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Nina Simone

Extracts from Don’t Worry ‘Bout The Bear by Jim & Ron Simpson which reflect a lifetime of working in what we laughably call the music business.

Today’s extract features one of Jim’s encounters with the inimitable, and occasionally irrascible, Nina Simone.

The upshot was that Nina Simone agreed to appear at The British Jazz Awards at Birmingham’s Grand Hotel to receive her platinum disc. She was to pay air fares for herself and her female companion from Amsterdam; we were to supply ground transport, dinner, hotel and breakfast. That must have been the deal of the century, but Nina was happy with it.

On the day a smartly-suited Tim Jennings met the duo at the airport and organised a black cab with the ladies comfortably reclining in the back seats while Tim perched on the pull-down – still, it was only 25 minutes to the city. Reportedly Nina was sweetness and charm throughout the journey; Tim was quite taken with her affability. I met the party outside the Grand Hotel, checked them in and invited Nina to take tea with me in the faded elegance of that great Birmingham hotel. Surprised and delighted that Nina was turning out to be a reasonable, even pleasant human being, I was beginning to question the accuracy of her terrifying reputation.

8.00 pm: 300 guests were seated, happily waiting for dinner to be served and being entertained by guests of honour Humphrey Lyttelton and Benny Green, while I was in a third floor corridor of the Grand Hotel, my anxiety increasing every moment that I had no response to my knocking on the door of Miss Nina Simone who was due to make her entrance. By 8.30 I was on my hands and knees shouting under the door, trying to make conversation with Nina and at the same time fielding a series of questions and problems from downstairs: ‘Humph wants to know how much longer you want him to waffle on,’ ‘Would Miss Simone like to be introduced to the Lord Mayor?’ and, most worryingly, ‘Chef says he can’t hold dinner back any longer and he is going to start serving in five minutes.’

Shortly before 9.00 pm Nina came out of her room, seemingly calm and relaxed, which I most certainly was not, wished me a good evening and asked me to lead the way. As she entered, the room erupted in sustained applause. She made her way to her table, nodding occasionally, saying nothing and going nowhere near cracking a smile. As she sat, the applause subsided, very slowly, but the atmosphere remained electric. The chef came to her table, saying he would be happy to prepare whatever she wished. Nina went for soup and a sandwich; at least her companion opted for the three-course.

The awards presentations were greeted with the enthusiasm one would expect, other than by Miss Simone who didn’t appear to notice, or to care about, what was going on. And so we came to the big one, Benny Green announcing the presentation of a platinum disc to Nina Simone. Again the room erupted and this time it seemed that the applause never would subside. When eventually it did, it seemed that Nina was asleep. She wasn’t; she was just working hard to display her indifference to the room. Benny cajoled in the kindest of ways, the audience repeatedly raised cheers and eventually Nina Simone took centre stage in the Grosvenor Suite of the Grand Hotel and delivered her speech of thanks which I remember, word for word, with total clarity.

She had flown in from Amsterdam at her own expense, clearly enjoyed very little of what went on around her and didn’t even give herself the satisfaction of delivering her usual rant, bad-mouthing ‘those thieving record companies’. All she could bring herself to say to the 300 people who were overjoyed to spend the evening with her, was,

‘Thank you very much.’

No smile, no indication that she even meant what she said.