She met any transgression with such a withering glare that her eyes were more like flamethrowers than headlights; the voice imperious, with a crust of sarcasm. Nina Simone could scare the pants off her band and fans, alike. Watch, in Netflix’s gripping What Happened, Miss Simone?, her stop playing to demand a hapless audience member sit down. She was not to be denied.
She was also a potentially frightening parent, and the sparks certainly flew between Nina and her sole child, Lisa, who, like every child, just wanted her mother’s blessing.
Nina’s fierceness was a broiling mix of high artistry, bipolarity and a lifetime’s subjection to racism. Her take-no-prisoners attitude made her the only singer in the jazz/R&B pantheon to match Billie Holiday’s searing emotional truth. Add her unforgettable songs and pianistic brilliance, and it was no wonder Lisa watched from the wings in awe.
That did not automatically make Lisa pursue music, however. Born in New York in 1962, she had some 13 nannies while her father, ex-cop Andy Stroud (Nina’s manager as well as husband), pushed a merciless touring schedule to capitalise on his wife’s world-wide popularity. When Nina had suffered enough of Stroud’s bullying and violence, they divorced. Lisa, then 10, stayed with her mother.
“We became nomads,” she says, “travelling all around as she picked up the pieces of her career and her personal life, and became a single mother… The mom that I had known to be soft ceased to exist anymore. By the time I was about 14 I was going to an international boarding school in Lausanne, and our relationship became extremely strained.”
Lisa used a one-way ticket to land on her father’s New York doorstep and announce she’d left her mother. She completed her schooling there, sang gospel, and was invited to join a touring band. “My aunt,” she recalls, “who was taking care of me, looked at me, wagged her finger and said, ‘You’re not going to live that kind of life!'”
Desperate to expunge the adults from her life, she combined her last year of high school and first year of college, and when her college plans turned sour, she peremptorily joined the US Airforce. “My mother attended my high school graduation, much to my surprise,” Lisa says. “When I told her I was going in the military… she was filled with shock, fear and disbelief. I kind of milked the moment.”
Being an Airforce engineering assistant was like “sleep-walking for the next 10 years”, until Lisa had an epiphany. “I was a body-builder and an aerobics instructor in addition to the job I was doing,” she explains, “so my body was my temple, and to go to a bistro with my girlfriend and have a glass of wine was a really big deal. A black gentleman was playing the piano, and usually when people tap their foot they tap their heel or toe. He lifted his entire leg up.” This reminded her of attending church with her grandmother. “I became so inspired that I went up and started singing with him.”
Music opportunities instantly materialised, this time with no adults to discourage her. “I felt this fire in my heart, my soul, my bones,” she says. “I told my mother, ‘Mom! I know what I’m going to do! I’m going to be a singer!’ The line was quiet for so long I thought that our connection had been cut. Then she just let out one word with a whole lot of feeling.”
Lisa’s father was no more supportive, and she was seven years into her wildly diverse musical career (singing rock, funk, gospel, Broadway, folk, jazz and blues) before her parents saw her play Mimi Marquez in Rent on Broadway. “Then they realised I had a modicum of talent, and started to talk to me about shop,” she says. “One night when my mom came to see me, we were walking out arm-in-arm together, and a fan was running up behind us yelling, ‘Miss Simone! Miss Simone!’ We both turned around, and I had this gnawing feeling in stomach, like, ‘Please be talking to my mother, please.’ And the fan ran up to me, and my mother and I looked at each other, and she gave me the nod. I got her blessing. It was like, ‘Okay, baby. Okay.’
“By the time my mom passed, she was one of my biggest fans. She’d come to see me in all my shows. She had all my music, and we were actually talking about recording together.”
Lisa performed live with her mother once, in Dublin in 1999. “She invited me to share the stage with her, which is something I had always dreamed of as a child in the wings,” she says. They performed two songs, including Music for Lovers, with Nina playing the unprecedented role of accompanist. “Towards the end she burst into song with me, and I really thought I was going to start crying,” says Lisa. “It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”
She describes her mother’s songs, which she recorded on Simone on Simone and performs in tribute concerts, as her brothers and sisters. “I’ve lived with them all my life,” she says. “I’ve been listening to her music since I was in mom’s belly, and it comes very natural for me.”
Given she brings her own artistry to the songs, what would her mother think?
“She would say, ‘Go, baby. Sing the songs.’ She would be thrilled.”
Lisa Simone: State Theatre, April 10, 2021