BBC Radio 3 will mark what would have been Nina Simone’s 90th birthday on the weekend of 18/19 February. The birthday itself would have been on 21 February. J to Z and Freeness on Saturday 18 Feb have special programmes. On Sunday 19, Jazz Record Requests will include an interview which Alyn Shipton did in 1999. Links to all three programmes below. Here, Alyn recalls the interview, and the benefits of having the right advice:
Alyn Shipton writes: It was a sunny day in early March 1999 when I set off to Forest Mere Spa in Liphook, where Nina Simone was to give a morning of press interviews. The BBC World Service had sent me along, and I was very much in interview mode as I’d recently come back from New York, meeting musicians and producers connected with Duke Ellington, as we were planning a week of programmes to celebrate his centenary that April. Fortunately, as we compiled the first of those shows at Pebble Mill, veteran jazz producer Keith Stewart, who had met Nina before, gave me some very useful tips about how to make the conversation with her a success.
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“For a start,” he said, “always address her as Dr, Simone. She was awarded an honorary doctorate and she likes that to be recognized. If you forget, call her ‘Miss Simone’, but never ‘Nina’. And it’s always a good idea to chat to her a bit before the formal interview. She’s mad about Frank Sinatra, so mug up on the records, and have something to say about him.”
On this kind of press day, the star gives a series of 30-minute blocks of time to her interviewers, and there were to be four of us that morning, including Tim Sebastian from BBC World Service television, who was taping an edition of the Hard Talk series (*) , about her career as an activist. She’d just done that, when my producer and I were ushered in to her lakeside suite.
She was visiting the spa before a forthcoming concert, and was aiming, she told me, at a healthy diet and a spot of exercise. (I was amused to see that her diet appeared to consist entirely of orange juice and small bottles of Moët and Chandon.) Her assistant and valet manoeuvred her into position on a sofa overlooking the park, and gestured to me to sit beside her, for the sound check. I looked sideways at her and asked, “Dr. Simone, I’ve been listening to some rather good music on the way here, Sinatra at the Sands, d’you know it?” A heavy hand descended on my knee and she purred, “Young man, I can tell we’re going to get on!”
The next twenty minutes or so passed in a flash. We talked about her early days studying classical piano, the songs she most loved, and her interest in Pan- Africanism. We shook hands at the end, and her last ever BBC Radio interview
was done. As I left a young man from independent television bounced through the door. “Hi Nina!” he shouted. “I think your camera people have lit me from the wrong side,” she said. “Go away and come back when they have reset all the lights. You’ll have ten minutes.” I’ve never been more grateful to an experienced producer than to Keith, who tipped me off about how to address her and her love of Frank!
Note by Alyn Shipton: Excerpts from the interview went out on World Service Meridian on 9 March 1999. Sadly the full tape did not survive the move from Bush House. But a surviving excerpt will be broadcast in Jazz Record Requests on 19 Feb. She did make a series about her favourite music for Radio 2 the following year, but that was simply introducing records, not talking about herself. She only returned to the UK for two flying visits after that – the Bishopstock Festival in 2001, and Bridgewater Hall in 2002.