“The cycle goes round and round”: Nina Simone’s animated interview with radio host Lilian Terry in 1968

By on December 1, 2015

“I feel more alive now than I ever have in my life…” says Nina Simone in the latest PBS Digital Blank on Blank flash animated cartoon, which comes from an interview she did with radio host and singer Lilian Terry, shortly after her appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival and the recent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. “The cycle goes round, and round. It’s time for us.”

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Simone, it was said at the time, did not enjoy talking with white people, but Terry — who produced jazz radio shows and documentaries for Italy’s national radio and TV company RAI at the time — saw her backstage at the Festival and desperately wanted to meet the passionate civil rights activist.

She approached her friend, the legendary jazz drummer Max Roach, to make the introductions, and it was Roach who pointed out to Simone that Lilian Terry was born in Cairo, Egypt, to a father from Malta and a mother from Italy. Soon thereafter, Simone and Terry were talking at Simone’s home in Mt. Vernon, New York, about Nefertitti and the pharaohs, and a variety of other topics.

Simone discusses hopes for the future despite the turmoil in the world at the time. The legendary songwriter/pianist and singer — a standout performer who excelled in many genres, particularly jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop — talked about her strong political convictions and, in particular, her song “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” written her bass player, Gene Taylor, the next day immediately following Dr. King’s murder.

What’s gonna happen now? In all of our cities?
My people are rising; they’re living in lies.
Even if they have to die
Even if they have to die at the moment they know what life is
Even at that one moment that ya know what life is
If you have to die, it’s all right
Cause you know what life is
You know what freedom is for one moment of your life

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In her 1992 memoir I Put A Spell On You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone, written with Stephen Cleary, Simone called King’s assassination “the traditional white American tactic for getting rid of black leaders it couldn’t suppress in any other way.” The immediate aftermath was “a time for bitterness.”

Simone was about to begin her first rehearsals for a concert at Long Island’s Westbury Music Fair — a middle-class concert hall well outside New York proper — when she’d learned that King had been killed, on April 4, 1968. Before she had even played a note that evening, the country had already descended into chaos, riots breaking out in 125 American cities, resulting in 46 deaths and more than 2,600 injuries.

“It’s a good time for black people to be alive,” Simone told Terry. “It’s a lot of hell and a lot of violence, but I feel more alive now than I ever have in my life.”

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Simone — who grew up in North Carolina not having any particularly strong political leanings — had started to become more and more aware of what was happening in the world, and she’d already declined an invitation to perform at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee-sponsored event at Carnegie Hall in 1963, and was just beginning to feel a need to express herself through her songs when civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated on June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s nationally televised Civil Rights Address.

Then, on September 15, 1963, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan ignited at least 15 sticks of dynamite underneath the front steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls, Simone became more radicalized in her political beliefs, and was moved to write one of her signature songs, the seminal protest anthem “Mississippi Goddam.”

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Simone — in addition to her own amazing songs, was adored by her fans for her versions of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and “I Put a Spell on You,” among many others — was recently featured in Liz Garbus’s documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which began airing on Netflix this past June.

Nina Simone also spoke with Terry about parenting and her hopes and fears for her daughter’s Lisa’s future, about fashion and her own stage style, and the songs she had written for the the new musical Hair, which had just opened on Broadway.

“If you come out and you look the way you want to look, you will create a mood before you even open your mouth. And sometimes, that can be enough to get your audience exactly in the groove where you want them.”

(Listen to and watch all of the PBS Digital/Blank on Blank animated interviews here).

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.