If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it must first of all be sincere.
Simone Craddock ticks that box with Nina, Love Simone, her heartfelt tribute to Nina Simone which won the Music and Musicals Award at Fringe World this year.
A reboot in March was locked down by COVID-19 but revived at Ellington Jazz Club this week for an admiring, cognoscenti crowd.
Events since the Fringe open the question: can a white woman sing black music, given the implosion in race relations in Simone’s homeland?
Craddock counters that Simone’s work is even more relevant now; and she clearly represents but in no way pretends to be her idol.
A rollicking piano intro from accompanist Adrian Galante set the scene for Craddock’s entry: “I’m going to tell you a story about a little girl called Eunice Waymon.”
Warmth in presentation and clear diction over perfectly pitched piano instantly broke the ice as the duo rolled out the tale of an aspiring classical pianist who found that door closed, perhaps by the hand of fate.
Sinnerman was a pin-drop moment. Management had requested no talking during the show, but there was no need to ask.
Attention was fixed and intensified by the anguish of the story as Simone morphed from bar-room piano-playing chanteuse into full-blown star with I Loves you Porgy (1958).
A feather-light touch in voice and piano found Simone’s inflection but left Craddock free to express her own talents in Love Me or Leave Me.
Simone’s doomed marriage summoned the rhythmic pulse of Chain Gang, before I Put a Spell on You unleashed Chicago-style blues, with thundering piano and a belting voice to match.
Mood morphed back to tender for My Baby Just Cares for Me, starting as a lullaby for Simone’s daughter, Lisa, rolling into the well-known swing jazz vamp in flirty tone, before returning to lullaby.
Turbulent piano introduced Backlash Blues, against the narrative of 1960s civil rights protests, while Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood showed real relish for the journey.
“Singing for her people filled a hole in Nina’s heart left by classical music,” Craddock said.
That thought hung in the air for Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood, before the story turned to Simone meeting David Bowie in the ’70s, inspiring a crooner-like Wild in the Wind, then moved to Barbados for Sugar in my Bowl, full of delicious double-entendre.
An African sojourn brought on Here Comes the Sun, with a good ole Southern drawl in piano and voice.
Craddock’s versatility mapped out Simone’s range, as the “high priestess of soul” explored many genres.
“What would have happened if she’d become the first female black concert pianist?” Craddock asked.
“Could she have reached, inspired and empowered so many people?”
Might have beens always remain, but the emotional power of If You Go Away spoke to the paradox of Simone’s alienation and defiant belonging.
Her death in France in 2003 – just days after the classical institute that rejected her awarded an honorary doctorate – set the scene for a triumphant Feeling Good and I Wish I Knew How, rocking out an intimate, inspiring celebration.