In early 2015, as “What Happened, Miss Simone?” was gaining critical praise and becoming one of the frontrunners for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, the producers knew they had a massive trove of material about Nina Simone they were barely able to explore in a feature and that would be perfect for a biography.
Enter Alan Light, the former Vibe and Spin editor who had written biographies of Prince, Leonard Cohen, and the Beastie Boys.
“I have the mixed blessing of a reputation for being able to work fast, and a big part of this was to get it done under some time pressure,” Light said. “The editor [Kevin Doughten at Crown Archetype] and I have been friends for a long time, and we had talked a lot about trying to find a project together and about music of that time and civil rights.”
Light spent just under a year turning boxes of material — everything from diaries to performance tapes to the history of the civil rights movement — into What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography, which is out now just ahead of the Feb. 28 Academy Awards.
We caught up with Light to talk about the book.
SIGNATURE: This is an unusual origin story. How did the book come to you?
ALAN LIGHT: The documentary has been widely acclaimed. It’s up for an Oscar for Best Documentary, and the filmmaking team started to sense last year when they were taking it out to festivals that it was going to get some traction. With any serious documentary you amass a huge amount of research, and only a fraction of that makes it to the screen. Their thought was to find somebody who could turn that material into a book that fleshes out the story. I got this massive trove of research — new interviews that were done for the film, archival material, Nina’s diaries, letters and other stuff.
SIG: How did you work fast?
AL: I spent the bulk of the time figuring out what was in there. Usually, by the time you sit down to write, you have a sense of what the story is that you want to tell. Here, it was more like making a sculpture than making a painting. It was more about taking things away and seeing what was left than building it up from nothing. I went through everything looking for what was the most interesting and assembling it like an oral history.
SIG: You wrote a book about Prince. Would you say his nonconformity and unwillingness to be a traditional music industry guy are the areas where he’s most similar to Nina Simone?
AL: Yeah, I think that’s true. Prince is much savvier. When he takes an unconventional route, he’s strategic and knows the field he’s playing on. Creatively, they have both followed their own directions and been willing to frustrate their own fans by following their own inspirations.
SIG: Would you compare her to anyone performing today in terms of her sound, her temperament, how she fashioned her career? Lauryn Hill?
AL: Lauryn Hill talks a lot about Nina, and recorded about half of the songs that are on the tribute album that came out with the documentary. Hill, for better or worse, has also shown some difficulty functioning within the music industry and to think as a business person.This movie comes out at an interesting time with the Black Lives Matter movement and an increase in artists speaking out — Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, J. Cole right now speaking out. This feels like a moment like when Nina Simone spoke out.
SIG: Beyonce at the Super Bowl was certainly that.
AL: I was speaking to some high school classes this week about the book, and it was certainly timely and relevant to say that here’s Beyonce making this sort of abstract statement. Think about the risks and what it meant for Nina Simone to write songs and choose songs and speak out in what were unequivocal protests. You’re seeing artists plug into that kind of energy now.
SIG: What does the title — “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — refer to?
AL: It comes from an interview that Maya Angelou did with Nina in the early 1970s for Redbook magazine at a really transitional time in Nina Simone’s life. The ’60s were ending, and a lot of the political activism had been diffused — in some places by making progress and in other places by losing focus. She was really trying to figure out where she fit in. She had sacrificed a lot of her aspirations for a pop career for more political decisions.
Maya Angelou wrote a magazine profile that showed some of the struggles around Nina’s life and her career. The book and the film both open with an epigraph from that story with that quote about what happened that made her such an anomaly and such mystery and such a powerful figure.
SIG: Her early training was as a classical pianist. How good was she?
AL: The entire first part of her life and career was focused on this vision of becoming the first great black female classical piano player in America. That was a vision that she had, and she was seen in the town where she grew up as a gifted child. She went to boarding school to continue her studies.
She didn’t make the last cut for the conservatory that she wanted to attend. She believed that it was because she was black and because she was a woman. After putting all her chips on that classical training, she moved those chips to the civil rights movement.
SIG: I remember from the documentary that she has kind of an odd, awkward stage presence.
AL: Because of that classical training, she really viewed herself as an artist. When she was playing in a stage performance, she wanted her audience to sit and listen and focus. When she was playing in nightclubs or jazz festivals — places that were more about being an entertainer — she could never embrace that. She was sometimes confrontational and would yell at an audience or storm off a stage if she didn’t think people were attentive enough.
SIG: Nina Simone was not her given name, right?
AL: That’s right.
SIG: Did she take that name to sound more exotic?
AL: She did it kind of on a whim. She was in Philadelphia and teaching private piano lessons and seeing some of her students get jobs playing at clubs in Atlantic City. So she got a job playing at a bar in Atlantic City. Her mother was a preacher who never accepted the fact that Nina was playing popular, secular music, and Nina didn’t want her mother to know she was doing this. So she took on this alias so her mother wouldn’t find out. Her boyfriend called her Niña, and Simone came from the French actress Simone Signoret who was popular in the ’50s.
AL: It probably is. “Feeling Good” has been used in a lot of soundtracks and TV commercials. Her version of “I Love You Porgy” from “Porgy and Bess” is the song that put her on the map. That was her signature song for a long, long time. She had some protest songs, and a song from late in her career in Europe — “My Baby Just Cares for Me” — was used in a Chanel commercial and became a big song for her in Europe.
SIG: Was that the song that gets a lot of comparisons to Billie Holiday?
AL: That’s part of it. Nina Simon has a lower-register, lower voice, and she wasn’t about singing with a feminine, melodic sound, so Billie Holiday was an obvious comparison. “I Love You Porgy” was a song that Billie Holiday had done and the song that cemented Nina Simone’s career. Nina has mixed feelings — sometimes in the same conversation — about being compared to Billie Holiday. She thought that people considered what she was doing as jazz because she was black like Billie Holiday, and she felt that didn’t recognize what she was doing. Other times, she said Billie Holiday was an important influence.
SIG: You open the book in 1969, which was a big year in American history and music history — the MLK assassination, the Bobby Kennedy assassination, the year of Woodstock. Was that at the height of Nina Simone’s cultural influence?
AL: It was an incredibly electric moment in history. We were coming off all of the urban riots in 1968, the assassinations, a shift in the civil rights movement from a more integrationist vision to more of a black power vision. Woodstock was a big moment for the youth protest movement and the counterculture. In 1969, there was a festival in Harlem where Nina gives this performance that’s at the beginning of the book. She reads a poem that calls for black people to rise up and take what’s theirs, and it’s Nina in this black-empowerment moment in front of thousands of people.
And then the revolution doesn’t come. Further momentum around the protest movement stops developing, and she spends a few years working and flailing and figuring out what to do. She only released a few more records over the next several decades. She becomes an expatriate to Africa and then to Europe. She never stops performing, but she really never settles into a groove after that.