Nina Simone /ˈniːnə sɨˈmoʊn/ (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon; February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003) was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist widely associated with jazz music. Simone aspired to become a classical pianist while working in a broad range of styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop.
Born the sixth child of a preacher's family in North Carolina, Simone aspired to be a concert pianist. Her musical path changed direction after she was denied a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, despite a well-received audition. Simone was later told by someone working at Curtis that she was rejected because she was black. When she began playing in a small club in Philadelphia to fund her continuing musical education and become a classical pianist she was required to sing as well. She was approached for a recording by Bethlehem Records, and her rendering of "I Loves You, Porgy" was a hit in the United States in 1958. Over the length of her career Simone recorded more than 40 albums, mostly between 1958—when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue—and 1974.
Her musical style arose from a fusion of gospel and pop songs with classical music, in particular with influences from her first inspiration, Johann Sebastian Bach, and accompanied with her expressive jazz-like singing in her characteristic contralto. She injected as much of her classical background into her music as possible to give it more depth and quality, as she felt that pop music was inferior to classical. Her intuitive grasp on the audience–performer relationship was gained from a unique background of playing piano accompaniment for church revivals and sermons regularly from the early age of six years old.
In the early 1960s, she became involved in the civil rights movement and the direction of her life shifted once again. Simone's music was highly influential in the fight for equal rights in the United States. In later years, she lived abroad, finally settling in France in 1992. She received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000 and was a fifteen-time Grammy Award nominee over the course of her career.
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. The sixth of eight children in a poor family, she began playing piano at age 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 twelve. 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. Simone said 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, 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. Mary Kate's employer, hearing of her daughter's talent, provided funds for piano lessons. Subsequently, a local fund was set up to assist in Simone's continued education. With the assistance of this scholarship money she attended high school at Allen High School for Girls in Asheville, North Carolina.
After finishing high school, she studied for an interview with the help of a private tutor to study piano further at the Curtis Institute, but was rejected. Simone believed that this rejection was related directly to her race, although Curtis began accepting black applicants in the 1940s and the first black graduate was George Walker in 1945 who went on to win a Pulitzer. Simone then moved to New York City, where she studied at the Juilliard School of Music.
Early success (1954–1959)
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. In 1954 she adopted the stage name Nina Simone. "Nina" (from niña, meaning 'little girl' in Spanish) was a nickname a boyfriend had given to her, and "Simone" was taken from the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she had seen in the movie Casque d'or. 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 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.
Becoming popular (1959–1964)
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. By this point, Simone only performed pop music 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; Stroud later became her manager.
Civil rights era (1964–1974)
In 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 drew upon her African-American origins (such as "Brown Baby" and "Zungo" on Nina at the Village Gate in 1962). On her debut album for Philips, Nina Simone in Concert (live recording, 1964), however, Simone for the first time openly addressed the racial inequality that was prevalent in the United States with the song "Mississippi Goddam", 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, and it was boycotted in certain southern states. "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. 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. Nevertheless, she wrote in her autobiography that she and her family regarded all races as equal.
She covered Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit", a song about the lynching of black men in the South, on Pastel Blues (1965). She also sang the William Waring Cuney poem "Images" on Let It All Out (1966), about the absence of pride she saw among African-American women. Simone wrote "Four Women", a song about four different stereotypes of African-American women, and included the recording on her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind.
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, 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 the late 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.
Later life (1974–2003)
Simone left the United States 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.
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), causing her to return to Barbados again 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 1992.
She recorded her last album for RCA, It Is Finished, during 1974. Simone 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, did get good reviews 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 the United Kingdom. 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. Her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, was published in 1992. She recorded her last album, A Single Woman, in 1993.
In 1993, Simone 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. (In addition, Simone received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in the late 1980s). Her funeral service was attended by singers Miriam Makeba and Patti LaBelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis, and hundreds of others. Simone's ashes were scattered in several African countries. She left behind a daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud, an actress and singer, who took the stage name Simone, and has appeared on Broadway in Aida.
Simone had a reputation for volatility. 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 a pneumatic pistol 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.
Throughout her career, Simone assembled a collection of songs that would become standards in her repertoire. These songs were self-written tunes, tributes to works by others with a new arrangement by Simone, or songs written especially for Simone. 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). Especially the songs "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", "Feeling Good", and "Sinner Man" (Pastel Blues, 1965) have great popularity today 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. "Sinnerman", in particular, has been featured in the TV series Scrubs, Person of Interest, and Sherlock, and on 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. The song "See-Line Woman" was sampled by Kanye West for "Bad News" on his album 808s & Heartbreak. The 1965 rendition of "Strange Fruit" originally 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, the Bee Gees' rendition of "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". On stage, Simone moved from gospel to blues, jazz, and folk, to numbers with European classical styling, and Bach-style fugal counterpoint. She incorporated monologues and dialogues with the audience into the program, and often used silence as a musical element. Simone 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.
Legacy and influence
Musicians who have cited Simone as important for their own musical upbringing include Emeli Sandé, Antony and the Johnsons, 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, Peter Gabriel, Maynard James Keenan, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Mary J. Blige, Fantasia Barrino, Michael Gira, Angela McCluskey, Lauryn Hill, Patrice Babatunde, Alicia Keys, 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". Musicians who have covered her work (or her specific renditions of songs) include Black Rock Coalition Orchestra, J.viewz, Carola, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Manson, Donny Hathaway, David Bowie, Elkie Brooks, Roberta Flack, Kimbra, The Animals, Shivaree, Ambrosia Parsley, Muse, Cat Power, Katie Melua, Timbaland, Feist, Shara Worden, Common, Lil Wayne, Michael Bublé, and Meshell Ndegeocello. Singer-songwriter Tom Russell's homage to Nina Simone appears on his 2009 album Blood and Candle Smoke.
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), 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), Watchmen (2009), The Saboteur (2009), Repo Men (2010). Frequently her music is used in remixes, commercials, and TV series including "Feeling Good" featured prominently in the Season Four Promo of Six Feet Under, 2004.
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 friends and 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.
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 sexuality. Screenwriter Cynthia Mort (Will & Grace, Roseanne and The Brave One) is working on the screenplay, and Zoe Saldana has been chosen to star in the lead role. The casting unleashed international controversy on account of Saldana's "dissimilar" appearance to Simone and the implication that Henderson was more than just her assistant, and in fact, her romantic partner. Release of the movie is scheduled for 2013.
Simone was the recipient of a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000 for her song "I Loves You Porgy." She has also received fifteen 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. Only two days before her death, Simone was awarded an honorary degree by the Curtis Institute, the music school that had refused to admit her as a student at the beginning of her career.
In 2002, the city of Nijmegen (The Netherlands) named a street after her, the Nina Simone straat. Simone lived in Nijmegen between 1988 and 1990.
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, Tryon, North Carolina, her place of birth.
|1958||Little Girl Blue||Studio||Bethlehem Records|
|1959||Nina Simone and Her Friends||Studio, compilation w/ four tracks by Simone|
|The Amazing Nina Simone||Studio||Colpix Records|
|Nina Simone at Town Hall||Live and studio|
|1960||Nina Simone at Newport||Live||23 (pop)|
|1962||Nina at the Village Gate||Live|
|Nina Simone Sings Ellington||Live|
|Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall||Live|
|Nina Simone in Concert||Live||Philips Records||102 (pop)|
|1965||I Put a Spell on You||Studio||99 (pop)|
|Sincerely Nina||Live and studio|
|Pastel Blues||Studio||8 (black)|
|1966||Nina Simone with Strings||Studio (strings added)||Colpix|
|Let It All Out||Live and studio||Philips||19 (black)|
|Wild Is the Wind||Studio||12 (black)|
|1967||High Priestess of Soul||Studio||29 (black)|
|Nina Simone Sings the Blues||Studio||RCA Records||29 (black)|
|Silk & Soul||Studio||24 (black)|
|1968||'Nuff Said!||Live and studio||44 (black)|
|1969||Nina Simone and Piano||Studio|
|To Love Somebody||Studio|
|A Very Rare Evening||Live||PM Records|
|1970||Gifted & Black||Studio||Canyon Records (Hollywood)|
|Black Gold||Live||RCA Records||29 (black)|
|1971||Here Comes the Sun||Studio||190 (pop)|
|1972||Emergency Ward||Live and studio|
|Sings Billie Holiday – Lady Sings the Blues||Live||Stroud|
|1973||Live at Berkeley||Live|
|Gospel According to Nina Simone||Live|
|1974||It Is Finished||Live||RCA Records|
|1978||Baltimore||Studio||CTI Records||12 (jazz)|
|1980||The Rising Sun Collection||Live||Enja|
|1982||Fodder on My Wings||Studio||Carrere|
|1985||Live & Kickin||Live|
|1987||Let It Be Me||Live||Verve|
|Live at Ronnie Scott's||Live||Hendring-Wadham|
|The Nina Simone Collection||Compilation||Deja Vu|
|1993||A Single Woman||Studio||Elektra Records||3 (top jazz)|
|1972||Live in Europe||Live||Trip|
|1997||Released||Compilation||RCA Victor Europe|
|2003||Four Women: The Nina Simone Philips Recordings||Compilation||Verve|
|Gold||Studio remastered||Universal / UCJ|
|Anthology||Compilation (from many labels)||RCA / BMG Heritage|
|2004||Nina Simone's Finest Hour||Compilation||Verve / Universal|
|2005||The Soul of Nina Simone||Compilation + DVD||RCA DualDisc|
|Nina Simone Live at Montreux 1976||DVD only||Eagle Eye Media|
|Nina Simone Live||DVD only: Studio 1961 & 1962||Kultur / Creative Arts Television|
|2006||The Very Best of Nina Simone||Compilation||Sony / BMG|
|Remixed and Reimagined||Remix||Legacy / BMG||5 (contemp.jazz)|
|Songs to Sing: the Best of Nina Simone||Compilation/Live Compilation||Deluxe|
|Forever Young, Gifted, & Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit||Remix||RCA|
|2008||To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story||Compilation||Sony / Legacy / BMG|
|2009||The Definitive Rarities Collection – 50 Classic Cuts||Compilation||Artwork Media|
|US Pop||US R&B||UK|
|1959||"I Loves You, Porgy"||18||2||-|
|1960||"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out"||93||23||-|
|1961||"Trouble In Mind"||92||11||-|
|1965||"I Put a Spell on You"||-||23||49|
|1968||"Ain't Got No - I Got Life"||94 (1969)||-||2|
|"Do What You Gotta Do"||83||43||2|
|1969||"To Love Somebody"||-||-||5|
|"I Put A Spell On You" (reissue)||-||-||28|
|"Revolution (Part 1)"||-||41||-|
|"To Be Young, Gifted and Black"||76||8||-|
|1987||"My Baby Just Cares for Me" (1959 recording)||-||-||5|
|1994||"Feeling Good" (1965 recording)||-||-||40|
- Brun-Lambert, David (October 2006) . Nina Simone, het tragische lot van een uitzonderlijke zangeres (in Dutch, translated from French original). Introduction by Lisa Celeste Stroud, afterword by Gerrit de Bruin. Zwolle: Sirene. ISBN 90-5831-425-1.
- Feldstein, Ruth (March 2005). ""I Don't Trust You Anymore": Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s". Journal of American History 91 (4): 1349. doi:.
- Hampton, Sylvia (2004) . Break Down and Let It All Out. David Nathan, introduction by Lisa Celeste Stroud. London: Sanctuary. ISBN 1-86074-552-0.
- Simone, Nina; Stephen Cleary (2003) . I Put a Spell on You. introduction by Dave Marsh (2nd ed.). New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80525-1.
- at DMOZ
- in the Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
- at Legacy Recordings