(Lahr’s article appeared in the London Review of Books, 6/16.)

In June 1954, the tall, wary 21-year-old classical pianist Eunice Waymon found herself outside the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey a few blocks north of the Boardwalk. Waymon, who had spent most of her hard-striving life in North Carolina, the sixth of eight offspring born to grandchildren of slaves, had never before been in a bar. She had been hired at $90 a week to play five hours a night. The salary, considerably higher than her pay as an accompanist to a New York vocal coach, would help her to defray the cost of piano tuition and to pursue her lifelong ambition to become America’s first black classical pianist. By her own account, the Midtown was a ‘crummy joint’ but she approached it as a classical venue. For the gig, she brought her make-up, a pink chiffon dress, and a stage name, improvised on the spot, to hide her louche employment from her mother, a Methodist minister who moonlighted as a maid. ‘Nina Simone’ is how she announced herself to the Midtown regulars. With a glass of milk beside her on the piano, Simone shut her eyes and began to play. At 4 a.m., when the set was over, she approached Harry Stewart, the owner and ‘host’, to ask how he liked her playing. Why hadn’t she sung? he asked. ‘I’m only a pianist,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow night,’ Stewart said, ‘you’re either a singer, or you’re out of a job.’


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