Nina Simone was one of the most gifted vocalists of her generation, and also one of the most eclectic. Nina was a singer, pianist, and songwriter who bent genres to her will rather than allowing herself to be confined by their boundaries, her work swung back and forth between jazz, blues, soul, classical, R&B, pop, gospel, and world music, with passion, emotional honesty, and a strong grasp of technique as the constants of her musical career
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21, 1933. Her mother, Mary Kate Waymon, was a Methodist minister, and her father, John Divine Waymon, was a handyman who moonlighted as a preacher. Eunice displayed a precocious musical talent at the age of three when she started picking out tunes on the family’s piano, and a few years later she was playing piano at her mother’s Sunday church services. Mary Kate worked part time as a housemaid, and when her employers heard Euniceplay, they arranged for her to study with pianist Muriel Mazzanovich, who tutored Eunice in the classics, focusing on Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, andSchubert. After graduating at the top of her high school class, Eunice received a grant to study at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, and applied for enrollment at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Determined to support herself as a musician, in 1954 Eunice applied for a job playing piano at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Eunice was told she would have to sing as well as play jazz standards and hits of the day. While she had no experience as a vocalist, Eunice faked it well enough to get the job, and she adopted a stage name, Nina Simone — Nina from a pet name her boyfriend used, and Simone from the French film star Simone Signoret. The newly christened Nina Simone was a quick study as a singer, and her unique mixture of jazz, blues, and the classics soon earned her a loyal audience.
Within a few years, Simone was a headliner at nightclubs all along the East Coast, and in 1957 she came to the attention of Syd Nathan, the mercurial owner of the influential blues and country label King Records. Nathan offered Simone a contract with his jazz subsidiary, Bethlehem Records, and the two were soon butting heads as the strong-willed Simone insisted on choosing her own material.
Simone won out, and in 1958, she enjoyed a major hit with her interpretation of “I Loves You Porgy” from Porgy and Bess. The single rose to the Top 20 of the pop charts, but like many of Nathan’s signings, Simone did not see eye to eye with him about business details (particularly after she discovered she’d signed away her right to royalties upon receiving her advance), and by 1959 she had signed a new deal with Colpix Records.
Simone’s reputation as a powerful live performer had only grown by this time, and her second album for Colpix was the first of many live recordings she would release, Nina Simone to Town Hall. Simone’s live performances gave her more room to show off her classical piano influences, and her albums for Colpix reflected an intelligent taste in standards, pop songs, and supper club blues, and while she didn’t enjoy another American hit on the level of “I Loves You Porgy,” her recordings of “Trouble in Mind” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” both entered the pop charts as singles.
Simone continued to perform live in Europe and the United States up until the summer of 2002, when it was discovered she had breast cancer. Simone’s battle with the disease came to a close on April 21, 2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, France. Only a few days earlier, Simone had received an honorary degree from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, the same school that had rejected her in 1953.
Denied a place at a distinguished white music school, Simone would craft what she called ‘black classical music’, a mix of jazz, gospel, blues, folk and soul.
During the Sixties, Simone, who had seen how racists made her parents sit at the back of the hall during her early recitals, would become an icon to the civil rights movement, although she clashed with Martin Luther King over his non-violent approach to reform.
She channelled her anger into songs such as Mississippi Goddam, composed in response to the killing of a black man in 1963, and Four Women, which deals with the issue of how black women are treated in society.
Nina Simone married Andy Stroud in 1961, died in 2012. They had one daughter, Lisa.