April 21, 2003 – Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933 in South Carolina. The sixth child of a preacher mom, she wanted to become a concert pianist. She began playing piano at age three.
Her concert debut, a classical recital, was given when she was 12. Simone later said that during this performance, her parents, who had taken seats in the front row, were forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for white people. She said that she refused to play until her parents were moved back to the front, and that the incident strongly contributed to her later involvement in the civil rights movement.
Simone’s mother, Mary Kate Waymon, was a Methodist minister and a housemaid. Simone’s father, John Divine Waymon, was a handyman who at one time owned a dry cleaning business, but also suffered bouts of ill health. Simone’s music teacher helped establish a special fund to pay for her education. Subsequently, a local fund was set up to assist her continued education. With the help of this scholarship money she was able to attend Allen High School for Girls in Asheville, North Carolina.
After her graduation, Simone spent the summer of 1950 at the Juilliard School, preparing for a scholarship audition at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her application, however, was denied, despite a well-received audition. As her family had relocated to Philadelphia in the expectation of her entry to Curtis, the blow to her aspirations was particularly heavy, and she suspected that her application had been denied because of racial prejudice, a statement that became a matter of veiled controversy when years later, two days before her death actually, the Curtis Institute of Music bestowed an honorary degree on Simone.
Discouraged, she took private piano lessons with Vladimir Sokoloff, a professor at Curtis, but never re-applied to the institution. For several years, she worked a number of menial jobs and taught piano in Philadelphia.
To fund her private lessons and make a living, Simone performed at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, whose owner insisted that she sing as well as play the piano, which increased her weekly income to $90 a week. In 1954 she adopted the stage name “Nina Simone”. “Nina” (from niña, meaning “little girl” in Spanish), and “Simone” was taken from the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she had seen in the movie Casque d’Or. Knowing her mother would not approve of playing the “Devil’s Music” she used her new stage name to remain undetected. Simone’s mixture of jazz, blues, and classical music in her performances at the bar earned her a small but loyal fan base.
Playing in small clubs in the same year she recorded George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” (from Porgy and Bess), which she learned from a Billie Holiday album and performed as a favor to a friend. It became her only Billboard top 20 success in the United States, and her debut album Little Girl Blue soon followed on Bethlehem Records. Simone lost more than $1 million in royalties (notably for the 1980s re-release of My Baby Just Cares for Me) and never benefited financially from the album’s sales because she had sold her rights outright for $3,000, something that happened quite often in those early days of recorded music.
After the success of Little Girl Blue, Simone signed a contract with Colpix Records and recorded a multitude of studio and live albums. Colpix relinquished all creative control to her, including the choice of material that would be recorded, in exchange for her signing the contract with them. After the release of her live album Nina Simone at Town Hall, Simone became a favorite performer in Greenwich Village in New York City. By this time, Simone performed pop music only to make money to continue her classical music studies and was indifferent about having a recording contract. She kept this attitude toward the record industry for most of her career.
For much of her early life, Eunice Waymon dreamed of becoming one of the first nationally successful African-American concert pianists.
Highlights of her early career included her 1959 performance at the Town Hall in New York; her trip to Nigeria in 1961; a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1963; and a European tour, including her first performances in Paris, in 1965. She also appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, and the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1968.
Simone’s work took on an explicitly social dimension during the 1960s when she became involved in the Civil Rights movement. Following her rise to fame, Simone had become close with leading African-American intellectuals, including Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), and Lorraine Hansberry. After the Birmingham bombings in September 1963, Simone wrote an original song, “Mississippi Goddam,” directly addressing civil rights. “You don’t have to live next to me/Just give me my equality/Everybody knows about Mississippi,” she sang, and began to use her concerts as an opportunity to honor members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
While Nina Simone worked feverishly in the 1960s, releasing thirteen studio albums in that decade alone, the 1970s were far less productive. Overwork and a painful divorce from husband/manager Andy Stroud led to her taking a good deal of time off from performing and recording, visiting Barbados and Liberia and in 1976, she moved to Switzerland. On a trip back to the United States in 1977, she was convicted of tax evasion as a result of her ex husband/manager having pocketed the monies for taxes. A suicide attempt and the increasing onset of mental problems (probably bipolar disorder), further darkened the decade. Nina Simone only released two studio albums in the 1970s; a seven-year gap separated Here Comes the Sun (1971) from Baltimore (1978).
For much of the 1980s, Nina Simone was based more in Europe than in America. She actually once remarked during a New York City concert, that if the audience wanted to see her again, they would have to come to Paris. She worked in Paris, performed notably at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1985, and at Montreux in 1987 and 1990. Her last live albums also date from this period. Her career began to slow down; in 1991, she published her memoirs, and in 1992, she moved to a small town in the south of France. But she continued to perform: her last record, A Single Woman, was released in 1993, and she also appeared on solo albums by Pete Townshend and her friend Miriam Makeba. Nina Simone continued to perform to the end; shortly before her death from breast cancer, she was still considering another concert tour.
Nina Simone died at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, France, on April 21, 2003. Two days earlier, the Curtis Institute, which had denied her application so many years before, granted her an honorary degree. She had already received honorary doctorates from Malcolm X University (1972) and Amherst College in Massachusetts (1977). In 2009, she was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
While Nina Simone was commonly known as “the high priestess of soul,” her repertoire included music drawn from a wide variety of musical styles. Her piano playing was strongly influenced by her early classical training even when playing popular standards, as can be heard on her rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me.” She also performed North Carolinia folk songs, such as “Black is the Color,” jazz and popular standards, and blues and gospel songs. She ranged from protest songs, such as “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women” to classic standards like George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” (from Porgy and Bess). Personally, Simone refused any easy categorization of her music, describing it as “black classical music.” Personally I was drawn to her early on by her magnificent renditions of “I Put a Spell on You” and “Don’t let me be misunderstood.”
The soulful singer succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 70.