Elton spoke to reporter Ingrid Sischy for Interview magazine, August 1, 2003, about the late singer Nina Simone:
INGRID SISCHY: As you know, Nina Simone died this spring at the age of 70. In addition to being a powerful voice in the civil rights movement, she was one of the 20th century’s all-time great singers. Since August is always the month we do our music special, I thought it only right that we take a moment to remember this unique and brilliant artist.
ELTON: We saw some incredible women singers in the 20th century: Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Home, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald–the list goes on. But if I think about who had the biggest impact on me; the answer is Nina Simone. She was a great, classically trained pianist; she wrote songs like Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” at a time when these songs needed to be written; she recorded songs by the Beatles and Jacques Brel. She had an unsurpassed range. Speaking as a musician and as a songwriter, I think she was the greatest female artist of the 20th century.
IS: I was a college student when I was first introduced to her music, and I remember that once I heard it I couldn’t stop playing it. What is it about her voice that made it so special, so haunting, so deep?
EJ: It’s an unusual voice, semi-operatic in a way, that’s filled with sadness, anger, love, social consciousness, style–
EJ: Yes. Billie Holiday’s voice was tinged with sadness and pain; Nina Simone’s was, too, but hers was also filled with anger. She was recording at a time when people needed to speak out and be angry, and she was angry until the day she died. The other thing about her voice is that it could adapt itself to any song and to any lyric. She was a great interpreter. Nobody sang “Ne Me Quitte Pas” better, not even Dusty Springfield, who had her own brilliant version. Nobody but Brel sang Brel better. There is something joyous about being able to make a lyric that you’ve heard a thousand times sound as if it was the first time you heard it, and that’s something she was able to do. Of course, she also had a really difficult side.
IS: I’ll say.
EJ: Sometimes at her performances she’d turn up and she wouldn’t sing: She’d just play the piano and talk to the audience. Towards the latter part of her life she did some shows where people demanded their money back. She was known for being “difficult,” but I think that’s because she still had a passion and anger about the unfairness of the world and about the fact that she, like so many black artists of her generation, never received her fair share of royalties for her recordings. You know, her recordings continue to sell, and I’m sure she got next to nothing for them.
IS: Did you ever meet her?
EJ: Yes, I did a benefit concert with her last year for the Rainforest Foundation. We were going to do a George Harrison tribute, and Nina had done a great version of “Here Comes the Sun.” I said, “I don’t care how much of a handful she might be, if we get her we’ll never see the likes of it again.” She may have done one or two shows after that one, but I knew when I saw her that night she wouldn’t be performing much again. At the end of the show, when we were doing the final number, she and Patti LaBelle were sitting at the front of the stage and Nina was crying, and the audience stood for her, and I think she realized that people loved her and that maybe this was the last time she was going to perform in public like this, certainly in America.
IS: I’m sure the fact that she was performing in America was very complicated for her–her love for this country, as well as her disappointment in it, even her anger, was so palpable. It’s something you can sense when you listen to her recordings of the civil rights songs.
EJ: Right, of course she left America 25 years ago and went to live in the Caribbean and then finally in Europe. I think she thought that nothing much had changed in the States. On the surface it looked as if things had changed, but she was a real radical and I don’t think she felt that enough had changed, and she was angry about it. That anger seeped into her soul, her performances, her work, and her recordings.
IS: What was her life like alter she moved to Europe? How did she survive?
EJ: She toured. She was essentially a live performer, and you never knew what to expect from her, what piano song to expect, what vocals to expect. I don’t think she ever sang the same way twice. But performing live became increasingly difficult for her health-wise.
IS: What are some of your favorite recordings of hers?
EJ: Her most famous and probably her best album is Nina Simone at Town Hall, an album which demonstrates the eclectic breadth of her material, one of the really amazing things about her. “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a traditional song, is on that album, as is “The Other Woman,” which is probably one of the finest vocal performances of all time–it’s just incredible. On songs like “Summertime” and “Cotton Eyed Joe” you can see that she never forgot her roots, but she was willing to embrace new things, like “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, “To Love Somebody” by the Bee Gees, and stuff like “I Got Life” from the musical Hair. Nina sang Kurt Weill songs, “I Loves You, Porgy” by George Gershwin, “I Put a Spell on You”–one of the greatest recordings of all time–by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. And the great thing is, you listen to those songs today and they still sound beautiful and fresh.
IS: Talk about her skills as a pianist.
EJ: She was amazing! There is a piano solo on “My Baby Just Cares for Me” that is really eccentric and different from anybody else’s. She was a child prodigy and won a scholarship to study piano at the Juilliard School.
IS: It’s especially poignant to lose her now, at a moment when freedom of expression is not necessarily a given in America.
EJ: I wish she were around now. She was politically aware and willing to put her neck on the line. She was there on the marches, in the trenches, on the front lines, and she was there on the stage singing about it. She should be 25 years old and living in America right now.
IS: Do you think it’s possible for there to be a Nina Simone today?
EJ: I wish. Never say never. She was regal. Onstage, on records–vocally regal, physically regal. She just looked noble, in a classically beautiful, African way. And Nina wore designer clothes before anyone else in the music world. She was ahead of her game. The way she dressed was poetry. She had her own complete sense of fashion. And she sang what she wanted to and she played what she wanted to; she would never have survived in this business today because singers are constantly told, “We must have a single, we must do this.” She was never, ever a commercial artist in that sense of the word. She marched to her own drummer. Nobody ever stopped her from doing that, which made her terrifying at times.
IS: She would have been a good VH1 diva.
EJ: Honey, no one could have come near her. She was the diva of divas.