Interview by Lilian Terry
Lilian Terry had a national radio show in Italy–everyone from Ray Charles to Duke Ellington appeared on her show. And there was one person she always wanted to interview: Nina Simone. She finally got a chance in 1968 thanks to drummer Max Roach.
The Animated Transcript
Lilian Terry has been active in the European Jazz field since the late 1950s as Jazz singer, journalist, and Italian radio and TV personality. Her new literary project is called Voices from the Jazz Dimension and is dedicated to 13 famous Jazz pianists who have befriended her.
I have a feeling that evening gowns are your weakness.
Well, clothes period. Of course. I love clothes. [LAUGHTER]
You love clothes.
Yes, I do. I mean, if you come out, and you look the way you want to look, you will create a mood by your very appearance before you open your mouth. Sometimes, that can be enough to get your audience exactly in the groove, where you want them. Like last year, I wore the same gown for a year, everywhere I went. I wanted people to remember me, looking a certain way. It made it easier for me.
What was the gown like?
It was a black, crocheted, fishnet jumpsuit, with a flesh colored lining. So when I came on stage…
… the allusion was that I was actually naked. I loved that. It always, kind of shocked people enough that they became mine immediately.
Since I was three I’ve been playing the piano. I’ve been onstage. My mother is an Evangelist and I used to play the piano at her revival meetings,
You have one daughter?
Yes, I have one daughter.
How old is she?
She’s five. She’ll be six in September.
I see, and does she play the piano? Does she like music?
Oh, she loves music. We’ll sit at the piano, when she’s in the mood, and pick out our own songs. She dances fantastic. She mimics me all the time, and has the nerve to tell me when I’m wrong. When I sing, the lyrics are wrong, she’ll tell me. She’s very, very talented.
But it’s fun to her, and I want to keep it that way.
There was one song, you sang in Newport. The one that starts, listing the various things you haven’t got.
Oh, yes. That’s Ain’t Got No, and I Got Life. Two titles to the tune. It is from a new Broadway play called Hair.
Do you remember the words? Of course you do.
Yes. It says, ‘I ain’t got no home. Ain’t got no shoes. Ain’t got no money. Ain’t got no class. No faith, no mind. Ain’t got no God.’ Then the song stops, and then it says, ‘Well, what have you got? So you get the two pictures, right there. Really, in these days, in these hard times, is you must be grateful that you are surviving. That you have your health.
Of course, the last song you sang was very beautiful.
The King Of Love Is Dead.
The King Of Love Is Dead.
Now, that’s composed by my bass player. Dr. King was killed on Thursday and Gene Taylor composed that tune, Friday. So it was completely inspired. In a narrative way, it is a folk song. ‘Why was he killed? It was bigotry that sealed his fate. You can shed your tears, but they won’t change a thing. Will my country ever learn, must it kill at every turn? We have to know what the consequences of these acts will bring.’ Then it says, ‘Folks, you’d better stop and think. Because we’re all heading for the brink,’ which is the truth. ‘What will happen now, that the king of love is dead?’ So the song is extremely powerful there.
Yes, it is.
There’s no conclusion, it just leaves you up in the air. It’s a good time for black people to be alive. It’s a lot of hell. A lot of violence, but I feel more alive now than I ever have in my life. I have a chance to live, as I’ve dreamed.
Do you think that your child will be living through the revolutionary years?
I don’t know, love. Whatever it is she’s going to have pride in her own blackness. She’s going to have a chance to be more than just somebody who’s on the outside looking in. Like it’s been for most of us, and my parents before me, but she may see more bloodshed than I’ve ever even dreamed of. I have no way of knowing. That evolution. The cycle goes round, and round. It’s time for us.
Why don’t you come to Italy on vacation?
Well, you’re sweet love, but you’re the only one I know there. I don’t like to go to strange places. I was in Italy for about five hours on my way to Africa.
I see, at the airport.
And I got pinched. Yeah, I did. I liked it. I really did, right there in the airport.
Let’s say arrivederci.
You know what that means.
Of course I do.
Yes. Bye bye.
The Interview Backstory
Lilian Terry had heard Nina didn’t enjoy speaking with white people. Thankfully Lilian had a confidant in Max Roach, the legendary jazz drummer, who introduced Lilian to Nina at the Newport Festival in 1968.
“Lilian Terry comes from Egypt, ” Roach said. That was true; Lilian was born in Cairo to a father from Malta and a mother from Italy.
With that simple introduction, Nina waved Lilian over. Soon they were talking about Nefertiti and the pharaohs.
Nina even told Lilian she thought she’d been in Egypt in a previous life.
A few days later Lilian went to Nina’s house in Mt. Vernon, New York. They sat by the pool, the tape recorder was turned on, and the conversation continued.
Friends and Allies
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry and Nina shared a close relationship and Hansberry’s political activism influenced Nina to become more outspoken with her own messages. Hansberry died of cancer at the age of 34 in 1965, and Nina later wrote the song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” for her friend.
Langston Hughes recognized Nina’s talent and potential in the early days of her career. Writing in 1962 after the release of her first album, Hughes said,
“She is a club member, a colored girl, an Afro-American, a homey from Down Home. She has hit the Big Town, the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows–and she is still from down home. She did it mostly all by herself. Her name is Nina Simone.”
Hughes became a mentor-figure to Nina after she moved to NYC at the end of the 1950’s, where she became a central figure in a community of black intellectual and cultural leaders. Nina’s song “Backlash Blues” was written for her by Hughes.
Like Nina, James Baldwin served as a mentor to Nina and helped shape and influence her social and political awareness while championing her career.
Nina didn’t dream of becoming a popstar
Growing up in North Carolina, Simone wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in popular music – her ambition was to become a classical musician. Her technical gifts as a pianist were recognized early on and after high school she went to New York to study piano at Juilliard.
However, her dreams of becoming a concert pianist were dashed when she was rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Throughout her life she expressed her regret that she hadn’t “made it” as a classical pianist, like in this French interview from 1991.
Nina becomes a civil rights force
“Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like [Civil Rights activist] Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.” – from Simone’s autobiography, I Put a Spell On You
“My job is to make them [young black people] curious enough, to persuade them by hook or crook, to get more aware of themselves and where they came from and what is already there, and to bring it out. It’s what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by any means necessary.”
The 1970’s and 80’s: the lost years?
By 1970, Simone claimed to have become disillusioned by the civil rights movement and the music industry. Her performances, always volatile, became angrier and she stopped writing, largely turning to recording cover songs.
Her personal life was also troubled – her marriage to Andrew Stroud, who was also her manager, fell apart and the mental health problems that plagued her became more severe. In 1974, she left the United States for good, taking her daughter first to Liberia, then to Switzerland, and eventually settling in France.
When she did perform, her concerts often fell apart and she often became confrontational towards audience members. Her finances were in ruins – near the end of the 70’s she had to return to the United States to stand trial for tax evasion.
It was also during this time that Simone’s daughter Lisa says the singer started to physically abuse her. In the recent Netflix documentary of Simone, Lisa says that her mother – who had herself been abused by ex-husband Stroud – “went from being my comfort to the monster in my life. Now she was the person that was doing the beating, and she was beating me.”
The 1990’s were kinder to Ms. Simone. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 80’s, and she returned to touring throughout the 90’s. The CD market revitalized interest in her work, and she sold over a million CDs in the last decade of her life. She died at her home in France in 2003.
“Ain’t Got No/I Got Life”
“Why? (the King Of Love Is Dead)”
“Who Cares” Josh Phillips, Dave Bronze
“Don’t Bail Me Out Boogaloo” Carmen Lundy
“Night Talking” Tony Hymas
“Lady De Luxe” Tony Hymas
“West Side Waltz” Dick Stephen Walker
Dutch National Archives