Nina Simone: Break Down and Let it All Out by Sylvia Hampton with David Nathan

The lady wouldn't have liked it...
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The Independent Culture

The cover of this book has a gorgeous photo of the late, great singer in undiluted diva mode. On the back her head is bowed, eyes closed and fist clenched in a Black Power salute. These two iconic images perfectly symbolise Simone's stature as both artist and political activist.

The pages between them thus have much to live up to. David Nathan founded the Nina Simone Appreciation Society in the UK in 1965, and Sylvia Hampton became its secretary a few years later, holding the position until 1985. Her long-running relationship with the tempestuous singer provides the foundation for a text that claims to give "an in-depth analysis of Nina's recorded output and a "revealing and intimate portrait of the lady who put a spell on the world".

If you're dealing with the music of Simone, whose career began in earnest back in 1959 with that unforgettable rendition of "I Loves You Porgy", then you have to critique a gargantuan body of work. The structure of the book decisively undermines this. Hampton handles the central narrative in the space of some 180 pages, with very little illumination of Simone's musical brilliance. Nathan then serves up a mish-mash of discography/record reviews that zips through the singer's 40 odd years of work in 40 pages. It frankly doesn't do her justice. Songs such as "Mississippi Goddam!", "Young, Gifted And Black" and "Four Women", landmarks in the canon of contemporary black music and protest song, are worthy of essays in their own right.

What we need is a clear, insightful explanation of how the singer applied classical training and a vivid gospel sensibility to anything from the Beatles and Brel to Leonard Cohen and Gerhswin, how she furthered a brave eclecticism for black artists. Accomplished contemporary jazz singers such as Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin and above all Cassandra Wilson, all owe an obvious debt to Simone. Yet her decisive impact on them isn't assessed. To make matters worse, Hampton's somewhat hamfisted recollections of her taut relationship with Simone snowball to a mountain of self-aggrandising vanity. The author ends up telling you as much about herself as her subject. It's well offkey. And would surely have been enough to incur the legendary wrath of the lady against whom even Lana Turner's smile didn't stand a chance.