TONY JOE WHITE – The Swamp Fox

In May of 1970 I attended “Scarboro Fair”, a Toronto music festival. It was an outstanding line-up on a bright sunny day, (including the Butterfield big band who laid down over an hour of fine Blues).

As the day wore on it got progressively colder; to the point that when Tony Joe White hit the stage in the evening it had started to snow. White performed solo, accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica and keeping time with constant foot stomping on a wooden crate. Granted, it wasn’t the best of circumstances to appreciate the music, but I have to admit that I just didn’t get it. His percussive songs all seemed to be a variation of a theme and his vocal range appeared limited. I’m sure my take was like that of a number of uninitiated or passive listeners.

It wasn’t till much later when, on a whim, I bought a used copy of TJW’s third Monument album – Tony Joe – in 1972 that I started to get an understanding of where White was coming from. Instead of trying to be critical or judgemental I gave in and fell into his web, or “soulful groove” as he liked to call it – one that was backboned by riff driven wah wah guitar. It was totally infectious, and his growling and grunting on a mix of backwoods stories was totally well-matched with his overall sound. Rather than dwell on any vocal shortcomings, I came to realize quite quickly the nuances of his singing. That is, that his vocals were actually quite expressive as he molded his low key approach to suit each story at hand. In sum, it can’t be explained; because doing so just complicates matters.

Tony Joe White’s career stretched 50 years over the course of some 30 albums. Unfortunately he’s remembered for only 2 songs by the general music buying public: “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night In Georgia”. Although both are representative of TJW’s obvious talent and style, to think that those two selections are a fitting summary of his career is to sell him woefully short. There’s a lot more to Tony Joe White than initially meets the eye, (and ear).

Tony Joe White, the youngest of 7 children, was born in 1943 in Northeast Louisiana in Goodwill, about 12 miles from Oak Grove, West Carroll Parish, with a population of approximately 2,000. The family worked a 40 acre cotton and corn farm, and TJW grew up in a shotgun shack, (a long narrow wooden framed house with a tin roof and a front and back porch). The family came to know a dirt poor existence that was shared with neighbours in the same geographical area.

While all members of the household worked the fields by day, there was music was all around. Everyone in the family played either guitar or piano. There were family sing-alongs, Gospel in church on Sunday, and Saturday nights were spent listening Country music on The Grand Ole Opry. For his part, although he played some rudimentary guitar, TJW wasn’t as taken with music. His passion was baseball. That is, until his brother brought home a Lightnin’ Hopkins record when Tony Joe was 15. He was immediately drawn in by the Houston Texas based Hopkins’ stark understated approach. After his brother showed Tony Joe some Blues guitar licks it was all over. To hear Tony Joe tell it; “That completely turned me around. That’s when I started playing and forgot completely about baseball”.

While his style would evolve as he added harp and wah wah effects, his approach was fully formed early on when he was in high school. Performing solo at school dances and house parties, he primarily played Blues as was the fashion at these functions as well as the area in general where White grew up. He would keep time by stomping on a Coke crate, (as he had seen Hopkins do the same), and layed down Hopkins licks combined with hypnotic repetitive guitar riffs learned from another idol John Lee Hooker. To the crowd’s delight, his repertoire initially consisted mainly of Hopkins, Hooker, Slim Harpo, Silas Hogan, and Elvis Presley tunes.  

After graduating high school, following a short stint in Marietta Georgia working as a highway department dump truck driver, White moved to Corpus Christie Texas. It was there that TJW started to seriously consider music as a career. Knowing the best gig prospects were the beer joints along the Texas / Louisiana “Crawfish Circuit” he recognized that he would need a band to be heard above the din of the wild crowds. Indeed, “the beer bottles would be flyin’” as White recalls and his band – under a variety of names: Tony White & His Combo, Tony & The Mojos, Tony & The Twilights – worked that same track for more than 10 years.

While in Corpus Christie, he heard a southern based hit song that would serve as a major inspiration to TJW as a songwriter: “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry. He could identify with the song, which had such a profound effect on him, because he knew exactly where the Tallahatchie Bridge was located, (about 100 miles northeast of his home town). It made the tale of Billy Joe McAllister so real that he swore right then and there that “If I ever write a song it’s going to be about something I know”.

TJW would take his own advice of “if you didn’t live it don’t write it” to heart, and it was borne out in virtually all of his songs. He matched that homespun songwriting with his drawling delivery and natural talent as a story teller. The most well-known example being his first hit, “Polk Salad Annie”, with a spoken intro:

“If some of ya’ll never been down south too much
I’m gonna tell you a little bit about it so’s you’ll understand what I’m talkin’ about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods, and the fields
And it looks somethin’ like a turnip green
Everybody calls it polk salad
Polk salad
Used to know a girl lived down there and she’d go out in the evenings and
Pick her a mess of it
Carry it home and cook it for supper

Because that’s about all they had to eat
But they did all right”

Down in Louisiana
Where the alligators grow so mean
There lived a girl
That I swear to the world
Made the alligators look tame…
Polk Salad Annie, Polk Salad Annie
Everybody said it was a shame
‘Cause her momma was a workin’ on the chain gang
A mean vicious woman”

White proceeded to write a number of songs and recorded them on a basic tape recorder with a plan to audition them for powers that be in Memphis. He reasoned that the rural sensibility of his Blues / Soul / Country songs would be well received by a prospective label there. The story goes that he got on the highway heading northeast towards Memphis, but having never driven to Memphis he missed the cut-off. That being the case, he then decided to continue on to, (his future home), Nashville where – with tape recorder and guitar in tow – he started knocking on doors on Music Row.

Through a series of encounters in Nashville White secured both a publishing deal and a recording contract with Monument Records; (a label mate was Roy Orbison who TJW never did get to meet). White would go on to record 3 fine albums for the label that included the aforementioned “Annie”, his first European hit “Soul Francisco”, and the Roots / Americana classic, “Rainy Night In Georgia”.

Despite containing TJW’s two best known songs as well as other outstanding numbers the albums didn’t fare well in the U.S., (a foreshadowing of essentially all of his albums stateside). While building an instant following in Europe, in the U.S. TJW was deemed too black for white radio and too white for black radio.

TJW’s entry into the European market was the single “Soul Francisco”, (from his first release Black And White), that hit initially in France in August of ‘68 and was followed by a successful run in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Japan, and the Philippines. Tony Joe would continue to have a strong base in Europe – particularly France – and Australia throughout the rest of his career.

Contrary to his success in Europe, TJW wasn’t making much headway in the U.S. The targeted single “Polk Salad Annie” languished for 9 months on the charts when an L.A. disc jockey picked up on it in July 1969. By the fall, TJW’s only U.S. charting single would enter the Top Ten peaking at # 8. And there was more to come in that the song was covered more than 60 times over the years including Elvis Presley’s version that hit # 2 in the UK, (and, going forward, became a staple of his live shows).

TJW’s other claim to fame “Rainy Night In Georgia” almost never happened. He wrote the song and put it aside until his wife, (and future co-songwriter), Le Ann convinced him to record a demo. The demo found its way into Jerry Wexler’s hands and was ultimately cut by Brook Benton who had a Top Five hit in 1970. (On first hearing Benton’s version White said “God, man, I got to learn the song. This is good”). Once again, the song that White would record on his second album, ...Continued, and be named one of the top 500 songs of all-time by Rolling Stone Magazine, would have lasting power in that it would go on to be covered more than 200 times to date.

It wouldn’t be the last time that TJW’s songwriting talents would be recognized and songs of his would be recorded by other artists. The extensive list of artists who covered his songs includes: Dusty Springfield, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Robert Cray, Jerry Reed, Jessi Colter, Johnny Adams, Eric Clapton, and Joe Simon. Fully understanding that he had what would best be described as a cult following, White knew that those covers represented a much needed revenue stream. And, in addition, they helped to keep his name in the forefront of prospective music buyers and concert goers. Accordingly, White made it known on more than one occasion that he was forever grateful for the success of his songs in other people’s hands.

The fact that TJW commanded less than mass appeal isn’t indicative of his talent. Rather it’s representative of White’s steadfastness to continue on his own unique path. Forever a maverick, he explained; “When I look back now, I guess it was pretty different to be doing what I was doing. I haven’t changed a whole lot. I’m almost a lone wolf out there. I just play my guitar and don’t worry about it.”

Using his understated approach – although he performed in a full band setting as well, White preferred being backed only by a drummer in live performance because he reasoned that it freed up his guitar playing – White made some outstanding albums in his career despite the comparatively limited audience. One of his very best is the 1972 Warner Brothers release The Train I’m On. Produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd and cut in Muscle Shoals, White is backed by the Muscle Shoals house band on a set of songs primarily grounded on a bed of acoustic guitars courtesy of TJW and overlooked southern guitar stalwart Tippy Armstrong. With hardly a “Womper Stomper”** laden number in sight, it varies somewhat from a lot of TJW’s recordings. The constants are the superb songwriting, performance, and production values that remain on a set of numbers convincingly delivered by White and his cohorts. With a winning combination of songs including: “I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby”, If I Ever Saw A Good Thing” “As The Crow Flies”, “Take Time To Love”, the fun “Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll”, plus the title cut, the recording presents White in a soulful singer / songwriter light. Given the timing of release, it should have been a big hit. The album is currently out of print but well worth searching for.

** TJW’s name for his instantly recognizable fuzz toned guitar played through a crunchy wah wah pedal

If you’re looking for a vintage live performance by TJW check out That On The Road Look that was originally recorded and released in 1971. It quickly went out of print until 2010 when it was re-released on the Rhino Handmade imprint. Backed by Mike Utley (keys), Sammy Creason (drums) of The Dixie Flyers plus Duck Dunn (bass) of Booker T. & The MG’s, White and company layed down outstanding takes on some of White’s better known songs including both “Rainy Night In Georgia” and a ten minute rendition of “Polk Salad Annie”. Also added is the definitive version of White’s moving “Willie And Laura Mae Jones” delivered by White in a solo acoustic setting. The song centres around White’s understanding that there was no status or colour disparity when families shared the same socioeconomic conditions:

Willie and Laura Mae Jones
Were our neighbors a long time back
They lived right down the road from us
In a shack just like our shack

We worked in the fields together
And we learned to count on each other
When you live off the land
You don’t have time to think
About another man’s colour

The show took place at a time when, on the strength of TJW’s two big songs, he was asked to open for better known, (read successful), artists of the day. That being said, these recordings were taken from dates opening for Creedence Clearwater Revival and define the intensity and competitive spirit of White’s band’s performance. As White recalled:
“Creedence tried to burn us down and we tried to burn them down ‘cause they were goin’ around, ‘swamp this and swamp that’, and ol’ Duck and me was real tight – we was fishin’ buddies and we got talkin’ one night, and he told ’em, ‘you know, Fogerty, there ain’t no alligators in Bekeley’. From then on it was war every night onstage”

TJW continued to release albums in the 80’s but for all intents and purposes stepped away from the business for most of the decade, content to live off his songwriting royalties. That changed in1989 when friend and sometime recording partner Mark Knoffler told him that he was sitting in on Tina Turner’s next album, and that she was looking for material. White sent Turner some songs that she liked, and, in turn, was invited to the sessions. (When he showed up and was introduced to her, Turner immediately started laughing. After regaining her composure she gave him a big hug and told him “I’m sorry man. Ever since ‘Polk Salad Annie’ I always thought you were a black man”). The resultant album, Foreign Affair, not only featured four TJW compositions – including a Turner hit “Steamy Windows” and the title cut – but White also ended up adding guitar, harp, and keyboard bass in addition to producing his contributions.

The Foreign Affair experience led to a comeback of sorts when Turner’s manager signed White to his stable of artists and got him a recording contract with Polydor. The resultant album Closer To The Truth in 1991 was a minor hit that contained two of the songs that he contributed to Turner’s Foreign Affair: “Steamy Windows” and “Undercover Agent For The Blues” plus the outstanding opening cut “Tunica Motel”. All were done in the inimitable TJW style. (Incidentally, check out the acoustic version of “Tunica Motel” on youtube that cuts to the heart of the matter more so than the studio take).

TJW would continue to record and perform until he passed in 2018. Of note are his last three albums on the Yep Roc label – all produced by his son and manager Jody White – that have sold fairly well to date and garnered some acclaim: Hoodoo (2013), Rain Crow (2016), and Bad Mouthin’ (2018). The relative commercial success may be attributed to a surge in popularity of Roots / Americana and / or it could be that TJW was finally getting his due, (albeit late). Whatever the case, there are no new stylistic roads travelled on the three statements. They all feature TJW’s unmistakeable lazy lowdown Blues grind. Of special mention is Bad Mouthin’ that pays tribute to White’s influencers including versions on “Baby Please Don’t Go” (Big Joe Williams), “Big Boss Man” (Jimmy Reed), “Awful Dreams” (Lightnin’ Hopkins), and White utilizing his “soul whisper” to maximum effect on “Heartbreak Hotel”.

Tony Joe White died of a heart attack in his sleep on October 24, 2018 in his home, just south of Nashville, in Leipers Fork. But there’s more to be heard from Tony Joe White. At this writing a posthumous release of 9 songs taken from a number of recordings, (that White had made in his home studio with just his electric guitar and harp), is in the works. Those bare bones recordings were fleshed out by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys plus Nashville musicians of his choosing to produce the album Smoke From The Chimney.

Tony Joe White summed up his music and approach this way:
“When and where I grew up, Blues was just about the only music I heard and truly loved. I’ve always thought of myself as a Blues musician, bottom line, because the Blues is real, and I like to keep everything I do as real as it gets”.

Well, awright!

So ends the ballad of The Swamp Fox, Tony Joe White, an unsung hero of American music. Now and forever a true original.


  1. Polk Salad Annie
  2. Willie And Laura Mae Jones
  3. Soul Francisco
  4. Rainy Night In Georgia
  5. Roosevelt And Ira Lee – Night Of The Mossacin
  6. Stud Spider
  7. Boom Boom
  8. I Just Walked Away
  9. I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby
  10. If I Ever Saw A Good Thing
  11. The Train I’m On
  12. Even Trolls Love Rock And Roll
  13. As The Crow Flies
  14. Take Time To Love
  15. 300 Pounds Of Hongry
  16. Did Somebody Make A Fool Of You
  17. Tunica Motel
  18. Steamy Windows
  19. Undercover Agent Of The Blues
  20. Bad Mouthin’
  21. Heartbreak Hotel
  22. Smoke From The Chimney
  • Rico Ferrara July, 2021

NINA SIMONE – The High Priestess Of Soul

It was in the mid 80’s when Toronto’s short lived Village Vanguard North was advertising “Sunday Brunch With Nina Simone”. The thought of Nina Simone performing a concert while the audience threw down eggs benedict was both startling and intriguing. Knowing little about Nina Simone other than some of her stark recordings coupled with the fact that she was reportedly not the most sociable person had me wondering why she was on board with the idea. Surely, based on reputation, she would demand the audience’s utmost attention. And that was something she definitely couldn’t count on while people chomped down food and slurped special coffees.

With little introduction, suddenly there she was – an imposing presence in an African gown and head wrap – The High Priestess Of Soul. My preconceived notions vanished as Nina “entertained” the audience rather than laying out a concert as such. I recall her doing some of her better known songs, (i.e. “I Loves You Porgy”, “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, “Please Don’t Let Me Misunderstood”), interspersed with “lecture tone” dialogue, (on topics that I either couldn’t decipher or can’t recall), mixed with impromptu displays of African rhythmic dance. I’d never seen anything quite like it. The captivating performance was just as unique as the artist herself.

Knowing much more today about Nina Simone and of her idiosyncrasies makes that show even more fascinating. That is, for all the deeply rooted anger that Simone was and is known for, the show was an intimate encounter with her audience. It was as if she thrived on the contact with the crowd; that the connection served as a lifeline as she sought to be accepted for who she was – an uncompromising diva to be reckoned with.

Nina Simone’s life story can best be summed up as an extremely influential, original artist who was scarred by personal, racial and social injustices (both real and imagined). A non-conformist, Simone confronted said injustices directly and as swiftly as possible. And, at the same time, she used those same wrongdoings to fuel her art. A product and barometer of the times, Nina came to prominence in the 60’s. Although she still continued to record and perform through to the end of her life, it was that decade that defined both her artistry and her social consciousness. If Simone stopped performing and recording immediately following those years she still would have earned her place in the annals of modern music. Accordingly, it truly can be said that, as one writer stated, “to really understand the 60’s, you had to hear Nina”.

Simone, (1933-2003), was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. The sixth of eight children, Simone was part of a respected family. Her mother was a Methodist minister and worked as a domestic while her father helped support the family as a handy man. While not well off by any means, the family lived comfortably, and were mainstays of the Tyron black community.

Nina was a true child prodigy as a gifted pianist at the age of 4. It was a year later that young Eunice started both accompanying her mother at Sunday services as well the church choir. Coincidentally, around this time Eunice started taking lessons from a local piano teacher, Murial Mazzanovich. “Miz Mazzy” or “my white momma”, as Simone referred to Mazzanovich, unlocked her passion for the masters: Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert. She also served as inspiration for Nina’s plans to become America’s first great black female concert pianist.

Word of Nina’s extraordinary talent spread quickly with people travelling from miles around to attend her piano recitals. One such recital at a local library when Nina was 11 first raised her sensitivity to racism. It happened that Simone’s parents were told to move from their front row seats to make room for white patrons. In one of a number of acts of defiance in her life, Simone refused to continue unless her parents were allowed to return to their rightful place.

In her quest to fulfill her concert pianist dreams Simone attended the summer program at The Julliard School in New York City in hopes of readying herself for an audition for acceptance at The Curtis Institute Of Music in Philadelphia. Nina’s parents were so sure of her impending approval that they moved the family to Philadelphia. However, despite a well-received performance, her application was denied thus leading Simone to believe that it was due to racial discrimination. Although there was no evidence to support her belief, it nonetheless left a lifelong wound and further embittered her perception of the world. A world in which she was firmly convinced racially motivated biases played a major role in her life going forward.

Needing money to continue her studies, Simone took a job at an Atlantic City dive, The Midtown Bar & Grill, as a cocktail pianist. Eunice Waymon was now officially “Nina Simone” as she sought to keep the fact that she was playing “the Devil’s music” a secret from her minister mother. Her initial, all instrumental, repertoire consisted of Gospel numbers, mixed with Jazz standards, and Classical pieces. However, Nina was told that to keep her job that she would have to sing. Although a new experience, Simone quickly adapted, unleashing her husky, expressive, smooth contralto voice – typically, the lowest register of the female range – first on a set of songs she learned from a Billie Holiday album and later expanded her collection to include Blues, Folk, and Show tunes – all performed in typical Simone fashion. That is, although she played various genres, she wasn’t confined by their boundaries thereby making all that she sang a deeply personal statement.

Simone moved to New York in the mid fifties and established her reputation in clubs in Greenwich Village. The Village, known for its progressive attitudes, proved to be a perfect setting for Simone’s mix of Jazz, Folk, and Blues always suspended by a Classical touch. Not only did she enjoy rave reviews for her performances, but with her staunch stance on all race related matters, Simone also attracted the attention of some of Black America’s outspoken literary minds including James Baldwin.

A person who had his hand on the musical pulse of the times, and recognized the brilliance of her Village performances, was Syd Nathan of King Records who signed Simone to his Bethlehem subsidiary. Due to disagreements regarding the label’s promotional efforts, their partnership would only produce one album – Little Girl Blue, (AKA Jazz As Played In An Exclusive East Side Street Club). The release, an auspicious debut consisting of primarily Jazz and Gospel flavoured entrees with Classical sensibilities, was recorded in 1957, (when Nina was 24 years old), and released in 1959. It yielded the definitive take of “I Loves You Porgy” – even eclipsing Billie Holiday’s version – that earned Simone a #2 R&B, #18 Pop hit. It should be noted that Simone identified with the song, (“I love you Porgy / Don’t let him take me / Don’t let him handle me with his hot hands…”), and it would be a staple of her live set going forward.

More than 30 releases, (not including compilations), followed on other labels including Colpix, Phillips, RCA, Verve, and Elektra, as she recorded prolifically through to 1993. The bulk of those releases were in her zenith, the 60’s. It was in the 60’s that Simone not only released some of the best albums of her career but also established herself as a true star. Simone was a critics’ darling and a performer who could consistently sell out a show no matter the venue.

Playing a vital role in Simone’s rise to fame was her manager / husband Andrew Stroud. Stroud, an admirer from afar was a tough New York City detective when they met. After marrying Simone, Stroud retired from the force to manage her career. Stroud was an unrelenting driver who had well laid plans to make Simone successful. Stroud had Nina working constantly, capitalized on every opportunity, and succeeded in securing a number of high profile gigs. (Notable in his efforts is that Stroud put up his own money to finance a concert at Carnegie Hall thereby fulfilling Nina’s lifelong dream of playing the performance hall). Those dates were successful in their own right, and, in addition, helped fuel her album sales. Nina released 7 critically acclaimed albums in that time period – primarily on Colpix, a label that allowed Simone creative freedom:
Nina Simone Live At Newport (1960)
Nina Simone Live At The Village Gate (1962)
Nina Simone Live At Carnegie Hall (1963)
Nina Simone In Concert (1964)
I Put A Spell On You (1965)
Nina Simone Sings The Blues (1967)
‘Nuff Said (1968)
It’s no coincidence that the majority of the albums are recordings of live performances because it was in a live setting that Simone excelled. Here, she stepped outside of herself, and was left to her own devices to feed off of transfixed audiences with improvisational displays of virtuosity.

Some of Nina’s best known songs are contained on the above mentioned albums, (in addition to other 60’s releases), including:
“Trouble In Mind”
“Work Song”
“Love Me Or Leave Me”
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
“Feeling Good”
“I Put A Spell On You”
“Backlash Blues”
“Mississippi Goddam”
“To Be Young Gifted And Black”

But all was not sunshine and roses in the Simone / Stroud household. Despite living very well in a Mount Vernon NY house, complete with a butler and a maid, in an upscale neighbourhood, and happily bringing a daughter into the world, trouble was lurking around the corner.

Nina was growing weary; she complained of a feeling of emptiness and of the constant touring, while Stroud refused to let up. Making matters worse, Simone was subjected to physical abuse at the hands of her husband on more than one occasion. (One particularly inglorious moment for Stroud occurred after he saw a fan pass Nina a note at one of her concerts. In a fit of jealousy, Stroud proceeded to beat Nina in the dressing room and on the ride home. Once at home, he supposedly tied Nina to a chair as he continued to beat her).

The beatings, no doubt added to Nina’s stated feeling of emptiness, and resulted in Nina acting out her frustrations in public. While Nina was a strong woman, she was easily wounded by perceived injustices. The smallest incident could set her off resulting in rather inappropriate behaviour. For example, she became known for scolding her audience, in mid song, if she thought they weren’t being attentive. In other instances she would leave the stage for lengths of time for reasons known only to her.

Looking to fill the void coincided with current events that reawakened Simone’s acute sensitivity to racism and sparked Simone’s anger. On such incident cut deeply – the white supremacist terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963 that resulted in the death of 4 young girls.

In response, it took an enraged Simone one hour to write “Mississippi Goddam”:
“Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air

I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam”

The fuse had been lit as Nina became consumed with the Civil Rights Movement and her associated hate. As an artist, her immediate response was a desire to only sing civil rights songs, (“the important ones”), because as Simone summed it up “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”. Accordingly, Simone became a major voice of the Black Power Movement as she aligned herself not with Martin Luther King – who upon meeting him for the first time Simone let him know that “I’m not non-violent” – but with Stokely Carmichael whose fierce philosophies coincided with Simone’s inclinations.

But as the 60’s were drawing to a close Simone started paying for her violence leaning civil rights stance in that promoters were reluctant to book her. In addition, her relationship with her husband – who wasn’t totally on board with her Back Nationalist posturing in the first place – was becoming more and more frayed. The result was that Nina left Stroud in 1970.

Without Stroud’s grounding and direction Simone’s career was at a standstill. In interviews she confided that she felt abandoned by the Movement and that her preoccupation with civil rights activities had sabotaged her career. She went on to say, as a result, that she could no longer perform the so-called “important songs”.

After flailing around rudderless for a number of years Simone took her 12 year old daughter and moved first to Barbados and then to Liberia in 1974, never to return to the States on a permanent basis for the rest of her life. In Liberia she sought refuge from her professional life and in the two years that she lived there she – for all intents and purposes – retired; never playing a gig, or the piano for that matter. At the same time her behaviour was becoming more and more erratic, (including beating her daughter without provocation and / or for the slightest indiscretion), as her life appeared to be spinning out of control.

After her daughter moved back to the States to live with her father, Simone moved to Switzerland, (playing a somewhat confounding but well-received set at The Montreux Jazz Festival), and then to France in the hopes of reviving her career. Simone eventually ended up in Paris with a resident booking at a small club for $300 a night – unbecoming for an international star of her stature to say the least. Her performances alternated between genius and disaster. Compounding the problem was that Simone was drinking excessively, further altering her inconsistent behaviour, while not minding the necessities required for healthy living.

In the mid 80’s a Dutch admirer and friend Gerrit de Bruin happened to catch one of her shows, and along with Simone’s long time guitarist Al Schackman, came to her rescue. Not only did de Bruin find her a reasonable place to live and buy her clothes, (“she was dressed in rags”), but he also introduced her to a doctor who diagnosed Simone as manic depressive and bi-polar. With the help of the prescribed medication Simone’s condition started to stabilize allowing her to resume her career in earnest.

Although she would never achieve the heights that she enjoyed in the 60’s, Simone would nevertheless continue to perform and record a dozen more albums – including the fine 1984 set Live At Ronnie Scott’s, London’s famous Jazz club. (Nina would release her final album, A Single Woman, in 1993). And Simone would continue to be a major influence on artists of all genres because her music and her songs refused categorization and appealed to many. Part of that attraction was Nina’s eclectic tastes as demonstrated by covering seemingly diverse artists such as Bob Dylan and The Bee Gees, and even recording a selection from the musical “Hair”. Despite her personal issues, Nina Simone was one of the most celebrated singers of her day, and of any day. Above all else, it could rightfully be said that she made you believe. As a NY Times review of her 1992 concert at Carnegie Hall stated:
“Whether she was singing love songs or protest songs, Ms. Simone performed as though her soul was living out each injustice and heartache”

Nina Simone was living her final years battling lung cancer, and a few days before her death Simone was awarded an honorary degree by the Curtis Institute of Music, the music school that had refused to admit her as a student as a teenager. Nina Simone died in her sleep at home in Carry-le-Rouet France in 2003.

And, among a number of other awards, after several years of getting slighted from a spot, Nina Simone was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.


  1. Mood Indigo
  2. I Loves You Porgy
  3. My Baby Just Cares For Me
  4. Work Song
  5. Love Me Or Leave Me
  6. Mississippi Goddam
  7. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be free
  8. Trouble In Mind
  9. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
  10. I Put A Spell On You
  11. Sinnerman
  12. Feeling Good
  13. Four Women
  14. Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair
  15. Do I Move You?
  16. I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl
  17. Backlash Blues
  18. I Ain’t Got No / I’ve Got Life
  19. To Be Young Gifted And Black
  20. Nobody’s Fault But Mine
  21. Baltimore
  • Rico Ferrara, July 2021