Princess Noire: We Knew She Was a Genius

With a few more days left to celebrate Black Music Month, we chose to post this excerpt from Nadine Cohodas’ Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. This book and a few other titles were featured on a recommended reading list commemorating some of the incredible things black people have brought to music as a whole.

John Irvin sang in a St. Luke quartet and played guitar with his father; Lucille, Carrol, Harold, and Dorothy sang in the church choir, but even before their baby sister could walk, they realized she had more musical talent than all of them. “When she was eight months old, my daughter hummed ‘Down by the Riverside’ and ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ ” Kate said. “I had a quilt that I had on the floor for her, and she wanted to look at magazines. Every time she saw a musical note, she tried to sing.”

Parishioners at St. Luke commented, when they saw little Eunice at church, that she clapped in time to the hymns. She must be blessed, they told her parents. By the time she was two and a half, Eunice could hoist herself onto the stool in front of the organ, sit at the keyboard, and make sounds come out, and not just any sounds. One time she played her mother’s favorite hymn, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” without a mistake.

“We knew she was a genius by the time she was three,” her brother Carrol declared, and it is a tribute to her parents that Eunice’s brothers and sisters did not begrudge the attention and opportunities that came her way. “She was preserved,” Dorothy remembered, exempted from the typical chores, washing dishes and the like. “Her fingers were protected. She was always special in that way. Nobody was jealous,” Dorothy added. “We adored her.”

Eunice took this special status in stride because her parents insisted on it. She didn’t dare get a swelled head. Yes, she had talent, her parents told her, but the talent was God-given, and she should be grateful. Eunice didn’t know what a “prodigy” was when people called her that, and no one at home explained it to her either. All she knew was that she absorbed the music she heard, especially the religious songs her mother sang around the house, “I’ll Fly Away” and “If You Pray Right (Heaven Belongs to You).” Kate sang when she cleaned and when she baked, and Eunice loved it when her mother, rarely missing a beat, sat her on the countertop, gave her an empty jam jar, and let her cut out shapes from the biscuit dough about to go in the oven.

As a full-fledged minister now, Kate traveled through the surrounding counties preaching and leading services. When Eunice turned four, Kate took her out on the road to open her events. Most of the time Eunice could barely reach the pedals on the church piano, which made the sight of this little girl dressed in her Sunday best even more arresting. The audience was primed to be impressed before she struck the first note, and Eunice didn’t disappoint. Though it might have seemed inappropriate, even cruel, to put a toddler to work, even the Lord’s work, Eunice liked the adventure of seeing new places and visiting new churches. If she was tired at the end of these services, she slept in the back seat of the car on the way back to Tryon, undisturbed by the occasional jostling on the bumpy rural roads.

J.D.’S JOB in the federal recovery program ended just as Kate’s preaching duties began to consume more of her time. At some point in this period, probably 1935 or 1936, he also closed the dry cleaning shop and took a new job cooking at a Boy Scout camp on Lake Lanier, the large man-made lake just south of town. Created in 1924 by damming one of the creeks, the lake now served the dual purposes of recreation for well-heeled white residents and a reservoir for the surrounding area. An ad to induce the sale of lots promised “They Rise Together—Land Values—Water Values,” with a barometer for illustration. The fringe benefits of J.D.’s new job included the extra food he brought home from camp and the chance to take his oldest son with him.

Nadine Cohodas is the author of, among other books, Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington