We’re already hard at work on FADER #79, our annual Icon Issue. You’ll have to wait to see who we’ve chosen this year when the issue hits stands in May. But today, Nina Simone’s birthday, we’re revisiting our 2006 Icon Issue, featuring stories of Simone’s life from her friends, daughter and husband as well as Antony, Alicia Keys, M.I.A and Jill Scott.
Only an artist—a musician—as troubled and fierce as Nina Simone could capture so turbulent an era in American and transcend it, each song—each solitary note—a timeless roar of ecstatic renewal and furious damnation.
AL SHACKMAN (Nina Simone’s friend) : Some friends of Nina’s were in New Hope, Pennsylvania in 1957 and on a Saturday night they came and heard a set of mine with my trio, then told Nina that it would be incredible if the two of us played together. Nina reluctantly agreed. I set up on the bandstand and she sat down and just looked at me for a second then went into her first piece without telling me what song it was or what key it was in. But I knew what key it was in—we both had perfect pitch. She started out with “Good King Wenceslas”, but it’s a long introduction to her song “Little Girl Blue”. She started a fugue on it, and I heard exactly what she was doing and came in on my guitar and followed her, playing a third above her like a harmony. Then she looked up. She did like a two-part invention and I played a counterpoint to that and it reached a crescendo and really went right into, “Sit there and count your fingers….” With all the intensity of the music going on, she was singing this little ballad. I was floored. And she was floored too, because she couldn’t lose me. But by the time we got to the downbeat—BAM. It was a lifelong thing. You know, she’s my sister.
She was a Southern girl—that’s the one thing I always saw in her. You know, born in Tryon, North Carolina. She would put on such airs of sophistication in the company of presidents and really important people worldwide, but if she didn’t like something, when we were leaving she’d say, “Aww sheeeit. What was that like? We could have really done something tonight.” Like go hear some music or go dancing.
When I got back from a stint on the West Coast with Burt Bacharach, that’s when our musical relationship got real serious. That’s when Chris White [bass] and Bobby Hamilton [drums] came into the picture. She had met Andrew Stroud, and she married him—they bought a lovely home in Mount Vernon. We were rehearsing so much that I was living with my wife in what Nina called her treehouse, a little apartment above her garage. At that point Andy was managing her career quite well. We’d be rehearsing at her house and she had a rule that if anybody made a mistake you had to repeat the whole thing ten times. And you couldn’t say anything—there’s no such thing as, “But, Nina….”
She would rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, but then, at some point in her life, frankly she was lost and it was difficult to reach her, and at that point she stopped rehearsing. She just had an aversion to other people, so it was just the two of us. I would play guitar, vibes, bass, sitar and conga drums. We did one show at Lincoln Center and I had all these instruments on the stage, running around.
I once told Nina, “No matter what happens, if you’re in trouble, it doesn’t matter where I am in the world, if there’s something going down, I’ll be there within 24 hours.” And I kept my word pretty well. There were times when she called on me and I would go. You know she was famous for not showing up. There were various reasons, and some of them really were manufactured. But she had a condition and, bravely enough, she fought through it. And it got better! One time, really late in her career, she looked at me and said, “You know this is really all we have, isn’t it?” And I said, “Well we have each other and our music and the audience.” And she said, “Yeah, that’s what I mean. They’re really my family now.”
The Village Gate was a hot spot. One night she got on the stage and people were talking and she just sat there at the piano. Then she got up, went to the front and said, “Why don’t you people shut up? Are you involved? Do you want to listen to what I have to say tonight?” She said, “You’re interested in civil rights and equal rights”—and we’re talking about what? 1960?—she said, “Take a bath and put on deodorant if you want equal rights.” Can you imagine that, in 1960, with a good sized black audience listening to that? And they did!
She had a certain dedication to Civil Rights, but not in the way that much of the public saw her commitment. She said, “It’s all well and good, but I’m not gonna get myself killed and I’m not gonna give up my life to please this group or that group. I’m doing what I’m doing; I want to make some money.” Backstage at a benefit, she said, “How much am I gonna get paid?” For a benefit! Somebody said, “Nina, how come you’re not that into Civil Rights?” And she said, “I DON’T HAVE TO BE INTO CIVIL RIGHTS, I AM CIVIL RIGHTS.”
[Percussionist] Babtunde Olatunji invited Nina and I to Africa to this worldwide festival in Nigeria. A group of us were on the plane, excited—we’re talking about a plane full of African-Americans going to their homeland. I think I was the only white person on the plane. So we land at the airport outside of Lagos, and the doors open and suddenly we feel the heat of the jungle and the drums. People had come from all over to greet us; they made a big speech and here’s everybody on the plane, thinking they’re going home. The speech was translated for me and the speech was, “Greetings to our American cousins.” They were saying, “You’re not African, you’re American. You’re our cousins.” But hey! Everybody got over it real quick.
Every version of any given song that Nina played would be different—that’s why she had trouble with different musicians. I would do a set list, you know, say, “I Loves You Porgy” in E flat and suddenly it would be in F sharp and—gulp. She could also improvise a narrative as an introduction to a song—it would be a spoken story that changed depending on how she felt. She would be talking—mostly to women—about how she understood what they were going through. Like “Ne Me Quitte Pas”. Jacques Brel wrote the lyric, “Please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me, ne me quitte pas,” and at one point it goes, “I will even be the tail of your dog.” But she’d sing, “But I won’t be the tail of your dog,” and man—people went nuts.
In the last years, we had a rift. She got so out there, to the point where she wasn’t seeing me anymore, and I was like, “Hello? This is Al. This is your brother.” She was having some bad emotional problems. I was here in Martha’s Vineyard and she was in California in a hospital, recuperating. She phoned me and she said, “Al, I really want to apologize for all the years of pain I’ve caused you.” And I said, “Oh boy. Sometimes there’s pain with the beauty but thank you, Nina, I needed to hear that.” And she said, “Oh I want to introduce you to my nurse here.” He got on the phone—his name was Clifton Henderson—we introduced ourselves, then she took the phone from him and said, “I’m gonna hire him to come back and be my nurse.”
It’s that classic story. He gained more and more power in their home in Southern France and when we started doing concerts again, he was there as her assistant and then her manager. He put in a lot of control and used to give her her medications. She needed to have her medications but it would be too close to the gig. She was like a zombie—all the fire was gone. I was able to put a stop to that kind of thing but I wasn’t around all the time and he started isolating everybody from her. I once tried to search him out with the nurses association in Southern California and they never had him. I think what he was was an orderly. It was frightening. But she was at a point where she needed assistance. This guy Henderson—I got word that he collapsed and died in March, and he had been selling the story of his life with Nina. Selling it for a movie with Mary J Blige, and well, we’re looking into it. They need to know the truth.
At one point Nina was diagnosed with cancer and they did a lumpectomy and it looked like she was okay. I don’t know what happened with medication or whatever because I wasn’t there, but she also suffered a stroke. The medication is a sensitive issue, but I think it really saved her career and in some ways her life. I’ve talked about it a little in the past, just because people didn’t know what she was fighting—the demons she was up against. For a while there Clifton would not let me talk to her. But one time the guys were gone and an American girl was there alone and she let me talk to Nina. I said, “Nina, it’s Al.” I said, “I love you,” and she kind of slurred, “I love you too.” And I said, “I’m gonna come see ya.” And she said, “Okay please.” I called her once more—at this point she couldn’t really answer me—but I was gonna make arrangements to come out and see her. I told them, “You just put that telephone up to her ear,” and they did, and that was the last contact I had with her. But, you know, I hear her everyday.
Al Schackman is Nina Simone’s former guitarist, musical director and friend of over 40 years. In addition to his constant work with Nina, he has played or recorded with Burt Bacharach, Harry Belafonte, the Drifters, Dinah Washington, Carol King, Wynton Kelly, and many more.