The new documentary about Nina Simone is making the rounds. It may not ever reach local theaters (it’s a Netflix production, available for streaming), but several weeks ago the Pilot Light, the Old City nightclub that usually hosts interesting live music, showed it to a crowd. There is no one much like Simone (1933-2003), who forged her own way among jazz vocalists, both creatively and tragically on her own.
The documentary’s title, What Happened, Miss Simone?, refers to her psychological disintegration, at the height of her influence. According to her family, she suffered extremes of bipolar disorder. She was a sophisticated, insightful, and talented woman, but she was unpredictable, depressive, and at times severe, even when she was onstage.
In a section about her punishing schedule, several viewers notice a surprise. A typewritten schedule sheet, shown for a few seconds, notes a show at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, on Nov. 14. The year isn’t noted.
Simone spent much of her adulthood in Africa and Europe, and cultivated a worldly, exotic persona. But she was born and raised just about 150 miles southeast of here, in Tryon, N.C. They knew her, in the ’30s and ’40s, as Eunice Waymon, the talented young pianist with big dreams.
Tryon is hillier than Knoxville. If we don’t think of Nina Simone as a Southern Appalachian, we just need to broaden our expectations of what Southern Appalachians look like. The documentary points out that she grew up in a segregated, discriminatory, but supportive community that raised money to send her to study classical piano at Juilliard. She aspired to be the world’s first black classical concert pianist. When that didn’t work out as planned, she settled for becoming a legendary jazz vocalist.
I knew something of her legend, but was unaware she ever performed here. She influenced young poet Nikki Giovanni, who wrote that she first encountered Simone’s music here in her hometown, but only via the nickel jukebox at the Carter-Roberts Drugstore on old Vine Avenue, around 1958, when her rendition of “I Loves You Porgy” was a hit. A few years later, Giovanni and Simone would occupy comparable places in the Black Power movement.
Eric Dawson, Mercury columnist and staffer at the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, noticed the mention of Simone’s Knoxville show and tried to look it up. Because he found a brief mention of it in a 1965 UT yearbook, he thinks her appearance at UT was on Nov. 14, 1964. But it’s not mentioned in either daily paper. Popular music was often ignored by journalists in those days. That date would put it at the height of her influence on the political fringe; her controversial song “Mississippi Goddam,” which condemns the white reaction to civil-rights advances, singling out Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee (“caused me to lose my rest,” she sang), caused a stir earlier that year.
It reminded me of a question about another jazz legend of an earlier generation, Chick Webb. He rarely toured, and the New Yorker rarely toured the South, but according to the 2012 documentary, The Savoy King, he did once play Knoxville, in the mid-1930s. Where? When, exactly? We don’t know, yet.
If you witnessed either of those shows, please drop me a line. Webb is a long shot, but I bet there’s someone out there who remembers Simone.
I thought I’d add a related personal note to the Knox County Public Library’s ambitious digitization project, From Paper to Pixels. A year or two ago, I experienced a particularly dramatic demonstration of the value of that service, in its absence. I was working on a big book about the Tennessee Theatre.
Everybody grew up hearing about the Tennessee’s first golden era, about 1928 to 1940, mainly by way of a dutifully enumerated list of performers: Glenn Miller, Fannie Bryce, Tom Mix, Helen Hayes, Desi Arnaz. Sometimes, but not always, the exotic singer and dancer Fifi D’Orsay was included.
But what did they do at the Tennessee? How were they received? When were they there? Just a date would answer most of our questions. But we didn’t even have that, except in the case of Glenn Miller and his orchestra. His national live broadcast at the Tennessee in 1940 was documented.
To tell the story, we needed more than that. I never doubted that Fannie Bryce, Tom Mix, Helen Hayes, and Desi Arnaz performed on the Tennessee’s stage. Though mainly a movie theater, the Tennessee had live performers every night, and Knoxville was about as good as any mid-sized market for touring shows and promotions, for traveling vaudeville troupes, and later, in the mid-’30s—surprisingly, considering it was the depths of the Depression—a few really big shows, including some of those that offered dozens of dancing girls.
It was an elusive quest. We didn’t have dates for most of these seemingly memorable events, and newspapers from that era aren’t indexed.
With some help of a couple of others, I had to crank through miles of newspaper microfilm. Hundreds of man-hours went into finding all that, and other stuff unknown, like the fact that the Grand Old Opry once did a 1935 road show there, when Uncle Dave Macon was the star.
Some had begun to lose faith in the sketchiest of all the legends: that Fifi D’Orsay was there once. She was kind of racy for Knoxville’s biggest theater. Finding her local show on microfilm was a memorable afternoon.
I’m proud of all the work we did on that, the perspiration and the inspiration, the trudging and the triangulating. I figured I’d spend the rest of my life answering the question, “How the hell did you find all that?”
With From Paper to Pixels, what took me hundreds of hours will soon take just a few minutes. And you’ll be able to do it at home, with a cold beer. It will be routine.
I’m strangely okay with that. Though like any crusty old adventurer, I’ll still enjoy telling the stories of how difficult, and fun, it was.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.
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