“There’s no other purpose, so far as I’m concerned, for us except to reflect the times, the situations around us and the things we’re able to say through our art, the things that millions of people can’t say.” Nina Simone
Nina Simone was an amazing personality; her politics, her activism, her piano, her often blunt opinions and her voice, that wonderful, cracked, warm voice, will always be remembered for their unwavering strength.
Though it’s not positively known, Eunice Kathleen Waymon (Nina Simone) was been born sometime in February of 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina. The house was filled with music, Nina Simone later recalled, and she learned to play piano early. When her mother took a job as a maid for extra money, the family saw that young Eunice had special musical talent and sponsored classical piano lessons for her. During her last year of high school, she attended Juilliard School of Music focusing on classical piano.
Never accepted into college to study music, a fact she blames on the color of her skin, Eunice began to teach piano lessons in Philadelphia in the late 40’s. Upon learning that one of here students was making more money playing in a bar than she was teaching lessons, Eunice changed her name to Nina Simone and began playing in Atlantic City clubs. The name change was to avoid her mother’s religious disapproval of playing in bars.
She was quickly asked to add vocals to her piano repertoire and word then quickly spread. Younger audiences were fascinated by her eclectic vocals and musical canon and Nina Simone soon moved into the Greenwich Village jazz scene.
It’s often debated whether Nina Simone should be classified as a jazz singer. She never stuck to just one genre whether it be blues, soul, pop songs or classical piano arrangements. This is what she had to say in 1997 (in an interview with Brantley Bardin): “To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that’s not what I play. I play black classical music. That’s why I don’t like the term “jazz,” and Duke Ellington didn’t like it either — it’s a term that’s simply used to identify black people.”
In 1958, she recorded a rendition of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” (from Porgy and Bess) in 1958, which was learned from a Billie Holiday album. It became her only Billboard top 40 hit in the United States, and her debut album Little Girl Blue soon followed on Bethlehem Records. For her next album she signed with Colpix and released “The Amazing Nina Simone.” With this album came more critical interest.
Around this time, she was married briefly to Don Ross, divorced and then remarried Andy Stroud in 1960. In 1961, Simone had a daughter Lisa Celeste. She also switched record labels and was deeply affected by the civil-rights movement and burgeoning Black pride during this period.
On her debut album for Philips, Nina Simone In Concert (live recording, 1964), Simone for the first time openly addresses the racial inequality that was prevalent in the United States with the song “Mississippi Goddam”. It was her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black children. The song was released as a single, being boycotted in certain southern states. With “Old Jim Crow” on the same album she reacts to the Jim Crow Laws.
Throughout the 60’s, much of her best material addressed racial concerns in a fashion more forthright than almost any other singer. Her songs are considered to be anthems of those movements, and their evolution shows the growing hopelessness that American racial problems would be solved. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was composed in honor of her friend Lorraine Hansberry and with its line, “Say it clear, say it loud, I am black and I am proud!” it became a rally cry.
During this period, Simone established herself as an amazing stage performer earning the title “High Priestess of Soul”. Her live performances were regarded as big social happenings. On stage, Simone moved from gospel to blues, jazz pop and folk, to numbers infused with European classical styling, and counterpoint fugues. She incorporated monologues and dialogues with the audience into the program, and often used silence as a musical element.
In the 1970s, Simone divorced her husband/manager Andy Stroud and coupled with her growing bitterness over America’s racism, her disputes with the record companies, her troubles with the IRS all led to her decision to leave the United States. In Europe she encountered serious financial problems, and moved around frequently amongst Switzerland, Liberia, Barbados, and Britain. While in Britain she staged a comeback attempt that turned out miserably.
The 80’s saw Simone’s return to the popular eye and in 1985, she returned to the United States to record and perform for the first time in years. She focused on what would be popular, de-emphasizing her political views, and won growing acclaim. Her career soared when a British commercial for Chanel No. 5 used her 1958 recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” which then became a hit in Europe.
She published her biography, “I Put a Spell on You”, in the beginning of the 90’s and continued to perform somewhat erratically throughout the decade though the performances were always considered quite an event. In 1995, after a length court battle, she finally won ownership of a large portion of her master recordings. In her last years, Nina Simone was sometimes seen in a wheelchair between performances and had been ill with breast cancer for several years before she died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rhône on April 21, 2003, aged 70. Only two days before her death, Simone was awarded an honorary diploma by the Curtis Institute, the same school that had turned her down at the start of her career. Nina Simone will be remembered for a variety of reasons but, most importantly, we will always have her vast musical legacy to remind us of her astounding talents.