The lead up to Nina Simone’s State Theater concert in 1991 had been complicated. Reporters for both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press had been unable to connect with her for an interview. There was no email, and telephone trans-continental telephone connections were hard to make. She lived in France, and her manager was in Australia, and she hadn’t toured in the US recently. It was the largest and most expensive show the Dakota had presented, and there was no record label media machine to help promote the concert. No local radio station played her music. And many younger people were unfamiliar with her. But she was Nina Simone!
She arrived in Minneapolis from France two days before the concert, the first of her first North American tour in years. I called Curt, our regular driver, to make sure she’d arrived safely. And she had. But she’d also informed him that after they arrived at the downtown Hilton, he was to wait for her while she rested. And then she was going back to the airport and flying back to France that night! Al Schackman, her longtime Music Director got on the phone and quietly told me not to worry – that everything would be fine once she reached the hotel. I should mention that I was in a hospital bed at the time connected to a bunch of electrodes because I’d had chest pains earlier that day. I think this was part of the stress test.
I immediately called the Hilton and talked with the front desk, I explained to the desk clerk (who was unfamiliar with Nina Simone) that she was an iconic and revered artist who’d just had a difficult trans-Atlantic flight. When she arrived at the hotel, I asked that they not require her to do anything – not to fill out registration forms or leave a credit card for incidentals – nothing. Just have her room key handy and say, “Ms. Simone, we’re so honored to welcome you to the Hilton – Here’s the key to your suite,” where the Dakota had a bottle of Champagne and flowers waiting for her. She stayed. But I also learned that she arranged for a bodyguard to fly in the following day at her expense. She was afraid. And she had harbored this fear for years every time she was in the United States.
The next two days were filled with more unexpected twists and turns than I’ll relate here. Not all of it was rational, some of it was confounding, but underneath the odd behavior, I started to understand.
Imagine a young back woman growing up in North Carolina, prodigiously talented and steeped in the Church, whose dream to become a classical concert pianist ended when she was denied admission to the Curtis Institute of Music. She always felt the decision was racially motivated, and she became a nightclub singer an endeavor her family disdained to make a living.
While she could never separate herself from social injustice, she didn’t feel it was dignified to be a “protest singer.” The Mississippi church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers changed that, and her rage boiled over in writing “Mississippi Goddam” and her devastating cover of Billie Holliday’s recording of “Strange Fruit.”
I learned that she lived with death threats, both real and imagined, for years, and she never felt entirely safe in the US.
At the concert, she was magnificent and the audience responded. But it was short just over 60 minutes. After she finished, the standing ovation went on and on, and backstage, she asked me if the audience knew “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” a song that had been a massive hit in France and Britain. Hoping she would do an encore, I said, “If they don’t, Ms. Simone, now would be a wonderful time for them to hear it.” Al Schackman had taken the hint, and before I’d finished my sentence, he was back on stage tuning up for the song. Nina returned to piano. As she finished the first chorus, the lack of an immediate response made it obvious to her that people didn’t know the song. Back stage, I could hear her say quietly, “You don’t know this.” She wrapped it up after one chorus and left the stage. The audience – slightly confused – continued an ovation, and recognizing the adulation, she asked me when was the last time she’d been to Minneapolis. “It’s been 7 years,” I said, and she asked, “Can I come back next year?” I responded, “Of Course!” The house lights were up, people were leaving, and, cigarette in hand, Nina Simone returned to the stage. She took the microphone and said to a still somewhat confused audience, “Everyone I’ll be back next year. Mr. Lowell says I’ll be back next year.”
Nina Simone … complicated, magnificent, heroic, scarred by history and environment, fearless and afraid, a constantly regal presence in the history of American music. I’m grateful to have had one complicated, memorable personal three-day encounter with her.
Lowell Pickett is the founder and co-owner of The Dakota, which opened in 1985.