Somewhere between the scary obsession of the stalker and the romantic innocence of a teenage crush lies the territory of the dedicated fan, epitomised by Sylvia Hampton. This book aims to chart the terrain that led its author from being an awestruck 14-year-old, introduced to Nina Simone by her equally enthralled brother David Nathan (founder of the singer's first UK fan club), to feeling entitled to boast 40 years later of sharing a close friendship with "the high priestess of soul".
Unfortunately, this book is a missed opportunity. It offers tantalising glimpses of its subject's protean personality, but at worst it exhibits a sort of folie à deux. One minute slavishly attentive to the legendary diva's need for adoration, the next craving appreciation for imagined services rendered, at least one half of this brother-and-sister act seems to harbour delusions of grandeur-by-association. They are amazed and hurt to discover that they do not rate a mention in their idol's 1991 autobiography, I Put a Spell on You.
No one else is likely to bemoan their absence from that soul-baring account of Nina Simone's journey, from beginnings in America's deep South as a child prodigy, her rejection for a classical music scholarship, her reinvention as a club singer-pianist, her acclaimed first recording in 1958, her involvement with the 1960s Civil Rights movement, her voluntary exile and subsequent wanderings in Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, to her last troubled years in Europe.
Accompanying the professional and political engagements was a highly-charged personal soundtrack: a failed marriage, a beloved daughter (who generously contributes a foreword to Hampton's volume), and countless disappointing liaisons with the wrong men, including a prime minister of Barbados.
A year after Simone's death in southern France aged 70, the time is right for a considered critical biography examining her musical genius; but this is not it. Much as Hampton recreates conversations, quotes reviews, intersperses photos, appends interviews, confesses that she "looked at Nina with all the love and wonder of a child", talks of "the spell Nina put on David and I" [sic], there is little in these pages to convey what that special effect was. "Whew!" and "Wow!" will not suffice, any more than will embarrassing and inconsequential anecdotes.
It is hard not to cringe as Hampton self-importantly chronicles her interaction with "Miss Nina", and along the way is force-fed some much-needed education on racial injustice. When Simone reprises "Mississippi Goddam" - one of many angry songs inspired by the Civil Rights struggles - for the black members of the audience, explaining that "white folk don't want to hear the truth", Hampton misses the point: "I wondered if Nina realised I was white, and figured my huge 'afro' hairstyle must have confused her."
This is not hagiography, though; having been secretary of the Nina Simone Appreciation Society for 18 years, Hampton strives nobly in inauspicious circumstances to be a cheerleader for her heroine and even affects a mystic belief in Nina as Nefetiti. But she does not stint in telling us about "the other side" of Nina: the capriciousness; the tirades; the tantrums invariably resolved with a "wicked grin" or a "husky laugh". On one occasion, Nina wrathfully accuses Hampton (who misguidedly suggested she calm down): "You just use me like all the rest. You don't care about me, nobody does." It seems inevitable that sooner or later there will be a major showdown; sure enough, come the ultimate falling-out and Hampton is ostracised from the inner circle.
The obituaries in April 2003 struggled to encapsulate Simone's unique talent. Protest singer, folk singer, jazz singer, blues singer, pianist, composer - she encompassed all of these and more, but was also in a category of her own. Passionate and committed as a musician, she commanded uncompromising respect for a repertoire that encompassed all genres.
Break Down & Let It All Hang Out performs the service of sending one back to the music - whether it be Simone's biggest hit, "My Baby Just Cares for Me", popularised by a TV commercial, or her version of Ellington's "Mood Indigo" that swings in with some Bach-style piano, or her finely judged counterpoint with saxophone on "I Put a Spell on You", or her hauntingly defiant "Four Women" - which has been called a Toni Morrison novel in miniature - or the raw anguish as she sang "Why (The King of Love is Dead)" days after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Yet Sylvia Hampton may be right to identify the song that best describes Nina Simone as the poignant "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood".
Margaret Busby edited 'Daughters of Africa' (Ballantine Books)Reuse content