Nina Simone and David Bowie were complex souls. They both faced brutal battles, understood one another’s struggles and were there for each other when they formed an unlikely bond during the 1970s. Her friendship and artistry was a source of inspiration for Bowie and vice versa.
Their paths collided in 1974 in strange circumstances, it was purely accidental, but it felt like fate that it happened when it did. Coincidentally, it was a week after Simone was an audience member with her daughter at Bowie’s concert at Madison Square Garden. Then, as luck would have it, they were both in the same members club, and a friendship was born.
As she was leaving the venue, Bowie invited her to sit down, exchanging phone numbers. That same evening, at 3:00am, he rang her, and she opened up about the problems she was fighting. Later recalling, “He said, ‘The first thing I want you to know is that you’re not crazy—don’t let anybody tell you you’re crazy, because where you’re coming from, there are very few of us out there’.”
Simone was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been taking medication secretly since the ’60s. She was accustomed to suffering dark episodes in which her behaviour would dramatically change, and the condition would take over the real Nina. For the next 30 days, Bowie would make sure he checked up on Simone every evening, and the two would talk through the night. Later, Bowie finally visited her. “He looked just like Charlie Chaplin, a clown suit, a big black hat. He told me that he was not a gifted singer and he knew it,” she remembered.
“He said, ‘What’s wrong with you is you were gifted—you have to play. Your genius overshadows the money, and you don’t know what to do to get your money, whereas I wasn’t a genius, but I planned, I wanted to be a rock-and-roll singer and I just got the right formula’.”
Adding: “He’s got more sense than anybody I’ve ever known,” she added. “It’s not human—David ain’t from here.”
While the influence of Bowie impacted Simone on a personal level, he took inspiration from her in equal measure. In 1976, he paid tribute to their friendship by recording a version of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ on Station to Station.
It was the only track he didn’t pen on the whole album, and although Simone didn’t initially record the song either, ‘Wild Is The Wind’ is definitively her song. She first recorded it in 1959, before releasing it as the title track of a compilation album in 1966, which was a version that Bowie treasured. He later commented that his decision to place it on Station to Station was a simple one, explaining that Simone’s take on the track “really affected me,” he said, before adding: “I recorded it as a homage to Nina.”
Simone’s career was going through a lull during this moment, and Bowie’s glowing words about her were just what she needed to hear. While she’s remembered as one of the most striking vocalists that America has produced, even icons can go through periods of flux, but this friendship, and knowing how much she meant as both an artist, and more importantly, a human to ‘The Thin White Duke’ which mattered the most.