Saturday, September 17, 2016

Me And Miss Simone ...

This is a story about something and nothing really, but the recent publication of yet another Nina Simone biography, Alan Light's ‘What Happened Miss Simone?’ had me recalling a rather terrifying encounter I had with the singer in Glasgow back in May of 1994 ... okay, so it wasn't strictly "terrifying" in the purest sense of that word, but it was certainly prickly enough to remain memorable more than two decades later.

Latest Simone bio
It was the occasion of Simone's appearance at Mayfest, which meant a live performance at Glasgow Green, and her presence as a guest at the city's central Forte Crest Hotel, where I was employed as the night duty manager. As such, it was my job to close the restaurant, cash up the bar, deal with late guests, and generally supervise all late night or early morning staff.
During my 18 months or so in the role, at two separate large accommodation hotels in Glasgow, I'd met a few "celebs" like Billy Connolly, Boney M, Sister Sledge, and a few rock bands of varying degrees of repute. Plus a few top flight footballers - easily the most famous of which was the Manchester United legend Denis Law. The Forte Crest also hosted live televised boxing nights, which usually wound up with little old me trying to keep any number of shadowy Glasgow gangland figures in check during the wee small hours ... and yes, that task was usually as forlorn (and amusing) as it sounds. But there were none so famous, nor quite so fearsome as Nina Simone.

It happened as much by design as it did by accident; as much as you'd imagine someone like Simone coveting her privacy, apparently she didn't like to eat alone, and had requested upon check-in that the most senior manager on duty accompany her pre-ordered room service breakfast. At that early hour on that particular late spring Glasgow morning, right at the end of my shift, that lucky individual just happened to be me.

Given that I delivered the breakfast precisely at the pre-arranged time, I was admittedly a little startled when Simone appeared dressed only in a bath robe, but less surprised to see her head wrapped in a towel to replicate what is something of a trademark Simone look. It's fair to say I was somewhat in awe of her all-consuming powerful presence, and barely able to retain any sense of poise when she asked if I'd stay while she ate.

Over the next five to ten minutes, I couldn't help but reveal that I was a big fan of her work, doing the whole fanboy thing a little too keenly perhaps. Yet she still seemed genuinely interested in me, clocking my (distinctly non-Glaswegian) accent, asking a little bit about my own journey, before we moved back - rather fatally - to the topics of music, performing, and touring. Cue my regular life-worn ability to underestimate how easy it is to offend some people - without actually realising it:

When she asked if I knew of any major concert promoters in New Zealand - after initially touting Paul Dainty, solely on the basis of having heard of him, without having any real idea of the size or scope of his operation - I made the purely innocent, well intentioned, and remarkably naive suggestion that she would be popular at any number of our regular "jazz festivals" ... at which point she grimaced, and scolded, with a very distinct and deliberate change of tone, "I'm much more than just a jazz singer, young man" ...
Immediately the room temperature dropped like a stone, I'd somehow managed to upset her, and any sense of goodwill between us instantly disappeared. I'd been witheringly corrected and effectively dismissed, and the remaining frosty five minutes of our acquaintance was all about me desperately trying to reconcile just how it could all have turned out quite so badly. In my mind's eye, by "jazz festival" I'd more or less meant "arts festival", but it seemed hopeless to labour the point, and I decided not to complicate matters further by keeping my mouth firmly zipped until she thanked me for the breakfast service and I was allowed to leave.
Not just a jazz singer ...
So whenever I hear stories or read excerpts of articles where Simone is referred to as something akin to a "prickly character" or mentioned in the same breath as the word "diva", I always allow myself a wry smile and offer a knowing nod to that Glasgow hotel room encounter. The day I had the audacity to try to stick a label on an artist who made a career out of refusing to accept or be limited by the boundaries imposed upon her by those of us who really should know better.
And for all that it’s easy for me to recall this incident as Simone getting hung up on semantics, citing it as an example of how contrary or difficult she could be, it’s also worth remembering that as a black American woman of certain generation, Nina Simone grew up with nothing but limitations and labels being forced upon her. She fought all manner of prejudice to become one of the leading civil (and equal) rights campaigners of her generation, so of course it was only natural that she’d react the way she did if she felt slighted in any way.

I look forward to reading the new bio, safe in the knowledge that while my own encounter with her definitely won’t rate a mention, there will doubtlessly be plenty of other similar stories to sit back and marvel at … ;- ))

Rather appropriately, here’s Simone with ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’…

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