  mansion.  They  ar- rived and went through the reception line, mingling with well- dressed guests.
“I meet this ambassador, I meet this minister and stuff like that,” recalled  Schackman. “I meet the prime  minister’s wife, a lovely woman, and then the prime  minister. I go up to shake hands  and look at him. He  looks at me and grins. And I said,
‘Oh, no.’ And he says, ‘That’s all right, my friend.’ I said, ‘I’m so sorry. I had no . . . how could I know?’
“He said, ‘That’s right. What can any of us know with Nina Simone?’ ”

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