Nina Simone was an exceptional singer, songwriter, and pianist. When she was prevented from pursuing classical music because she was black, she turned her enormous talents to jazz, blues, rhythm and soul music.
She was considered the Great Priestess of Soul.
Childhood and family of Nina Simone
Nina Simone is the stage name of Eunice Waymon.
She was born in Tryon, a town in North Carolina, United States, on February 21, 1933.
Eunice (Nina) was the sixth in a family of eight siblings.
Her parents had a very varied ancestry: Africans who had come as slaves to North America, Indians and Irish.
Her father, John Waymon, made a living in show business: he sang, played the harmonica, and danced.
When the family began to be very large, John Waymon began to work; first at a dry cleaner and then as a barber.
The mother was called Mary Kate. In the beginning, she played the piano to accompany her husband on shows. Later she became minister of the Methodist Church and left aside all music that was not of spiritual and religious songs.
Nina Simone grew up surrounded by music. At home, all the brothers sang and played an instrument.
She had never taken classes outside the home, she had learned everything from each other, watching and listening.
Nina was a child prodigy who at 3 years old began to play the piano with great talent.
From a very young age, she stood out for her exceptional powers; when she turned 6, her parents made her follow classical piano studies.
As for the development of her voice, she started singing at her local church.
Nina Simone’s beginnings as a Singer
In 1945, when she was 12 years old, she made her public debut with a piano recital as part of the school parties.
Her proud parents, of course, had sat in the front row, listening to her and seeing her better.
After a while, they were “invited” to move to the back rows, so that a white family could occupy their chairs.
When Eunice realized what was happening, she refused to continue playing until her parents reoccupied the front chairs.
That was the way things were in those years, and that was Nina’s character.
Nina Simone had valuable help in her environment
Her piano teacher, an old white and Jewish woman, admired by the girl’s exceptional talent, wanted to help her start a musical career.
With contributions from friends and neighbors who enjoyed listening to Eunice (Nina Simone), the old woman raised funds so that her parents could send her to study in New York.
John Waynon and Mary Kate did not hesitate for a moment to enroll her in the prestigious “Juilliard School of Music” in New York City.
But lack of financial resources prevented her from achieving her dream of becoming the first black pianist to play classical music at Carnegie Hall in the United States.
Later her family moved to Philadelphia, where she tried to get a scholarship at the “Curtis Institute of Music“, considered the best Conservatory in the USA and one of the best musical institutions in the world.
Despite her merits, Nina was diplomatically rejected, for being black.
She start as a professional Singer
Due to these disappointments and to help her family financially, in 1954 Eudice (Nina Simone) decided to abandon classical music; she showed up to work at an Atlantic City nightclub.
Eunice only performed as a pianist, but the owner wanted her to sing.
She improvised a cover of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy“, with its distinctively low timbre.
The boss was more than satisfied and immediately hired her to sing blues and jazz music; and also for her to play the piano.
Atlantic City is a tourist city on the Atlantic coast of New Jersey, famous for its casinos, great beaches, and its iconic boardwalk.
At that nightclub, Nina stood out for her way of performing, and for the innovative arrangements she imprinted on old songs, always accompanying herself on the piano.
Nina Simone’s career boom
Eunice Waymon was 21 when she started singing at the Atlantic City bar.
There she adopted the stage name of Nina Simone. Nina was the alias given to her by a boyfriend; and Simone, it was taken from the French actress Simone Signoret, protagonist in 1952, in the movie Casque d’or.
In 1957, she achieved a recording contract with Bethlehem Records.
The following year, in 1958, she released her first album, and it was an immediate success.
Her songs “I Love You Porgy” by George Gershwin; and “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” sold a million copies in the United States in the summer of 1959.
Next, Nina signed a contract with the powerful Columbia Pictures Records.
This label published ten discs in five years.
Her wonderful voice earned her that several songs were inserted in the soundtracks of some Columbia movies.
For example, in “Wild Wind” (1957), in “Sayonara” (1957) and in “Samson and Delilah” by Cecil B. DeMille.
Nina Simone in the 1960s
During the 1960s, she became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement and recorded some political songs; some of them performed by Aretha Franklin.
In 1961, Nina Simone recorded a cover of the traditional song “House of the Rising Sun“, which would also later be recorded by Bob Dylan.
In that year she recorded several more songs, which made her even more famous.
She was a very versatile artist and she loved audiences, going from one style to another in the same concert.
She sang religious, blues and jazz songs as well as classical European-style numbers.
Nina Simone had a alto voice; she was characterized by her passion, by improvisations and by a subtle spiritual closeness.
She minimized accompaniment and made spectacular transitions between the whisper, the scream, and the wail.
Also in 1961, she married Andy Stroud, a detective from Brooklin, New York, with whom she had her daughter Lisa Celeste, born in 1962.
Nina Simone lived a stormy love-hate relationship with her husband and they finally separated.
In 1963 there was the murder of Medgar Evers and a terrorist attack on the Birmingham church in Alabama by white supremacists, resulting in the death of four black girls.
As a rejection of these violent crimes against black people, Nina Simone recorded several songs in defense of the right to be free and to live with dignity.
Advised by her husband who had become her representative, in 1964 Nina Simone left the Columbia Picture and signed a contract with the Philips label.
Of that period is his first protest song, in the form of soul: “Mississippi goddam!” (‘Mississippi, damn you!’), in which she expressed her rage and helplessness.
Since then she has been called the High Priestess of Soul.
In 1968, her song “Sinnerman” recorded in 1965 (Oh, sinnerman, where you gonna run to?) was heard in the movie “The Thomas Crown Affair” by Norman Jewison, played by Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.
Nina Simone’s mighty voice was heard by millions of people.
The new version of this film shot in 1999, with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, returned to include Nina Simone.
Throughout the 1960s, Nina Simone revived Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Johan Sebastian Bach, Ray Charles, Jacques Brel, Miriam Makeba in her songs; all enhanced in their qualities by the genius of Nina.
To make sure of this, just listen to their versions of “Ne me quitte pas” or “My way“.
Some of her recitals became incendiary proclamations to white audiences who came to hear her fascinated.
She was a prime example of how racial discrimination caused extraordinary talents to be wasted in the United States.
Nina Simone was one of the famous artists who accompanied Martin Luther King in the front row in the massive marches that he organized from 1965 against racial discrimination.
Nina Simone recorded for the RCA label
Around this time, Nina Simone separated from Andy Stroud, and became her own representative; she started working with her brother Sam Waymon and signed a contract with the RCA.
Between 1966 and 1974 she produced, for the RCA company, some of her greatest hits, such as the versions of “To love somebody” (from the Bee Gees) and “Ain’t got no / I got life”, from the musical Hair.
Another of her classic songs, “To be young, gifted and black“, was inspired by a play by her friend Lorraine Hansberry, and was recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1972.
The murder of Martin Luther King in April 1968 was the last straw in her boredom for living in a country that despised her black race.
On July 4, 1968, Nina Simone made her debut at the Newport Jazz Festival.
She sang “Blacklash Blues” and “Why, The King of love is Dead” in memory of Martin Luther King.
It was her definitive consecration as a diva. Among other established artists, Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller performed.
Nina Simoni left the United States (1970-2003)
She aligned herself with the most radical movements, with which her artistic career was seriously damaged.
Finally she preferred to leave the United States.
In September 1970, fed up with disagreements with record companies and with no intention of paying the taxes she had evaded in protest of the Vietnam War, Nina Simone left the United States and went to Barbados, one of the 13 countries that make up The Antilles.
In Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, she had a romantic relationship with Prime Minister Errol Barrow.
In the 1980s she sang regularly at the Ronnie Scott jazz club in London.
Nina’s singer and friend Miriam Makeba convinced her to go to Liberia. There she lived for four years.
In 1986 a television spot made by English TV to promote the Chanel 5 perfume, went around the world.
The images of the spot showed the actress Carol Bouquet crossing the landscapes of the Monument Valley, as a free and bold woman.
But, the most impressive and popular of the spot was its soundtrack with the song “My Baby Just Cares for Me” with the powerful voice of Nina Simone.
Although the album had appeared in 1959, at that time it reached fifth place on the England sales charts.
Subsequently, Nina Simone resided in Switzerland and the Netherlands before finally settling in Aix-en-Provence, in southern France, in 1992.
She traveled on average in Switzerland partly for artistic commitments and also to escape depression.
Her daughter says that at that time she was afraid of her. Nina Simone had become a mother bursting into crisis of great emotion, frustration, and anger.
In 1992 various themes of Nina Simone appeared in the movie “The Assassin“, starring Bridget Jones, one of her great admirers.
That year she published his autobiography, entitled “I put a spell on you”, which was immediately translated into French, German and Dutch.
Nina Simone settled in France
In 1993, she settled definitively in the south of France, and published her latest album recorded in a studio studio: “A single woman“.
There, she performed the French song “Il n’y pas d’amour heureux”, a poem by Louis Aragon, and music by Georges Brassens.
Her usual companions during this time were Leopoldo Fleming (percussion), Tony Jones (bass), Paul Robinson (drums), Xavier Collados (keyboard) and her musical director Al Schackman (guitar).
Nina Simone was the indispensable star at major jazz festivals, such as the 1997 Nice Jazz Festival and the 1998 Thessaloniki Jazz Festival.
On July 24, 1998, she was one of the guests of honor at the party organized to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday.
In 1999, at the Dublin Guinness Blues Festival after receiving an award for artistic triumphs throughout her career, she sang duets with his daughter Lisa Celeste.
Her last international tour dates back to 2000, the year in which she received numerous recognitions as an exceptional singer: in Atlanta, Philadelphia and France.
With a complicated personality, she became arrogant, arrogant and very passionate.
Something very understandable in a talented and intelligent woman who, since she was little, was marginalized for the simple fact that her skin was not the “right” color.
Her immense musical talent led her to worldwide success, but she never managed to overcome the anger that was accumulating in her native country.
Nina Simone passed away in her sleep on April 21, 2003 at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, a seaside resort town near Marseille in southern France.
The Sundance Film Festival (held annually the last two weeks of January in the town of Park City, near Salt Lake City, the capital of the state of Utah, in the United States) opened the first night of 2015, with a documentary by the famous director Liz Garbus, with the documentary “What happened, Miss Simone?”
In this magnificent documentary, the director immerses herself, through testimonies, music files and interviews, in Nina’s life and drew her with her lights and shadows.
She expertly showed the combat of a woman who fought for the freedom of her art and music, and for her identity as a black American.