When Nina Simone’s 1969 hit “Feeling Good” made her the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it became a proverbial searing cinder for men like Bobby Farrell.
“It was the sound of more than half a dozen women having a great time, and complaining about men trying to take what they had,” he says.
For all her peerless vocal ability and timeless singing style, legendary keyboardist Simone, as she knew from the beginning, was not her biggest fan. Heavier than usual and with a few extra pounds on her frame, with a look many male audiences found too gaudy and flamboyant to accept, Simone was ahead of her time in battling sexism — which got her shunned by her family and friends — but not quite ahead of its time. She quickly vanished off the radar when her career took off, making sporadic appearances in protest of her treatment, from jail to television and finally, Woodstock, between 1968 and 1972.
Legend has it that he told her he’d never play her music again, or that she took it as a personal slight. Today, he does not dispute that assertion. But he tells a different story.
“That was never an issue,” he says. “That was, ‘Can I hear your music, and can I like it?’”
Farrell, 81, is the sole surviving member of the Five Stairsteps, the Boston-based soul quintet that achieved international success in the 1960s, primarily through the influence of Simone and another songwriter-singer, Adela Skinner.
The group gained notoriety in 1964 for their appearance on their friend Jerry Wexler’s Chess Records. Saxophonist Neal Sheff, who had risen to prominence with the band in 1965 before being removed from the lineup in 1967, says that Wexler had kept the band hidden from his artist — and of the way in which Wexler would keep his artists from connecting with each other.
“Jerry was a gruff man,” he says. “He didn’t like pussycats.”
With bandmate Leon Purnell on bass and guitarist Rick Braun, the Five Stairsteps released six studio albums, five of which became Top 20 hits in 1964 and 1965.
Both Sheff and Farrell have released solo albums since that time, with Sheff most famous for his fusion of European electronica, soul and Latin jazz in his recent musical excursions, while Farrell continued to book many national and international dates in the 1970s and ’80s, but more recently has concentrated on charity work — to combat HIV/AIDS, poverty and world hunger.
Both Farrell and Sheff say that recording Simone’s music since the artist’s death in 2003 has given them renewed respect for her, who she never seemed to win over.
“I’m able to hear her more than I thought I would,” says Sheff. “I still don’t like her music.”
As for Farrell, he says that in spite of Simone’s many shortcomings, her passion for music and her confidence in her own artistry — the reason many male fans loved her — seems to have planted the seeds of greatness in her own blue eyes.
“I feel like she’s always me, always watching me,” he says. “And I never answer a critic.”