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Good Afternoon

A life of sad songs for Nina Simone, Tammy Wynette

Was there ever a performer who looked - or sounded - remotely like Nina Simone? A classically trained pianist and reluctant singer, she created an extraordinary mash-up of jazz, gospel, R&B, blues, show tunes, French chansons and American folk music. With original songs like "Mississippi Goddam" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," she became a torchbearer for civil rights. At her peak, in the '60s and '70s, Simone performed, regally, in fishnet pantsuits, colorful caftans, exotic headwraps and big dangly earrings. The music was suffused with a fragile melancholy, but she was notorious for her onstage furies, staring down or snapping at inattentive audiences. Biographer Nadine Cohodas attempts to make sense of this complex artist in "Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone" (Pantheon, $30).

Simone was born Eunice Waymon in Tyron, N.C., in 1933. Sent to a local white woman for piano lessons, she dreamed of a concert career, only to be devastated when the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia rejected her. (Simone believed that race was to blame; Cohodas observes that Curtis was highly competitive.) She began performing a nightclub act in small clubs in Philly and then New York, under a stage name to avoid the disapproval of her churchgoing mother. Simone eventually played Carnegie Hall (a childhood dream) and venues around the globe.

As the years progressed, Simone's behavior, on- and offstage, became more erratic. None of her artistic success, Cohodas writes, "could ward off the private turmoil that left her distracted, fatigued, and, in the worst episodes, delusional." Financial woes fueled her deep sense of being wronged. Heavily medicated and almost unmanageable, she died of breast cancer in 2003.

Cohodas, who has written books on Dinah Washington and Chess Records, is a lucid biographer but seems overwhelmed by the tumult referred to in her subtitle. What caused Simone's mental instability? Schizophrenia comes up in passing, but the author skirts the discussion rather than facing down the complexities. Elsewhere, Cohodas alludes to affairs with women (Simone was twice married and divorced), but leaves the topic otherwise unexplored. In the end, we can only turn again to Simone's music and marvel at its fierce originality.

There's plenty of tumult in "Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen" (Viking, $27.95), and biographer Jimmy McDonough dives right in and splashes around. One subject interviewed here described the singer's '70s Nashville house as "Redneck Gothic," and that salty phrase fits her life story, too - a crazy swirl of No. 1 country hits, blond dye jobs, multiple marriages, prescription drug addictions and one kidnap hoax, played out in the supermarket tabloids.

Born in 1942, Virginia Wynette Pugh grew up in Red Bay, Ala., pop. 3,374. She was a pure product of the rural South, but McDonough finds that stories of childhood cotton-picking suggested more hardship than was actually the case. ("She probably picked cotton so she could put on shorts and get a suntan," one friend quips.) After a failed early marriage, she drove to Birmingham with just $5 (borrowed) in her handbag, worked in a beauty salon and started singing on an early-morning TV show.

In 1968, it was on to Nashville, a second marriage, a recording contract and a string of hit singles (including "I Don't Wanna Play House" and "Stand by Your Man") that milked the pathos of her voice and private reservoirs of pain.

Her rise to success must have been headspinning. Soon, she'd caught the eye of mercurial honky-tonk singer George Jones, a childhood idol; their on-again off-again marriage, enacted in the powerhouse duets they recorded together, was the stuff of country music legend.

As described here, the years after Jones were a slow, agonizing decline. Despite a passionate fan base and frenetic touring schedule, the hits stopped coming, and Wynette married twice more - unhappily, according to McDonough. She struggled with illness and addiction to painkillers. Her death in 1998, like Michael Jackson's last year, raised troubling questions of drug abuse and culpability.

"I want you to feel this woman's presence as deeply as I feel her songs," writes McDonough, whose previous subjects include Neil Young and B-movie director Russ Meyer. McDonough must've talked to everyone who ever knew Wynette, and their stories - full of evocative Southernisms, lovingly transcribed - are one of the book's great pleasures. The author's mash notes to his subject, interspersed throughout the text, probably cross the line, but "Tammy Wynette" certainly does conjure the lady, in all her weird, heartbreaking glory.

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