Paris and Trois Mailletz Saved Nina Simone (Part 3)
This final part of this series focuses on the downturn of Nina Simone’s career and how she was saved in Paris by Jacques Boni, the benevolent owner/director of the Trois Mailletz club where she performed in the early 1980s.
Nina Simone, the legendary jazz artist and pianist, recorded her first album, Little Girl Blue, when she was age 25. The album was a surprise hit and sold well and, in her own words, “It made me into an instant celebrity” during the late 1950s. Elton John is quoted as saying that Simone went on to become the “greatest female artist of the 20th century.”
In case you haven’t read it, Simone’s rags-to-riches story is chronicled in my previously posted article linked here, headlined as What Happened at Trois Mailletz, Miss Simone? (Part 2).
This final part of the series tells Simone’s story going the other way – from riches to rags! By 1982, Simone was still a world-famous artist and was approaching 50 years of age, but she had mostly reached rock bottom as described in my well-researched story below. However, Simone was given a second chance at that time by Jacques Boni, the benevolent owner/director of the Trois Mailletz club in Paris – providing Simone with an opportunity to take control of her life and career after others had mismanaged it over the years. This part of the series portrays the untold story of Simone’s escapades in Paris during the early 1980s and Jacques’ goodwill that allowed Nina to regain her footing in life – all of which revolved around the renowned Trois Mailletz club in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
What Happened to Nina Simone?
People still wonder today: What caused Nina Simone’s stellar career, which peaked in the 1970s, to go into a tailspin? What caused Simone to go from being a world celebrity to being an inconsistent performer in Paris less than a decade later? How did Simone go from the limelight of Carnegie Hall to the modest trappings of the Trois Mailletz underground club in Paris – a place where she nonetheless found security and the will to find her way again, resulting in her late 1980s resurgence?
One thing that didn’t hamper Simone career was drugs, although some thought she had a drug problem. Simone was often compared to Billie Holiday – the famous American jazz singer and songwriter, who died from drug use and alcoholism in 1959, when Simone’s career was just taking off. Simone (who didn’t like being compared to Holiday) denied that she had a drug problem, a claim supported by many others.
“People might have thought Nina was a drug addict the way she acted,” says her longtime agent Raymond Gonzalez, who lives in Paris. “But in my 20 years with her, I never saw her do drugs. Nina would fire anyone caught with drugs or alcohol.”
While Simone’s downfall was a complex mixture of unfortunate circumstances, the main problem that haunted Nina during her rise and fall was her mental instability. This mental illness often gave the appearance that she was on drugs. Simone would have sudden outbursts on stage, often berating people in the audience who were making noise (which was an insult to her hush-hush classical piano upbringing). Sometimes, Simone would walk off stage in mid-concert for no apparent reason, and at one point in her career, she wouldn’t show up for concerts altogether. She got into arguments with fans after concerts and was famous for her run-ins with hotel staff for any number of reasons.
“Nina was simply nuts,” Gonzalez says, in a way not to be demeaning. It was said by others that Simone had security guards “not to protect her from the public, but to protect the public from her.”
Simone’s mental illness surfaced as early as 1967, when she was found in her dressing room before a concert at Lincoln Center putting brown shoe polish in her hair, so she could be brown all over.
“I was in a state where I was half outside myself, observing my peculiar behavior from a safe distance,” Simone writes in her autobiography I Put a Spell on You, regarding the episode at Lincoln Center. “At the same time, wave after wave of tiredness broke over me and I felt like any minute, I would fall asleep for a hundred years.”
Nina and her husband and manager at the time, Andy Stroud, did not seek medical help then, thinking it was a temporary episode; however, what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder would be a lifelong affliction.
"Nina had her own good reasons for keeping her pressing health issues under wraps,” writes friend Sylvia Hampton in the book Nina Simone: Break Down and Let It All Out. “She didn’t want people to feel sorry for her, she was not one to play the victim. Essentially, she grew up at a time when mental illness wasn't openly debated. When another member of her family showed symptoms of emotional instability, he was swiftly installed in an institution. Born into a different generation, she could have been open and honest about her need for rest and medication. As it was, it became a burden that she had to bear alone. She may well have subscribed to the view that with genius comes madness, that her short spells of insanity were an inevitable consequence of her astonishing musical dexterity.”
Says Simone's longtime friend Gerrit de Bruin in the same book: "Nina was sometimes difficult, aggressive and downright impossible, and often her behavior was shameful, but I know this was not Nina. It was just the chemical imbalance in her brain that caused this behavior. I knew she was deeply ashamed following these outbursts, when she was back to normal. Can you image how hard a life it must have been trying to deal with a disease that left you feeling such remorse? Personally, there has always been the question that Nina was a genius, but would she have been a genius without her disease? I don't know, but I'm sure her music would have been less intense.”
Sam Waymon, Simone’s brother and a manager later in her career, says in the same book citing one particular telling episode: “We were in Paris. We were in the limousine. Nina had multiple personalities. I knew them all, each and every one of them. She was totally out of control. One of her personalities had taken control. It sounded like a man. It was a deeper voice than I have. We put her in the hospital. She was diagnosed with multiple personalities. I sat beside her bed in the hospital every night, for about eight days or ten days. Multiple personalities, depression, bipolar – which was not the name back then. Everybody’s bipolar today, but it wasn’t really discussed that much at that time.”
Simone reluctantly took medication for her condition only after her time at Trois Mailletz. Her mental problems were only known to a small group of intimates, and kept out of public view for many years.
Simone’s mental troubles were compounded by her marriage to Stroud in 1960 – a former police detective who retired to become her recording agent, and they had a daughter, Lisa Celeste, in 1961. Simone initially felt safe with Stroud due to his police training and they initially had a storybook family life in Mount Vernon, New York. However, the marriage turned into a personal hell for Simone, as she received regular and sometimes vicious beatings from Stroud.
Simone’s daughter, now Lisa Simone Kelly, describes the beatings Simone received from Andy Stroud in the Netflix movie What Happened, Miss Simone?: “He could be a bully and he could be very mean, and she was on the receiving end of that, more times than she should have been. I think they were both nuts. She stayed with him. She had this love affair with fire.”
To compound this savage treatment by her husband after Simone had divorced him, she was physically attacked in a London hotel room in 1978 by a con man who claimed he would be Simone’s sponsor and agent. The man beat and robbed Simone in the hotel room and left her unconscious. When Simone came to all alone, she tried to commit suicide in a moment of desperation. “I took hold of my bottle of sleeping pills,” Simone writes. “I counted out thirty-five and took them, one by one.”
Fortunately, a short time later, the hotel staff discovered the unconscious Simone and rushed her to the hospital. “I woke up in the hospital with a sore stomach, my neck in a brace and all the papers full of news of my suicide attempt,” Simone writes. “I lay there thinking: I was glad I hadn’t died.”
In addition, Simone’s part in the USA civil rights movement destroyed her career commercially, which left her in financial straits due to very few bookings. Simone’s civil rights activism scared away promoters, and radio stations would not play her revolutionary songs.
Simone would ask crowds at concerts whether they "were ready to kill if necessary" for the black power cause. Simone got to know Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Andrew Young and other civil rights leaders of the time. Simone lived next door to the controversial Malcolm X in New York and met often with him and his friends to discuss the politics of the day. She once told Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally they both attended, "I'm not nonviolent."
“Nina was blackballed, no radio station in the South (USA) would play her, and that’s where record sales were large,” agent Gonzalez says.
Simone quickly penned her most famous civil rights song, “Mississippi Goddam,” after a 1963 church bombing in the South, USA, which killed four young black girls who had finished a Bible study session. “I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself,” Simone said then. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”
However, many black singers during the racially tense 1960s in the USA steered clear of the protest songs that Simone was known for. Her radical songs included “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings of black people in the South, USA; and “Young, Gifted and Black,” an anthem to engage African-American people to learn their history and culture (it peaked at No. 8 on the USA R&B chart).
"I could sing to help my people and that became the mainstay of my life,” Simone said. “Not classical piano, not classical music, not even popular music, but civil rights music.”
But Simone became obsessed with the civil rights movement to the detriment of her career.
Simone’s daughter says in What Happened, Miss Simone?: “My mother said that after she sang that song [“Mississippi Goddam”], she got so angry that her voice broke. It never, ever returned to its former octave,”
“Some of the songs I sang have hurt my career,” Simone says in the Netflix movie. “All of the controversial songs, the industry decided to punish me for, and they put a boycott on all my records.”
By the mid-1970s, the mentally instable Simone was overwhelmed. Her growing bitterness over American racism, her disputes with the record companies she called "pirates," and her troubles with the USA’s IRS tax collection agency – all led to Simone to suddenly to leave her husband Stroud and the USA. Simone’s tax problems were came about due to her divorce to Stroud, who up to then had handled all her financial matters, and her failure to pay due taxes resulted in her losing her house in New York and her record royalties being garnished.
Thus, Simone moved to Liberia in 1974 to escape her turbulent life in the USA. She basically dropped out of the world music scene. At the time, Liberia was a state in West Africa established by citizens of the United States as a colony for former African-American slaves (it’s now independent). Simone says in interviews that she enjoyed her time in Liberia away from the pressures of constantly performing and travelling from concert to concert. However, this resulted in her brilliant career being stalled, her financial situation becoming dire, and her mental condition fluctuating.
Jacques Boni’s Steadying Influence in Paris As Simone Starts Anew
It all led to Simone to moving to Paris in the early 1980s to start her career anew, but she had little money and no direction. “I had no money. I was left high and dry,” Simone said in interviews. “I went to Paris thinking that I could resume my career. I did it alone.”
“Nina wanted to be her own manager,” says Gonzalez, who became Simone’s agent later after her great experiment in Paris.
In 1982, Jacques Boni, the owner/director of the Trois Mailletz club in the Latin Quarter of Paris, entered Nina Simone’s life when she moved to the City of Light, and his benevolence not only saved Nina from a deeper fall from grace but steadied Simone so her career could flourish later in the 1980s. Jacques gave Simone the support during one of the lowest points of her career, which allowed her to survive the difficult times and later become a worldwide phenomenon again.
“People don’t like to talk about Nina Simone and Trois Mailletz,” Jacques says. “They say we were a small part of her career. I think they are jealous. I got to know Nina Simone, a musical great; they didn’t know her.”
While Boni says Simone had some memorable performances at Trois Mailletz during her time there from 1982 to 1983, transforming his Parisian underground venue into a magical jazz club on occasion, he also saw the downside of the often troubled star. Jacques goes as far as to say that Nina “was completely lost” at times during her engagement at Trois Mailletz. “Nina did not sing well over the year,” Jacques says. “She only had several great performances. She didn’t have the same voice.”
And when Simone exhibited her often outlandish behavior, Jacques remained calm. “I have some stories about Nina Simone,” Jacques says, “I did my best to help her.”
Jacques’ Rocky Start with Simone
Shortly after Simone moved to Paris in the early 1980s, Jacques heard from an acquaintance that Nina was playing in Troyes, south of Paris, and was looking for work. “She needed the money,” Jacques was told. Jacques was a little skeptical that a famous American recording artist would be broke after likely earning millions of dollars in her career, but he soon found out it was true. According to biographer Brun-Lambert, Simone was attacked by a gang in Troyes after a concert and the gang members took off with her meager wages.
Shortly after the Troyes’ episode, Jacques arranged to meet Simone at the hotel where she was staying in Paris, the Novotel at Porte de Bagnolet. Simone had decided to be her own agent and book herself into small clubs until she got established rather than work with any promoters, who she distrusted at the time. “I had no management because I wanted to do things on my own, be responsible to no one,” Simone writes.
At the hotel, Simone brazenly broke the ice by telling Jacques: "Let's go and eat in the hotel restaurant, you're buying!" In the restaurant, Jacques offered Simone a contract to perform at his Trois Mailletz club, thinking she would follow in the footsteps of many jazz legends who had played at the club in an earlier era. But the two got off to a rocky start during contract negotiations. Simone insisted that she wouldn’t sign the contract unless she got the equivalent of a $4,000 cash advance.
“She looked at me, furious, and shouted ‘Give me the money,’ ” Jacques says. Simone then abruptly lifted up the table, which was filled with plates of food, and threw it at Jacques, injuring his finger.
“The restaurant fell completely silent. But I stayed cool,” Jacques says, recounting the story. “I could tell she was broke. When she calmed down, I proposed to start over. We talked business and we came to an agreement.” Jacques proceeded to give Simone a cash advance and she signed for eight days; the $1,000 advance was more than the contract was worth, Jacques says. Simone kept the cash close to her, putting it in a money belt.
“Jacques was in love [platonically] with Nina,” says agent Gonzalez, who was introduced to Simone by Jacques. “She had a glorious past but she had hit upon hard times. Destiny happened between the two. Jacques loves artists. When he sees someone who is weak – and Nina was weak because she couldn’t help herself – Jacques stepped in and helped her.”
Simone signed a series of short contracts with Jacques and played at Trois Mailletz for one year ending in 1983, usually accompanied by the house band during her performances. “Nina would sing ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ [Don’t Leave Me] when she wanted another eight-day contract,” Jacques says.
Nina Simone at Trois Mailletz
What did the Parisian life of Nina Simone consist of in those days? "A succession of hotel rooms, no friends to speak of except for Jacques Boni, no steady lovers, just one-night stands where Nina turned into a sexual predator, sometimes offering those men money in exchange for a night of passion, occasionally getting ripped off in the process,” Brun-Lambert answers in Simone’s biography.
But there is room for debate on what really happened during Simone’s stay in Paris while at Trois Mailletz. “Jacques’ image needs to be uplifted,” says Gonzalez. “If it weren’t for Jacques, there’s no telling where Nina would have ended up; he did everything he could for Nina. Jacques hasn’t been portrayed correctly; some of what has been said about Nina at Trois Mailletz is B.S.”
Indeed, in the Netflix documentary in Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone?, there is mention of Simone playing at Trois Mailletz and then a short profile of her time in Paris.
“In 1982, [Nina] was in Paris, living in a very small apartment, hardly with any money,” says photographer and longtime friend Gerrit de Bruin in the documentary. “She did concerts of four hours long at Trois Mailletz, that nightclub, and she got a few hundred dollars a night. And that was the worst period.
“I visited her in that little apartment [in Paris] and it was so dirty, so I cleaned it all up,” de Bruin continues, “ 'Nina, you can't live like this.' But at that moment she was still uncontrollable."
Also quoted in the Netflix movie is Al Shackman, Simone’s guitarist: “When I saw her in Paris, she was like a street urchin dressed in rags. I couldn't believe what was happening, and I was really, really sad."
Even Simone herself reflects negatively on this time in her autobiography: "I was working every night in a small cafe about $300 a night. I was desperate and no one believed that I was there. I was too big to be there. No one came to see me. … I had fallen from grace.
“I figured once people knew I was there [Trois Mailletz],” Simone continues, “they’d come to see me play, the place would sell out and I’d get offered something better. The fans I expected, the crowds which would lift me … into the Olympia Theater [in Paris] and beyond, never materialized. Many of my French fans – and I know because they told me – simply didn't believe it was me playing [at Trois Mailletz]. Or if they did believe it, they thought I was going through some private troubles and, in a sense, didn't want to intrude on my grief.”
Those who dispute these accounts of Simone’s time at Trois Mailletz include owner/director Boni; Simone’s agent Gonzalez; and biographer Brun-Lambert. How the perception of this time in Simone’s life became so turned upside down is not clear. “Going from some of the greatest music halls in the world to a smaller club in Paris had to be downer for Nina,” Gonzalez says. Perhaps this great change of fortune caused Simone and others who later came into her life to emphasize the negative to a degree that wasn’t true.
The following are accounts from those closest to Nina at the time (including Jacques and Gonzalez) that should set the record straight on Simone’s days at Trois Mailletz; it reveals a different story line than what has been portrayed to the public:
- Simone’s target time for playing at Trois Mailletz was one hour (and sometimes she finished in 45 minutes). So Simone wasn’t overworked and was never known to play four hours straight ever in her career.
- As for Simone’s living quarters, Jacques went out of his way to lease a nice, three-bedroom apartment for Nina across from Parc Montsouris, acting as her guarantor, and furnished it himself. “Jacques got Nina a nice apartment, in front of a park,” Gonzalez recalls. “If it wasn't for Jacques, Nina wouldn’t have been able to get an apartment on her own.” Jacques says the apartment was nicely furniture (and clean) when he leased it, but the furniture was removed at one point, and he had to pay for its loss.
- Simone’s clothes were somewhat ratty at the time but this was no fault of Jacques’. “That’s what she wore,” Gonzalez says. “A tattered look. Or Nina would wear a beautiful gown but have wine stains on it.”
- As for her pay, Jacques confirms that Trois Mailletz sold out every night when Simone performed and Nina got all the money collected at the door. The club made its money off drinks as well as food in the restaurant upstairs. “When Nina was scheduled to play at Trois Mailletz,” Jacques says, “the phone would ring every 30 seconds and they would take the first 150 reservations [the venue’s capacity] and that was it.” Thus, Simeon’s pay at Trois Mailletz was worth the equivalent of thousands of dollars, not hundreds, per night.
Writes Simone biographer Brun-Lambert: ”Jacques Boni is a well-known character in Paris' Latin Quarter. He bought Trois Mailletz in 1977. During its first few years in business, Trois Mailletz didn’t do too well. Not until it hosted Nina Simone in 1982 and sold out night after night. She made a pretty good living with Jacques Boni, not least because a ticket to her concerts cost 100 francs [about $35 in today's money], the pianist making between ten and fifteen thousand [francs] a night depending on attendance, which was excellent considering the capacity of the venue.” That translates to a nightly total sum of roughly $3,500 in today’s money.
“People criticize Jacques for having Nina play at Trois Mailletz, but she couldn’t handle more at the time,” agent Gonzalez says.
Writes biographer Brun-Lambert: “The audience would come in the stifling heat to watch Nina’s inconsistent concerts [at Trois Mailletz] that featured the same repertoire night after night, seeing her randomly alternate between magic and mediocrity, scandals and genius, anger and moments of pure grace. By the end of winter 1982, Nina had regained a semblance of stability.”
Simone Tests Jacques’ Patience
“There is no shortage of absurd, incoherent, funny, even violent stories from this time. Nina needed the energy and attention of others in order to survive; that was her poison,” writes Brun-Lambert.
“Nina would eat your energy,” Jacques concurs.
The following stories (funny, shocking and otherwise) are according to Jacques’ recollection (confirmed by Gonzalez and Brun-Lamert’s biography on Simone). While these do point to the mental illnesses that beset Simone during her life, Jacques and the others involved were unaware of her condition at the time, and Simone never saw a doctor or psychiatrist to their knowledge while she was working at Trois Mailletz.
Long 'Taxi Ride' and the Gun: One weekend, Nina visited Switzerland. She called Jacques from the Geneva airport screaming, saying she couldn’t make it back to Paris to perform at Trois Mailletz that night because the plane was full. Nina reportedly then had a fit of hysteria and tried to force her way onto the plane to Paris before security stopped her. Simone eventually showed up at Trois Mailletz three days later. She had caught a ride to Paris with a stranger, who Simone had promised to pay 5,000 francs for the trip. Jacques paid for the unexpected and extravagant “taxi bill,” which totaled over $1,000 in today’s currency.
Another version of this story (by Jacques) is that Jacques wasn’t aware that Simone was in Switzerland when he promised to pay for a taxi to transport the singer to Trois Mailletz (his assumption being that Nina was in Paris somewhere). However, when Simone arrived three days later with the huge “taxi bill” (from the stranger who drove her from Switzerland), Jacques initially refused to pay. Simone, according to Jacques, then pulled out a gun demanding that he pay the bill. Jacques took cover and Simone fired the gun in the street. Jacques eventually calmed Simone down, paid the bill and smoothed over the situation. Simone played the next night at Trois Mailletz.
"Jacques Boni laughs about it now," Brun-Lambert writes of the taxi episode. "He laughs with that special tenderness he feels for this woman that he took into his den and, who despite all his efforts to steady her, couldn't stop herself from diving into trouble head first."
Outstanding drunk performance: During her time in Paris, Simone agreed to play a concert at the local Assas University at its annual student council festival. Jacques negotiated Simone’s contract, setting the ticket price at 100 francs each, with Simone getting a fair cut. Jacques also convinced the university to stipulate that Simone was to play two 45-minute sets, knowing that Nina often cut her shows short.
At the Assas festival, Simone played one set lasting some 30 minutes and was ready to call it a night, despite her contract to play two sets of 45 minutes each. Jacques used his powers of persuasion and eventually convinced Simone to play the second set. However, during the break after the first set, Simone drank a whole bottle of cognac, according to Jacques, got drunk, and then sang the second lasting an hour drunk. “She may have been depressed,” Jacques says.
Nonetheless, Brun-Lambert writes that Nina gave a stellar performance at Assas in front of an audience of 2,000 and got a standing ovation. And people from the Olympia happened to be in the hall, and after her performance offered her a gig at the famed Olympia in Paris in early 1983. Her eventual performance Olympia didn’t go well. "Nina was still too fragile to cope with the pressures of a major event," Brun-Lambert writes. "In the space of 10 months, moving from the cellar of Trois Mailletz to treading the boards of the Olympia was a challenge that Nina wasn't psychosocially fit to be facing."
Police protection: Off stage, Simone’s shenanigans kept Jacques on his toes. “Nina was horrible and persistently in fights,” Jacques says. “People would fight with her and get upset. I didn’t get upset. I wouldn’t take it personally. I was like a wall; I was indifferent.” Jacques provided cover for Simone because she was the star singer as his club, but also due to his kind-hearted nature; he didn’t realize at the time he was Simone’s lifesaver.
The local police knew Simone worked at Trois Mailletz and, out of courtesy, called Jacques whenever the star was in trouble. Simone was never arrested in Paris thanks to Jacques’ interventions. Once, the police called Jacques to say Simone was having trouble at a local restaurant she frequented: she had skipped out on the bill. Jacques came to the rescue and paid.
Other times, Jacques was called by the police who reported Simone was having fights with the staff of hotels she frequented, and Jacques would arrive and again smooth things over.
Sleeping with the cook: Simone told Jacques one day that she wanted to sleep with the cook at Trois Mailletz. Jacques obliged as he often plays the matchmaker, a natural role for a club owner. Shortly thereafter, Jacques set the night in motion, and the Nina and the cook two spend the night together.
The very next day, Nina told Jacques that the cook was not well-endowed and lacked performance. Despite some whispering that Simone was a lesbian, Jacques says she had many male lovers at her hotels of choice. “She liked men,” he says. “But the men she kept would steal her money. That’s why she kept her money in a [money] belt and slept with it.”
Sunday night gun fight. Simone was supposed to sing at Trois Mailletz one Sunday night but didn't show up at the club. "Every day it seemed we made a new deal," Jacques says. Jacques went to Simone's hotel to see if she would sing that night. He knocked on the door several times. Simone shouted at him from behind the door and then suddenly came out of the hotel room brandishing a gun.
"I smiled," Jacques says, "and said to Nina, 'Don't be so silly.' " Simone lowered the gun and smiled at Jacques. She sang later that night at Trois Mailletz.
Fortunate absence: Nina’s troubles helped Jacque on one occasion. The police came to Trois Mailletz one night to investigate if Simone had the proper working papers (which were pending). Fortunately for Jacques, Simone didn’t show up for work that night due to a fight with a boyfriend. The police left and didn’t return.
Expensive road shows: Occasionally, Simone would take time off from Trois Mailletz and play on the road. Other promoters and show directors “stole from her,” Jacques says, and they charged her money for room and board, drinks, etc., so she didn’t have any money left after her concerts. “She’d come back broke,” says Jacques, who covered for her on many occasions and usually didn’t get paid back.
Car payment: When Simone’s last Trois Mailletz contract expired in the spring of 1983, she travelled to London for a concert, abandoning her apartment (in Jacques’ name) with all the furniture removed (given away by Simone). Jacques was left holding the bill. When Jacques saw Simone months later, he told the singer that she owed him the equivalent of 5,000 euros. Simone repaid Jacques by giving him a used car, which Jacques says was worth maybe half the bill.
Jacques has other stories about Simone that are even more risqué, such as a chain-smoking “manager” of Nina’s who suggested that Simone pay her rent to Jacques through sex – Jacques declined and covered that month’s rent. When telling the stories, Jacques seems a little amused, but somewhat proud, that he had these experiences with one of the great jazz performers of all time.
In the end, however, Simone accused Jacques of underpaying her and not providing adequate housing (possibly so she could seek asylum in other countries), although Jacques says this was not true.
Jacques’ Final Encounter
Jacques’ last encounter with Simone was in 1984, when Nina called Jacques and asked him to join her for a vacation in Trinidad in the Caribbean. Jacques says he agreed at the time but later totally forgot about the planned rendezvous. “I was busy,” Jacques says. “Nina wanted me to be her agent but I didn’t have the time.” Simone was deeply offended when Jacques did not show up in Trinidad, and he never heard from her again. Jacques says he never had a love affair with Simone.
Simone did take that holiday to Trinidad without Jacques and was convinced afterward by friend Gerrit de Bruin to move to Nijmegen, Holland. There in Holland, a doctor examined Simone and prescribed that she take a new medication call Trilafron. Trilafron is used in the management of psychotic disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and agitated depression.
Simone and her newly formed entourage in Holland were told that the medication would have side effects, including affecting her motor skills and voice. “Her voice is going to start to slur and her piano abilities will decline,” they were told. “You can deal with that or you can deal with Nina probably damaging herself or someone else.” Simone agreed to take the medication.
Says daughter Lisa in the Netflix movie in retrospect: “I suppose that medication enabled her to perform and fulfill the business dealings that were taking place, so that her career could get back on track. But there were times when I questioned that. You know, what about her heart?"
In 1987, Simone’s career did get back on track in great part because a relatively obscure song, "My Baby Just Cares for Me" from her debut 1958 album, was used in a UK television commercial for Chanel No. 5 perfume. Simone said in an interview at the time: “When “My Baby Just Cares For Me” came along, I said, 'I have to take this opportunity now to go all over the world, because this is my last chance. And so I worked very hard to take advantage of my second coming, because it was my last time as far as I was concerned."
The Chanel No. 5 commercial led to a rerelease of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” which stormed to No. 4 on the UK's singles chart in 1987, giving her a brief surge in popularity in the UK. Her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, was published in 1992. She recorded her last album, A Single Woman, in 1993.
Late in her career, Simone reconnected with audiences, who came to see her due to her legend, not necessary for her singing which continued to degrade as time went on. “They stood and cheered anyway,” one reviewer proclaimed at the time. “It was the legend we were continually standing up for rather than the actual performance.”
Simone said in an interview during that period: “My personal life is a shambles. I've had a few love affairs and would love to be married, but everything has had to be sacrificed for the music. ... I have suffered."
The Unique Voice That Didn’t Last
Simone had a distinctive voice – forceful, deep and raspy – and it made her a unique figure in jazz. When listening to famous jazz compilations (do a search on YouTube), you can instantly distinguish when it’s Simone singing.
“I was interested in was conveying an emotional message,” Simone says in the Miss Simone movie, "so sometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream."
An NPR Music review proclaims: "Nina Simone's voice may have had a limited range, but its unique power and melancholy made for a legendary effect when paired with her genre-crossing piano,"
If you listen to the song “Strange Fruit,” about lynching of black people in the South of the USA up to the 1960s, you will be instantly caught up in Simone’s hypnotic, haunting voice.
Simone drank liters of lemon tea to lubricate her voice as her career progressed. But agent Gonzalez said she didn't do enough to take care of her voice. In many recorded interviews, for example, she is seen smoking, which was not considered a vice back then, but still a professional singer like Simone have must felt the effects of the fumes.
Gonzalez says Simone refused to do voice exercises. "Nina had ups and downs with her voice,” he says. “The voice is an instrument and Nina very rarely did vocal exercises. We tried and tried; she took voice lessons for two weeks once but stopped. She didn’t take care of her voice at all.”
Once a “vibrant and husky contralto,” according to Simone’s first album’s liner notes, her voice during her later years was described as “a glowering alto...cracked and sometimes off pitch,” “a shadow of what it had been in her prime,” and “eroded…dry and blunt…near-parody.”
Still, Simone’s shows late in her career were packed anyway. Many fans over the years remained so loyal that they were not discouraged by her changed voice, extreme and inconsistent politics, embarrassing behavior, and even no-shows. Writes Nadine Cohodas in Princess Noire about Simone’s later years: “Nina didn’t sing like she used to and her piano work, which could be fierce and inspiring, sometimes did not approach either. But if you came to simply be in the presence of Nina Simone ... the high priestess, the self-proclaimed creator of classical jazz, you more than likely came away satisfied.”
Simone’s Final Act
Simone moved to the south of France in 1993, but she never stopped performing. She played a series of performances in Paris at the Olympia and continued to tour around the world, including a show in her late 60s at Carnegie Hall.
In the end, Simone died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rout in France in 2003 at age 70, having been diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years earlier. Her funeral service was attended by singers Miriam Makeba and Patti LaBelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis and hundreds of others. Two days before her death, Simone was ironically awarded an honorary diploma from Curtis Institute, the music school that declined to admit her when she was 19 years old.
More Popular in Death?
The three films on Nina Simone being released in 2015/2016 are just a part of a renewed interest in the singer, and a Nina Simone tribute album was released in July 2015
Artists who have cited Simone’s musical influence include Kanye West, Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill.
I think Nina Simone’s legend will only grow. Her time at Trois Mailletz, under the watch and care of Jacques, will grow in stature as well, and in these retrospective times become a positive part of her incredible story that needs no Hollywood embellishment. Thanks to Jacques Boni, Simone’s time in Paris should be considered the point when she survived the difficult times that paved the way for her comeback. Without Jacques’ guidance and compassion, Simone’s time in Paris could have been the ending point of her story, like it was for The Doors singer Jim Morrison. Instead it led to a new era – a new renaissance if you will – for Simone who is now recognized in the pages of jazz history. Long live Nina Simone’s spirit and incredible life!
Previously (follow links):
Nina Simone, the one and only
Famous Quotes By/About Nina Simone
Nina Simone famous quote: “There's no other purpose, so far as I'm concerned, for us except to reflect the times, the situations around us and the things we're able to say through our art, the things that millions of people can't say. I think that's the function of an artist and, of course, those of us who are lucky leave a legacy so that when we're dead, we also live on. That's people like Billie Holiday and I hope that I will be that lucky.”
Daughter Lisa Simone’s famous quote: “She was happiest doing music. I think that was her salvation. That's the one thing that she didn't have to think about. When she sat at the piano, her fingers could fly. She was a genius. She was brilliant, and that brilliance shone through no matter what she was going through. Even into her old age, she was brilliant.”
Elton John quote: "The greatest female artist of the 20th century.”
Nina Simone's I Loves You Porgy
Nina Simone - My Baby Just Cares for Me (Not Now Music) (Full Album)
- Simone, Nina and Cleary, Stephen, I Put a Spell on You, the Autobiography of Nina Simone, First Da Capo Press, 1993
- Hampton, Sylvia and Nathan, David, Nina Simone: Break Down and Let It All Out, Sanctuary Publishing, Ltd., 2004
- “Biography,” The Official Home of Nina Simone, The Estate of Nina Simone, 2015
- Luck, Adam, “My mummy never cared for me”, Mail Online, July 2014
- "Nina Simone," Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015, Web, May 11, 2015
- Hampp, Andrew, “Sundance Review: 'What Happened, Miss Simone' Details Nina Simone's Troubled Life & Legacy”, Billboard, January 2015
- Mike Zwerin, “Nina Simone: An Appreciation”, Culturekiosque Publications Ltd., May 2, 2003
- Loudermilk, A, “Nina Simone & the Civil Rights Movement: Protest at Her Piano, Audience at Her Feet”, Journal of International Women's Studies, Volume 14, Issue 3, Article 9, July 2013
- Pierpont, Claudia Roth, “A Raised Voice,” The New Yorker, American Annals, August 11, 2014
- "The Amazing Nina Simone: She Wanted To Lead the World", L.A. Record, June 19, 2015