Nina Simone (21 February 1933 – 21 April 2003) was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger and civil rights activist widely associated with jazz music. Simone aspired to become a classical pianist while working in a broad range of styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel and pop.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. Her mother was a Methodist minister and her father was a handyman who moonlighted as a preacher. When Eunice was just three, she began picking out tunes on the family’s piano and a few years later she was playing piano at her mother’s Sunday church services. Her mother also worked part time as a housemaid, and when her employers heard Eunice play, they arranged for her to have classical tuition with pianist Muriel Mazzanovich.
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 enrolment at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Despite what was said to be a brilliant audition, the Curtis Institute turned her down. Years later, Simone was told by somebody who had worked at Curtis that the reason for this rejection was her race.
In 1954, to fund her private lessons, Eunice applied for a job playing piano at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The owner told her that she would have to sing as well as play and while she had no experience as a vocalist, Eunice faked it well enough to get the job. It was then that she adopted the stage name Nina Simone – Nina from a pet name her boyfriend used, and Simone from the French film star Simone Signoret.
Within a few years, Simone was headlining at nightclubs all along the East Coast, and in 1957 she came to the attention of Syd Nathan, owner of blues and country label King Records. Nathan offered Simone a contract with his jazz subsidiary, Bethlehem Records. Simone insisted on choosing her own material and in 1958, she reached number 1 in the Top 20 pop chart with her interpretation of ‘I Loves You Porgy’ from Porgy and Bess. Her debut album Little Girl Blue soon followed but, like many of Nathan’s signings, Simone did not see eye to eye with him about business details – particularly after she discovered that she had signed away her right to royalties upon receiving her advance. By 1959, she had signed a new deal with Colpix Records. In exchange for her signing the contract, Colpix relinquished all creative control to Simone, including the choice of material that would be recorded.
In 1964, Simone had a UK hit single with ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ and while the record did not do as well in the USA, The Animals would take the song to the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic a year later. Simone would next hit the UK charts in 1965 with her cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘I Put a Spell on You’, which also made the Top 30 in the USA.
In 1964, after recording a multitude of studio and live albums with Colpix, Simone left to sign a new deal with Philips. This move coincided with a shift in the themes of her music. On her debut album for Philips, Nina Simone in Concert (live recording, 1964), Simone for the first time openly addressed the racial inequality that was prevalent in the USA with ‘Mississippi Goddam’ – her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black children. The song was released as a single and was boycotted in certain southern states. ‘Old Jim Crow’, on the same album, addressed the Jim Crow laws.
From then on, a civil rights message was standard in Simone’s recordings and became a part of her live performances. She also performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings. In 1965, Simone covered Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, a song about the lynching of black men in the South, on Pastel Blues. She also sang the William Waring Cuney poem ‘Images’ on Let It All Out (1966), about the absence of pride she saw among African American women. And she wrote ‘Four Women’, a song about four different stereotypes of African American women, which appeared on her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind.
In 1967, after recording seven albums for Philips, she moved to RCA Victor. On her first RCA album, Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967), she sang ‘Backlash Blues’, written by Langston Hughes. On Silk & Soul (1967), she recorded Billy Taylor’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’ and ‘Turning Point’. The album ‘Nuff Said! (1968) includes live recordings from the Westbury Music Fair on 7 April 1968, three days after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Simone dedicated the whole performance to him and sang ‘Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)’, a song written by her bass player Gene Taylor, directly after the news of King’s death had reached them. In the summer of 1969, Simone performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris Park.
In 1970, Simone left the USA, settling first in Barbados and divorcing her husband and manager. Simone’s exile was prompted by her increasing disillusionment with American politics, as well as her refusal to pay income taxes as a protest against the US involvement in Vietnam – although she would occasionally return to the USA for recording sessions and concert dates.
Simone created the civil rights song ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ with Weldon Irvine, from her late friend Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished play To Be Young, Gifted and Black. She performed the song live on the album Black Gold (1970). A studio recording was released as a single, and renditions of the song have been recorded by Aretha Franklin (on her 1972 album Young, Gifted and Black) and by Donny Hathaway.
In 1974, Simone released her last album for RCA, It Is Finished, and spent the next few years travelling the world and playing occasional concerts. She next returned to the recording studio in 1978, when she recorded the album Baltimore in Belgium for Creed Taylor’s CTI label. It would be another four years until she would record again, releasing Fodder on My Wings for a French label in 1982.
During the 1980s, Simone performed regularly at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, where she recorded the album Live at Ronnie Scott’s in 1984. In 1987, the original 1958 recording of ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ was used in a commercial for Chanel No. 5 perfume in the UK. This led to a re-release of the recording, which stormed to number 4 on the UK’s NME singles chart, giving her a brief surge in popularity in the UK. Her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, was published in 1992.
In 1993, Simone recorded her last album, A Single Woman, and settled in Southern France. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1995, which was said to be the cause of several episodes of erratic behaviour in her later years. She continued to perform live in Europe and the USA until the summer of 2002, when it was discovered that she had breast cancer. Simone died the following year.
Simone received many honours throughout her career. She was the recipient of a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000 for ‘I Loves You Porgy’. She has also received 15 Grammy Award nominations. She received two honorary degrees in music and humanities, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College. In 2009, Simone was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
Only a few days before her death in 2003, Simone received an honorary degree from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, the same school that had rejected her in 1953.
Here is live footage of Nina Simone performing the song that she used to name her autobiography – ‘I Put a Spell on You’.