MOJO Time Machine: Nina Simone Debuts At Carnegie Hall

On 21 May 1961 Nina Simone appears for the first time at prodigous New York venue.


by Fred Dellar |
Published on

21 May 1961

The headline in The New York Times on the morning of May 22 was prosaic: “Two Folk Singers Present Concert.” But the review, penned by Robert Shelton, was thrilled when it reported that the previous night, “Two incandescent women musicians, Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone joined to give a concert late yesterday afternoon at Carnegie Hall.”

It was the first time that Nina Simone had appeared at the prestigious New York venue. The May 21 concert, a benefit for the Presbyterian Church of The Master in Harlem, saw her share a stage with her friend Makeba, the singer from the Xhosa people of South Africa whose vocals came filled with a series of distinctive clicks, providing her with a unique sound. A true world artist, Makeba offered a range of Zulu songs, calypso and folk music. Simone, equally refused to be tagged with any specific music label. Reviewer Shelton, noting that Nina’s guitarist Al Schackman sometimes supplemented his basically jazz approach with Indian flavours and that drummer Bobby Hamilton used Arabic finger cymbals, observed: “It had little to do with the traditional song she was working on but it is useless to measure the unpredictable and whimsical Miss Simone by any narrow standards.”

“It is useless to measure Miss Simone by any narrow standards.”

Life was good for Nina at that point. She had divorced husband Don Ross and had a new love in her life, Andy Stroud, a rugged-looking guy whom she’d met while working a two-week engagement at a Manhattan club a few weeks before. He’d initially told her that he was a bank-teller but the truth was that he was a Harlem cop, a detective-sergeant who’d been part of the force for some fourteen years. She’d laughed when he explained his reluctance to reveal his true occupation. Certainly he had a fearsome reputation. Frankie Lymon claimed that Stroud had once pushed a certain miscreant off a roof. “He scared me to death,” Simone said. “It was like he just took over, and I’m glad of that.”

His nearness made her feel safe, and she needed reassurance. A club booking a month earlier at New York Roundtable, had proved a disaster. It was one of those places where the clientele went to be seen and appreciated. Nina found herself facing an onslaught of offstage noise that reduced her to mainly providing instrumentals - attempting vocals proved a pointless exercise. By night three, Nina could stand no more of the disrespect. “Pack up,” she told her accompanying trio. “Don't worry about wages, I’ll pay you for the week.” Then she headed for the door.

Forbidden Fruit

At this time, the first copies of Nina’s latest album for Colpix, Forbidden Fruit, were also up for review. Billboard provided a four-star review and asserted: “Nina Simone unique vocal style is in soft rapport with the ballads and blues on this L.P. There are many rather unusual items in the set like Oscar Brown Jr.’s Rags And Old Iron, Gin House Blues, Nat Adderley’s swinging Work Song and the title tune… there are spots which spotlight the gal’s powerful piano technique. The set should go well with her many fans and could make a distinctive pop-jazz item.”

However, the album only sold moderately, failing to match the success of its predecessor, Billboard Chart number 23 Nina Simone At Newport.  Sadly, that 1960 album would be the only one that Nina would ever contribute to the U.S Pop listings. Her marriage to Stroud, though long-term, also proved an ordeal, one that crashed to earth as early as her engagement party, when Stroud, who’d downed more than his fair share of rum during the evening, beat her up.

But Nina’s love affair with Carnegie Hall continued. She was there again in 1961, appearing at a New Year’s night concert which featured her alongside John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, but had to wait until April 12, 1963 before she made her solo debut at the hall, an event documented on a fine live album released by Colpix. 1964’s In Concert would also be recorded at the famed Midtown Manhattan venue. Nina’s friendship with Miriam Makeba would also endure across the years. Makeba, The Empress Of African Song, would suggest that Simone, The High Priestess Of Soul, live in Liberia in the seventies. In 1991, they collaborated on record. And after Nina died on April 21, 2003, Miriam was there for the funeral. “She was not only an artist,” she said of her peer. “She was also a freedom fighter.”

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