born on 21/2/1933 in Tryon, NC, United States
died on 21/4/2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France
Nina Simone (/ /; born Eunice Kathleen Waymon; February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003) was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and activist in the Civil Rights Movement. Simone employed a broad range of musical styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop.
Born in North Carolina, the sixth child of a preacher, Waymon aspired to be a concert pianist. With the help of a few supporters in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, she enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York.
Waymon then applied for a scholarship to study at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she was denied despite a well-received audition. Waymon became fully convinced this rejection had been entirely due to racial discrimination. Years later, two days before her death, the Curtis Institute of Music bestowed on her an honorary degree.
To make a living, Eunice Waymon changed her name to "Nina Simone". The change related to her need to disguise herself from family members, having chosen to play "the devil's music" or "cocktail piano" at a nightclub in Atlantic City. She was told in the nightclub that she would have to sing to her own accompaniment, and this effectively launched her career as a jazz vocalist.
Simone recorded more than 40 albums, mostly between 1958, when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue, and 1974. She had a hit in the United States in 1958 with "I Loves You, Porgy".
Simone's musical style fused gospel and pop with classical music, in particular Johann Sebastian Bach, and accompanied expressive, jazz-like singing in her contralto voice.
1933–1954: Early life
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina and raised in Tryon, North Carolina. The sixth of eight children in a poor family, she began playing piano at the age of three; the first song she learned was "God Be With You, Till We Meet Again". Demonstrating a talent with the instrument, she performed at her local church. But 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 contributed to her later involvement in the civil rights movement.
Simone's mother, Mary Kate Waymon (c. 1902 – April 30, 2001), was a Methodist minister and a housemaid. Simone's father, John Divine Waymon (c. 1898 – October 24, 1972), 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, as a student of Carl Friedberg, preparing for an audition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her application, however, was denied. 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. Discouraged, she took private piano lessons with Vladimir Sokoloff, a professor at Curtis, but never re-applied to the institution. She took a job as a photographer's assistant, but also found work as an accompanist at Arlene Smith's vocal studio and taught piano from her home in Philadelphia.
1954–1959: Early success
To fund her private lessons, 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 income to $90 a week. In 1954, she adopted the stage name "Nina Simone". "Nina" was from niña, a nickname given to her by a boyfriend named Chico, and "Simone" was taken from the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she had seen in the 1952 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.
In 1958, she befriended and married Don Ross, a beatnik who worked as a fairground barker, but quickly regretted their marriage. 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 her version of the jazz standard "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.
1959–1964: Becoming popular
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. 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.
Simone married a New York police detective, Andrew Stroud, in 1961. He later became her manager and the father of her daughter Lisa, but he abused Simone psychologically and physically.
1964–1974: Civil rights era
In 1964, Simone changed record distributors from the American Colpix to the Dutch Philips, which also meant a change in the contents of her recordings. She had always included songs in her repertoire that drew upon her African-American origins (such as "Brown Baby" by Oscar Brown and "Zungo" by Michael Olatunji in her album Nina at the Village Gate in 1962). On her debut album for Philips, Nina Simone in Concert (live recording, 1964), for the first time she openly addressed the racial inequality that was prevalent in the United States with the song "Mississippi Goddam", her response to the June 12, 1963, murder of Medgar Evers and the September 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young black girls and partially blinded a fifth girl who survived. She remarked that the title and the song itself was, "like throwing 10 bullets back at them", becoming one of many other protest songs written by Simone. The song was released as a single, and it was boycotted in certain southern states. Specifically, promotional copies were smashed by a Carolina radio station and returned to Simone's record label. Simone later recalled how "Mississippi Goddam" was her "first civil rights song" and that the song came to her "in a rush of fury, hatred and determination". The song was a direct challenge to widely held beliefs that race relations could change gradually and called for more immediate developments, "me and my people are just about due". It was a key moment in her political radicalization. "Old Jim Crow", on the same album, addressed the Jim Crow laws.
From then on, a civil rights message was standard in Simone's recording repertoire, becoming a part of her live performances. During the rise of her political activism, the release of her musical work grew more infrequent. Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as at the Selma to Montgomery marches. Simone advocated violent revolution during the civil rights period, rather than Martin Luther King's non-violent approach, and she hoped that African Americans could, by armed combat, form a separate state. Her message to the public signified the transition from the non-violent approach to social change that was advocated by Martin Luther King into the more militant state that was implemented by Malcolm X and the associates of the Black Nationalist Movement. Nevertheless, she wrote in her autobiography that she and her family regarded all races as equal.
Simone moved from Philips to RCA Victor during 1967. She sang "Backlash Blues", written by her friend and Harlem Renaissance leader, 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 assassination 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, Gene Taylor, directly after the news of King's death had reached them. In the summer of 1969, she performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in Harlem's Mount Morris Park.
Together with Weldon Irvine, Simone turned Lorraine Hansberry's unfinished play To Be Young, Gifted and Black into a civil rights song. Hansberry had been a personal friend whom Simone credited with cultivating her social and political consciousness. 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.
 When reflecting on this period in her autobiography, she writes "I felt more alive then than I feel now because I was needed, and I could sing something to help my people…."
1974–1993: Later life
In an interview for Jet magazine, Simone stated that her controversial song "Mississippi Goddam" hurt her career. She claimed that the music industry reprimanded her by boycotting her records. Hurt and disappointed, Simone left the US in September 1970, flying to Barbados and expecting 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 an indication of a desire for a divorce. As her manager, Stroud was in charge of Simone's income.
Simone recorded her last album for RCA, It Is Finished, in 1974, and did not make another record until 1978, when she was persuaded to go into the recording studio by CTI Records owner Creed Taylor. The result was the album Baltimore, which, while not a commercial success, was fairly well received critically and marked a quiet artistic renaissance in Simone's recording output. 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 she recorded the album Live at Ronnie Scott's in 1984. Although her early on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, in later years, Simone particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences sometimes by recounting humorous anecdotes related to her career and music and by soliciting requests. In 1987, the original 1958 recording of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" was used in a commercial for Chanel No. 5 perfume in Britain. 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.
When Simone returned to the United States, she learned that a warrant had been issued for her arrest for unpaid taxes (as a protest against her country's involvement with the Vietnam War), and returned to Barbados to evade the authorities and prosecution. Simone stayed in Barbados for quite some time and she had a lengthy affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow. A close friend, singer Miriam Makeba, then persuaded her to go to Liberia. Later, she lived in Switzerland and the Netherlands, before settling in France in 1993. During a 1998 performance in Newark, she announced, "If you're going to come see me again, you've got to come to France, because I ain't coming back."
Simone published her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, in 1992. She recorded her last album, A Single Woman, in 1993, where she depicted herself as the "single woman". She continued to tour through the 1990s but rarely traveled without an entourage. During the last decade of her life, Simone had sold more than one million records, making her a global catalog best-seller.
1993–2003: Illness and death
Simone had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1980s. In 1993, she settled near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. She had suffered from 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, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and hundreds of others. Simone's ashes were scattered in several African countries. She is survived by her daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud, an actress and singer, who took the stage name Simone, and has appeared on Broadway in Aida.
Simone's consciousness on the racial and social discourse was prompted by her friendship with black playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the influence of Hansberry planted the seed for the provocative social commentary that became an expectation in Simone's repertoire. One of Nina's more hopeful activism anthems, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" was written with collaborator Weldon Irvine in the years following the playwrights passing, acquiring the title of one of Hansberry's unpublished plays.
Beyond The Civil Rights Movement
Nina Simone's social commentary was not limited to the Civil Rights Movement; "Four Women" exposed the eurocentric beauty standards imposed on black women in America, as it explored the internalized dilemma of beauty that is experienced between four black women with skin-tones ranging from light to dark. Nina Simone explains in her autobiography "I Put a Spell on You" (p.117), the purpose of the song was to inspire black women to define beauty and identity for themselves without the influence of societal impositions.
Simone was known for her temper and frequent outbursts. In 1985, she fired a gun at a record company executive, whom she accused of stealing royalties. Simone said she "tried to kill him" but "missed". In 1995, she shot and wounded her neighbor's son with an air gun after the boy's laughter disturbed her concentration. According to a biographer, Simone took medication for a condition from the mid-1960s on. All this was only known to a small group of intimates, and kept out of public view for many years, until the biography Break Down and Let It All Out written by Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan revealed this in 2004, after her death. Singer-songwriter Janis Ian, a one-time friend of Simone's, related in her own autobiography, Society's Child: My Autobiography, two instances to illustrate Simone's volatility: one incident in which she forced a shoe store cashier, at gunpoint, to take back a pair of sandals she'd already worn; and another in which Simone demanded a royalty payment from Ian herself as an exchange for having recorded one of Ian's songs, and then ripped a pay telephone out of its wall when she was refused.
Throughout her career, Simone assembled a collection of songs that would later become standards in her repertoire. Some were songs that she wrote herself, while others were new arrangements of other standards, and others had been written especially for the singer. Her first hit song in America was her rendition of George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy" (1958). It peaked at number 18 in the pop singles chart and number 2 on the black singles chart. During that same period Simone recorded "My Baby Just Cares for Me", which would become her biggest success years later, in 1987, after it was featured in a 1986 Chanel No. 5 perfume commercial. A music video was also created by Aardman Studios. Well known songs from her Philips albums include "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" on Broadway-Blues-Ballads (1964), "I Put a Spell on You", "Ne me quitte pas" (a rendition of a Jacques Brel song) and "Feeling Good" on I Put a Spell On You (1965), "Lilac Wine" and "Wild Is the Wind" on Wild is the Wind (1966).
"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", "Feeling Good", and "Sinner Man" (Pastel Blues, 1965) have remained popular in terms of cover versions (most notably a version of the former song by The Animals), sample usage, and its use on soundtracks for various movies, TV-series, and video games. "Sinner Man" has been featured in the TV series Scrubs, Person of Interest, The Blacklist, Sherlock, and Vinyl, as well as in movies such as The Thomas Crown Affair, Miami Vice, and Inland Empire, and sampled by artists such as Talib Kweli and Timbaland. The song "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" was sampled by Devo Springsteen on "Misunderstood" from Common's 2007 album Finding Forever, and by little-known producers Rodnae and Mousa for the song "Don't Get It" on Lil Wayne's 2008 album Tha Carter III. "See-Line Woman" was sampled by Kanye West for "Bad News" on his album 808s & Heartbreak. The 1965 rendition of "Strange Fruit," originally recorded by Billie Holiday was sampled by Kanye West for "Blood on the Leaves" on his album Yeezus.
Simone's years at RCA-Victor spawned a number of singles and album tracks that were popular, particularly in Europe. In 1968, it was "Ain't Got No, I Got Life", a medley from the musical Hair from the album 'Nuff Said! (1968) that became a surprise hit for Simone, reaching number 4 on the UK Singles Chart and introducing her to a younger audience. In 2006, it returned to the UK Top 30 in a remixed version by Groovefinder.
The following single, a rendition of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody", also reached the UK Top 10 in 1969. "The House of the Rising Sun" was featured on Nina Simone Sings the Blues in 1967, but Simone had recorded the song in 1961 and it was featured on Nina at the Village Gate (1962), predating the versions by Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan. It was later covered by The Animals, for whom it became a signature hit.
Simone's bearing and stage presence earned her the title "High Priestess of Soul". She was a piano player, singer and performer, "separately, and simultaneously." As a composer and arranger, Simone moved from gospel to blues, jazz, and folk, and to numbers with European classical styling. Besides using Bach-style counterpoint, she called upon the particular virtuosity of the 19th-century Romantic piano repertoire—Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and others. Onstage, she incorporated monologues and dialogues with the audience into the program, and often used silence as a musical element. She compared it to "mass hypnosis. I use it all the time." Throughout most of her life and recording career she was accompanied by percussionist Leopoldo Fleming and guitarist and musical director Al Schackman.
Simone is regarded as one of the most influential recording artists of the 20th century. According to Rickey Vincent, she was a pioneering musician whose career was characterized by "fits of outrage and improvisational genius". Pointing to her composition of "Mississippi Goddam", Vincent said Simone broke the mold, having the courage as "an established black musical entertainer to break from the norms of the industry and produce direct social commentary in her music during the early 1960s".
In naming Simone the 29th greatest singer of all time, Rolling Stone wrote that "her honey-coated, slightly adenoidal cry was one of the most affecting voices of the civil rights movement", while making note of her ability to "belt barroom blues, croon cabaret and explore jazz — sometimes all on a single record." In the opinion of AllMusic's Mark Deming, she was "one of the most gifted vocalists of her generation, and also one of the most eclectic". Creed Taylor, who annotated the liner notes for Simone's 1978 Baltimore album, said the singer possessed a "magnificent intensity" that "turns everything—even the most simple, mundane phrase or lyric—into a radiant, poetic message". Music critic Jim Fusilli writes that Simone's music is still relevant today: "it didn't adhere to ephemeral trends, it isn't a relic of a bygone era; her vocal delivery and technical skills as a pianist still dazzle; and her emotional performances have a visceral impact.
By contrast, Robert Christgau argued that Simone's "penchant for the mundane renders her intensity as bogus as her mannered melismas and pronunciation (move over, Inspector Clouseau) and the rote flatting of her vocal improvisations." Regarding her piano playing, he dismissed Simone as a "middlebrow keyboard tickler ... whose histrionic rolls insert unconvincing emotion into a song".
Awards and recognition
Simone was the recipient of a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000 for her interpretation of "I Loves You, Porgy." She also received 15 Grammy Award nominations. On Human Kindness Day 1974 in Washington, D.C., more than 10,000 people paid tribute to Simone. Simone received two honorary degrees in music and humanities, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College. She preferred to be called "Dr. Nina Simone" after these honors were bestowed upon her.
Two days before her death, Simone was awarded an honorary degree by the Curtis Institute of Music, the music school that had refused to admit her as a student at the beginning of her career.
Legacy and influence
Musicians who have cited Simone as important for their own musical upbringing include Elton John (who named one of his pianos after her), Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Adele, David Bowie, Emeli Sandé, Antony and the Johnsons, Dianne Reeves, Sade, Beyoncé, Janis Joplin, Nick Cave, Van Morrison, Christina Aguilera, Elkie Brooks, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Kanye West, Lena Horne, Bono, John Legend, Elizabeth Fraser, Cat Stevens, Anna Calvi, Lykke Li, Peter Gabriel, Maynard James Keenan, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Mary J. Blige, Fantasia Barrino, Michael Gira, Angela McCluskey, Lauryn Hill, Patrice Babatunde, Alicia Keys, Lana Del Rey, Hozier, Matt Bellamy, Ian MacKaye, Kerry Brothers, Jr., Krucial, Amanda Palmer, Steve Adey and Jeff Buckley. John Lennon cited Simone's version of "I Put a Spell on You" as a source of inspiration for the Beatles' song "Michelle".
Simone's music has been featured in soundtracks of various motion pictures and video games, including but not limited to, La Femme Nikita (1990), Point of No Return (1993), The Big Lebowski (1998), Notting Hill (1999), Any Given Sunday (1999), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Disappearing Acts (2000), Six Feet Under (2001), The Dancer Upstairs (2002), Before Sunset (2004), Cellular (2004), Inland Empire (2006), Miami Vice (2006), Sex and the City (2008), The World Unseen (2008), Revolutionary Road (2008), Home (2008), Watchmen (2009), The Saboteur (2009), Repo Men (2010), and Beyond the Lights (2014). Frequently her music is used in remixes, commercials, and TV series including "Feeling Good", which featured prominently in the Season Four Promo of Six Feet Under (2004). Simone's "Take Care of Business" is the closing theme of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and Simone's cover of Janis Ian's "Stars" is played during the final moments of the season 3 finale of BoJack Horseman (2016).
The documentary Nina Simone: La légende (The Legend) was made in the 1990s by French filmmakers, based on her autobiography I Put a Spell on You. It features live footage from different periods of her career, interviews with family, various interviews with Simone then living in the Netherlands, and while on a trip to her birthplace. A portion of footage from The Legend was taken from an earlier 26-minute biographical documentary by Peter Rodis, released in 1969 and entitled simply, Nina. Her filmed 1976 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival is available on video courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment and is screened annually in New York City at an event called "The Rise and Fall of Nina Simone: Montreux, 1976" which is curated by Tom Blunt.
Footage of Simone singing "Mississippi Goddam" for 40,000 marchers at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches can be seen in the 1970 documentary King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis and the 2015 Liz Garbus documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?
Plans for a Simone biographical film were released at the end of 2005, to be based on Simone's autobiography I Put a Spell on You (1992) and to focus on her relationship in later life with her assistant, Clifton Henderson, who died in 2006; Simone's daughter, Simone Kelly, has since refuted the existence of a romantic relationship between Simone and Henderson on account of his homosexuality. Cynthia Mort, screenwriter of Will & Grace and Roseanne, has written the screenplay and directed the film, Nina, which stars Zoe Saldana in the title role. In May 2014, the film was shown to potential distributors at the Cannes Film Festival, but has, as of August 2014, not been seen by reviewers.
In 2015, two documentary features about Simone's life and music were released. The first, directed by Liz Garbus, What Happened, Miss Simone? was produced in cooperation with Simone's estate and her daughter, who also served as the film's executive producer. The film was produced as a counterpoint to the unauthorized Cynthia Mort film, and featured previously unreleased archival footage. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015 and was distributed by Netflix on June 26, 2015. It was nominated on January 14, 2016, for a 2016 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
The Amazing Nina Simone is an independent film written and directed by documentary filmmaker Jeff L. Lieberman and was released in more than 100 cinemas in 2015. The director initially consulted with Simone's daughter before going the independent route and instead worked closely with Simone's siblings, predominantly Sam Waymon. The film debuted in cinemas in October 2015 and has since played more than 100 theatres in 10 countries.
She is the subject of Nina - A Story About Me and Nina Simone, a one-woman show first performed in 2016 at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool — a "deeply personal and often searing show inspired by the singer and activist Nina Simone" — and which in July 2017 ran at the Young Vic, before being scheduled to move to Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre.
As well as her 1992 autobiography I Put a Spell on You (1992), written with Stephen Cleary, Simone has been the subject of several books. They include Nina Simone: Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (2002) by Richard Williams; Nina Simone: Break Down and Let It All Out (2004) by Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan; Princess Noire (2010) by Nadine Cohodas; Nina Simone (2004) by Kerry Acker; Nina Simone, Black is the Color (2005) by Andy Stroud; and What Happened, Miss Simone? (2016) by Alan Light.
In 2002, the city of Nijmegen, Netherlands, named a street after her, the Nina Simone straat; she had lived in Nijmegen between 1988 and 1990. On August 29, 2005, the city of Nijmegen, concert hall De Vereeniging, and more than 50 artists (among whom were Frank Boeijen, Rood Adeo, and Fay Claassen) honored Simone with the tribute concert Greetings from Nijmegen.
Simone was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
In 2010, a statue in her honor was erected in Trade Street in her native Tryon, North Carolina.
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