Nina Simone

Eunice Kathleen Waymon (February 21, 1933–April 21, 2003), better known by her stage name Nina Simone, was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist. Although she disliked being categorized, Simone is most associated with jazz music. Simone originally aspired to become a classical pianist, but her work covers an eclectic variety of musical styles that include classical, jazz, blues, soul, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop. Her vocal style is characterized by intense passion, a loose vibrato, and a slightly androgynous timbre, in part due to her unusually low vocal range which veered between the alto and tenor ranges (occasionally even reaching baritone lows). Also known as The High Priestess of Soul, she paid great attention to the musical expression of emotions. Within one album or concert she could fluctuate between exuberant happiness and tragic melancholy. These fluctuations also characterized her own personality and personal life, amplified by bipolar disorder with which she was diagnosed in the mid-1960s, something not revealed until after her death in 2003.[1] According to Nadine Cohodas, Simone’s biographer, Ms. Simone was first diagnosed with multiple personality disorder and later with schizophrenia.[2]

Simone recorded over 40 live and studio albums, the greatest body of her work released between 1958 (when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue) and 1974. Her most well known songs include “My Baby Just Cares for Me“, “I Put a Spell on You“, “Four Women“, “I Loves You Porgy“, “Feeling Good“, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood“, “Sinnerman“, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black“, “Mississippi Goddam“, “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” and “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”.

Nina Simone Singing The George and Ira Gershwin tune, “I Loves You Porgy” from the musical, “Porgy and Bess.”

Her music and message made a strong and lasting impact on culture,[3] illustrated by the numerous contemporary artists who cite her as an important influence (see Legacy and influence). Several hip hop musicians and other modern artists sample and remix Simone’s rhythms and beats on their tracks. In particular, Talib Kweli and Mos Def routinely pay tribute to her outstanding and soulful musical style. Many of her songs are featured on motion picture soundtracks, as well as in video games, commercials, and TV series.

Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, one of eight children in a poor family. She had mixed heritage, including Native American, African American and Irish. She began playing piano at the age of 3; the first song she learned was “God be With You, Till we Meet Again”. She continued to play at her local church and showed talent with this instrument. Her concert debut, a classical recital, was made at the age of twelve. Later in life, Simone claimed 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. Simone said she refused to play until her parents were moved back to the front.[4][5] This incident contributed to her later involvement in the civil rights movement.

Simone’s mother, Mary Kate Waymon (who lived into her late 90s) was a strict Methodist minister; her father, John Divine Waymon, was a handyman and sometime barber who suffered bouts of ill-health. Mrs. Waymon worked as a maid and her employer, hearing of Nina’s talent, provided funds for piano lessons.[6] Subsequently, a local fund was set up to assist in Eunice’s continued education. At age 17, Simone moved to Philadelphia, where she encountered more racism when applying for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute. She failed to get a scholarship despite what was reported as an excellent audition. At first she was told that the rejection was based on her performance, but an insider later explained to her that the real reason was because she was black.[7]

This is where Simone’s real passion about the Civil Rights Movement started. While here she taught piano and accompanied singers to fund her own studying as a classical music pianist at New York City‘s Juilliard School of Music. With the help of a private tutor she studied for an interview to further study piano at the Curtis Institute, but she was rejected. Simone believed that this rejection was related directly to her being black, as well as being a woman.[8]

Simone played at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City to fund her study. The owner said that she would have to sing as well as play the piano in order to get the job. She adopted the stage name “Nina Simone” in 1954 because she did not want her mother to know that she was playing “the devil‘s music”. “Nina” (from “niña”, meaning “little girl” in Spanish) was a nickname a boyfriend had given to her and “Simone” was after the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she had seen in the movie Casque d’or.[9] Simone played and sang a mixture of jazz, blues and classical music at the bar, creating a small but loyal fan base.[10]

After playing in small clubs 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 and performed as a favor to a friend. It became her only Billboard top 40 success in the United States, and her debut album Little Girl Blue soon followed on Bethlehem Records. Simone would never benefit financially from the album; she sold the rights for $3,000, missing out on more than $1 million in royalties (mainly because of the successful re-release of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” during the 1980s).[11]

After the success of Little Girl Blue, Simone signed a contract with the larger company Colpix Records, followed by a string of studio and live albums. Colpix relinquished all creative control, including the choice of material that would be recorded, to her in exchange for her contracting with them. Simone, who at this point only performed popular music to make money to continue her classical music studies, was bold with her demand for control over her music because she was indifferent about having a recording contract. She would keep this attitude towards the record industry for most of her career.[12]

Simone married a New York police detective, Andrew Stroud, in 1961; Stroud later became her manager.[7]

During 1964, she changed record distributors, from the American Colpix to the Dutch Philips, which also meant a change in the contents of her recordings. Simone had always included songs in her repertoire that hinted about her African-American origins (such as “Brown Baby” and “Zungo” on Nina at the Village Gate during 1962). But 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 that killed four black children. The song was released as a single, being boycotted in certain southern states.[3][13] With “Old Jim Crow” on the same album she reacts to the Jim Crow Laws.

From then onwards, a civil rights message was standard in Simone’s recording repertoire, where it had already become a part of her live performances. Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as at the Selma to Montgomery marches.[14] Simone advocated violent revolution during the civil rights period as opposed to Martin Luther King‘s non-violent approach,[15] and hoped that African Americans could, by armed combat, form a separate state (Simone was not, however, a racist, and wrote in her autobiography that her family and indeed herself regarded all races as equal.[16]) She covered Billie Holiday‘s “Strange Fruit” (on Pastel Blues (1965)), a song about the lynching of black men in the South, and sang the W. Cuney poem “Images” on Let It All Out (1966), about the absence of pride in the African-American woman. Simone wrote “Four Women“, a song about four different stereotypes of African-American women.[3] and sings it on Wild Is the Wind (1966).

Simone moved from Philips to RCA Victor during 1967. She sang “Backlash Blues”, written by her friend Langston Hughes on her first RCA album, Nina Simone Sings The Blues (1967). 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) contains live recordings from the Westbury Music Fair, April 7, 1968, three days after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. She dedicated the whole performance to him and sang “Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)”, a song written by her bass player directly after the news of King’s death had reached them.[17]

Nina Simone playing and singing a tune she was famous for, “Mississippi Goddam!”

Together with Weldon Irvine, Simone turned the late Lorraine Hansberry‘s unfinished play “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” into a civil rights song. She performed it live on the album Black Gold (1970). A studio recording was released as a single, and the song has been covered by Aretha Franklin (on 1972s Young, Gifted and Black) and Donny Hathaway.[3][16]

Simone left the United States in September 1970. She flew to Barbados, expecting her husband and manager, Stroud, to communicate with her when she had to perform again. However, Stroud interpreted Simone’s sudden disappearance (and the fact that she had left behind her wedding ring) as a cue for a divorce. As her manager, Stroud was also in charge of Simone’s income. This meant that after their separation Simone did not have any knowledge about how her business was managed and what she was actually worth. Upon returning to the United States, she also learned that she was wanted for unpaid taxes, causing her to go back to Barbados again to evade the authorities and prosecution.[18] Simone stayed in Barbados for quite some time, and had a lengthy affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow.[19][20] A close friend, singer Miriam Makeba, persuaded her to go to Liberia. After that she lived in Switzerland and the Netherlands, before settling in France during 1992.

She recorded her last album for RCA Records, It Is Finished, during 1974. It was not until 1978 that Simone was persuaded by CTI Records owner Creed Taylor to record another album, Baltimore. While not a commercial success, the album did get good reviews and marked a quiet artistic renaissance in Simone’s recording output.[21] Her choice of material retained its eclecticism, ranging from spiritual songs to Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl”. Four years later Simone recorded Fodder On My Wings on a French label. During the 1980s Simone performed regularly at Ronnie Scott‘s jazz club in London, where the album Live at Ronnie Scott’s was recorded during 1984. Though her on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, in later years, Simone particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences by recounting sometimes humorous anecdotes related to her career and music and soliciting requests. In 1987, the original 1958 recording of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” was used in an advert for Chanel No. 5 perfume in the UK. This led to a re-release which stormed to number 5 in the UK singles chart giving her a brief surge in popularity in the UK. Her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, was published during 1992 and she recorded her last album, A Single Woman, in 1993.

In 1993, Simone settled near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. She 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. Her funeral service was attended by singers Miriam Makeba and Patti Labelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis and hundreds of others. Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message “We were the greatest and I love you”.[22] Simone’s ashes were scattered in several African countries. She left behind a daughter, Lisa Celeste, now an actress/singer who took on the stage name Simone and has appeared on Broadway in Aida.[23]

Simone left the United States in September 1970. She flew to Barbados, expecting her husband and manager, Stroud, to communicate with her when she had to perform again. However, Stroud interpreted Simone’s sudden disappearance (and the fact that she had left behind her wedding ring) as a cue for a divorce. As her manager, Stroud was also in charge of Simone’s income. This meant that after their separation Simone did not have any knowledge about how her business was managed and what she was actually worth. Upon returning to the United States, she also learned that she was wanted for unpaid taxes, causing her to go back to Barbados again to evade the authorities and prosecution.[18] Simone stayed in Barbados for quite some time, and had a lengthy affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow.[19][20] A close friend, singer Miriam Makeba, persuaded her to go to Liberia. After that she lived in Switzerland and the Netherlands, before settling in France during 1992.

She recorded her last album for RCA Records, It Is Finished, during 1974. It was not until 1978 that Simone was persuaded by CTI Records owner Creed Taylor to record another album, Baltimore. While not a commercial success, the album did get good reviews and marked a quiet artistic renaissance in Simone’s recording output.[21] Her choice of material retained its eclecticism, ranging from spiritual songs to Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl”. Four years later Simone recorded Fodder On My Wings on a French label. During the 1980s Simone performed regularly at Ronnie Scott‘s jazz club in London, where the album Live at Ronnie Scott’s was recorded during 1984. Though her on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, in later years, Simone particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences by recounting sometimes humorous anecdotes related to her career and music and soliciting requests. In 1987, the original 1958 recording of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” was used in an advert for Chanel No. 5 perfume in the UK. This led to a re-release which stormed to number 5 in the UK singles chart giving her a brief surge in popularity in the UK. Her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, was published during 1992 and she recorded her last album, A Single Woman, in 1993.

In 1993, Simone settled near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. She 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. Her funeral service was attended by singers Miriam Makeba and Patti Labelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis and hundreds of others. Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message “We were the greatest and I love you”.[22] Simone’s ashes were scattered in several African countries. She left behind a daughter, Lisa Celeste, now an actress/singer who took on the stage name Simone and has appeared on Broadway in Aida.[23]

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, ninasimone.com, About.com: http://womenshistory.about.com/library/bio/blbio_nina_simone.htm

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1 Comment

  1. Hot Damn! Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam is a damn good video. So good to see/hear her again. An incomparable artiste.


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