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December 2003

Nina Simone with Stephen Cleary
I Put a Spell on You

Among jazz diva autobiographies, three are essential reading: Anita O'Day's High Times, Hard Times (1989), Rosemary Clooney's Girl Singer (2001; really just an expanded version of her 1977 gem, This for Remembrance) and Nina Simone's I Put a Spell on You, originally published in 1991. The O'Day and Clooney books, though boldly vivid and admirably brave, are precisely what you'd expect: the former a junkie's gritty explication of a passion for jazz that, remarkably, couldn't be destroyed by life-threatening drug abuse; the latter a gutsy account of a sweet Kentucky lass' rise to superstardom and the love for family (first) and music (second) that enabled her to overcome harrowing battles with personal demons.

Simone's memoirs, reissued shortly after her unexpected demise earlier this year, are, conversely, a delightful revelation. Those expecting bizarre tales of exotic past lives and spiritual voodoo, penned by a haughty egoist with a disdain for mere mortals, will be surprised to discover a heartfelt tale of a humble, gifted North Carolina prodigy who, though admittedly fond of the money and freedom success could bring, never allowed fame to obscure her true sense of self. Here's a woman who believed the amount of effort she put into preparing for a concert should be repaid with fundamental respect from an audience. (A reasonable supposition that earned her a lifelong reputation as "difficult.") A woman who recorded and performed what she wanted, when she wanted, how she wanted. Who cared so deeply about the fight for racial equality that she let career and family take a back seat for nearly a decade. Who, when the movement lost momentum during the Nixon administration, turned her back on America and built new worlds for herself in Barbados (romancing the prime minister), Liberia and Paris. A woman who lived large, loved deeply and, subtle as a steamroller and stubborn as a mule, let it be known that the word compromise wasn't part of her lexicon.

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