Nina Simone studied classical piano at the Juilliard School in New York City but left early when she ran out of money. Performing in night clubs, she turned her interest to jazz, blues, and folk music and released her first album in 1957, scoring a Top 20 hit with the track “I Loves You Porgy.” In the 1960s, Simone expanded her repertory in exemplary fashion while becoming identified as a leading voice of the civil rights movement. She later lived abroad and experienced major mental health and financial issues, though she enjoyed a career resurgence in the 1980s. Simone died in France on April 21, 2003.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone took to music at an early age, learning to play piano at the age of 3 and singing in her church’s choir. Simone’s musical training over the years emphasized classical repertory along the lines of Beethoven and Brahms, with Simone later expressing the desire to have been recognized as the first major African American concert pianist. Her music teacher helped establish a special fund to pay for Simone’s education and, after finishing high school, the same fund was used to send the pianist to New York City’s famed Juilliard School of Music to train.
Simone taught piano and worked as an accompanist for other performers while at Juilliard, but she eventually had to leave school after she ran out of funds. Moving to Philadelphia, Simone lived with her family there in order to save money and go to a more affordable music program. Her career took an unexpected turn, however, when she was rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; she later claimed the school denied her admittance because she was African American.
Turning away from classical music, she started playing American standards, jazz, and blues in Atlantic City clubs in the 1950s. Before long, she started singing along with her music at the behest of a bar owner. She took the stage name Nina Simone—”Nina,” derived from the Spanish word “niña,” came from a nickname used by her then-boyfriend, while “Simone” was inspired by French actress Simone Signoret. The performer eventually won over such fans as writers Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin.
Simone began recording her music in the late 1950s under the Bethlehem label, releasing her first full album in 1957, which featured “Plain Gold Ring” and the title track, “Little Girl Blue.” It also included her lone Top 20 pop hit with her version of “I Loves You Porgy,” from the George and Ira Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess.
Under different labels, Simone released a bevy of albums from the late ’50s throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, including records like The Amazing Nina Simone (1959), and Nina Simone Sings Ellington! (1962), Wild Is the Wind (1966), and Silk and Soul (1967). She also made cover songs of popular music, eventually putting her own spin on such songs as Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” And she showed her sensual side with tracks like “Take Care of Business” on 1965’s I Put a Spell on You and “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” on 1967’s Nina Simone Sings the Blues.
In many ways, Simone’s music defied standard definitions. Her classical training showed through, no matter what genre of song she played, and she drew from a well of sources that included gospel, pop, and folk. She was often called the “High Priestess of Soul,” but she hated that nickname. She didn’t like the label “jazz singer,” either. “If I had to be called something, it should have been a folk singer because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing,” she later wrote in her autobiography.
Prominent Civil Rights Singer: “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women”
By the mid-1960s, Simone became known as the voice of the Civil Rights Movement. She wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young African American girls. She also penned “Four Women,” chronicling the complex histories of a quartet of African American female figures, and “Young, Gifted and Black,” borrowing the title of a play by Hansberry, which became a popular anthem. After the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Simone’s bassist Greg Taylor penned “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” which was performed by the singer and her band at the Westbury Music Festival.
During the ’60s, Simone had prominent hits in England as well with “I Put a Spell on You,” “Ain’t Got No-I Got Life/Do What You Gotta Do” and “To Love Somebody,” with the latter penned by Barry and Robin Gibb and originally performed by their group the Bee Gees.
As the 1960s drew to a close, Simone tired of the American music scene and the country’s deeply divided racial politics. Having been neighbors with Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz in Mount Vernon, New York, she later lived in several different countries, including Liberia, Switzerland, England, and Barbados before eventually settling down in the South of France. For years, Simone also struggled with severe mental health issues and her finances and clashed with managers, record labels, and the Internal Revenue Service.
Simone, who had taken a break from recording in the mid-70s, returned in 1978 with the album Baltimore, with the title track a cover version of a Randy Newman tune. Critics gave the album a warm reception, but it did not fare well commercially.
Simone went through a career renaissance in the 1980s when her song “My Baby Just Cares For Me” was used in a Chanel No. 5 perfume commercial in the United Kingdom. The song thus became a Top 10 hit in Britain in 1985. She also penned her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, which was published in 1991. Her next recording, A Single Woman, came out in 1993.
Touring periodically, Simone maintained a strong fan base that filled concert halls whenever she performed. In 1998, she appeared in the New York tri-state area, her first trip there in five years, specifically playing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The New York Times critic Jon Pareles reviewed the concert, noting that “there is still power in her voice” and that the show featured “a beloved sound, a celebrated personality, and a repertory that magnifies them both.” That same year, Simone attended South African leader Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday celebration.
Death and Legacy
In 1999, Simone performed at the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin, Ireland. She was joined on stage by her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly for a few songs. Lisa, from Simone’s second marriage to manager Andrew Stroud, followed in her mother’s footsteps. Among an array of performance accomplishments, she has appeared on Broadway in Aida, using the stage name “Simone.”
In her final years, reports indicated that Nina Simone was battling breast cancer. She died at the age of 70 on April 21, 2003, at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, France.
While she may be gone, Simone left a lasting impression on the world of music, art, and activism. She sang to share her truth, and her work still resonates with great emotion and power. Simone has inspired an array of performers, including Aretha Franklin, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Lauryn Hill, and Meshell Ndegeocello. Her deep, distinctive voice continues to be a popular choice for television and film soundtracks.
Two documentaries on the musician’s life were released in 2015: The Amazing Nina Simone, directed by Jeff L. Lieberman, and What Happened, Miss Simone?, from Netflix. The latter project was directed by Liz Garbus and offered commentary from daughter Lisa and ex-husband Stroud, among others. In addition to glorious musicianship, the project detailed troubling aspects of Simone’s life, including the abuse she endured from her ex-husband and in turn, the abused daughter Lisa endured from her mother. What Happened, Miss Simone? later received an Oscar nomination for best documentary. In a turn of controversial casting, Simone was also depicted by actress Zoe Saldana in the 2016 biopic Nina.
In 2016, with Simone’s childhood home in Tryon on the market, four African American artists teamed up to purchase the structure, fearing it would be demolished. Two years later, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the house a “national treasure,” thereby protecting it from demolition, with the organization reportedly intent on finding ways to restore it for use by future artists.