Nina Simone

  • Jazz and blues singer, songwriter and pianist born Eunice Waymon in Tyron North Carolina in 1933. Died in 2003 of breast cancer.
  • She began to play the piano before the age of five, and her first love was classical music. She performed a classical recital at twelve years old, and her music teacher established a fund to help pay for her education. After graduating from high school, she spent a summer at Juilliard School preparing for an audition to be admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her family moved to Philadelphia, hopeful that she would be admitted, but the school did not accept her application. One of the professors at the school thought she had great talent as a jazz pianist, and he gave lessons to her. Meanwhile, Waymon worked in Philadelphia as a photographer’s assistant, a vocal accompanist and a piano teacher at her home.
  • To help pay for her piano lessons, Waymon performed jazz, blues and classical music at a club in Atlantic City, where the owner insisted that she sing as well as play the piano. In 1954, she used the stage name Nina Simone so that her Methodist preacher mother would not know that it was her performing “the Devil’s music.” She chose “Nina” because her Spanish-speaking boyfriend called her that, and “Simone” came from the French actress Simone Signoret. She slowly gained a fan base performing in local clubs.
  • In 1958, as a favor to a friend, she recorded George Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy from the opera Porgy and Bess. It was released as a single and it was included on her debut album released the following year by a independent jazz record label. I Loves You, Porgy reached #18 on the Hot 100 and #2 on the R&B chart. Simone sold the rights to the album for $3,000 – a nice sum of money at the time, but it ultimately cost her over $1 million in royalties.
  • The success of the recording led to another recording contract. She released eight studio and live albums from 1959 to 1964 with the label. A live version of Trouble In Mind peaked at #11 on the R&B chart in 1961. She became a popular performer, particularly in Greenwich Village. She performed pop music primarily to support her continuing interest in the study of classical music.
  • In 1964, she changed record labels, and she became active in the equal rights movement with her music. That year, she wrote and released her first civil rights song, Mississippi Goddam, which addressed the murder of Medgar Evans in Mississippi and the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. For ten years, equal rights became a central theme of her recordings and her concerts. She was an outspoken champion of civil rights, advocating violence as a means to gain equality. She became known for her outbursts and aggressive behavior, and years later she was diagnosed as bipolar.
  • Twenty-five albums were released during those years. Jazz and R&B music from a controversial black woman was not supported by radio at that time, so most of her music did not chart on the Hot 100 chart. She did have hits on the R&B chart with I Put a Spell On You and To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and three of her songs reached the top five of the UK chart – To Love Somebody, Ain’t Got No, I Got Life and Do What You Gotta Do.
  • As a protest against the Vietnam War, Simone refused to pay income taxes, and she fled to Barbados and later to Liberia to avoid prosecution. She was persuaded to record again in 1978, releasing the album Baltimore – an album that did not satisfy her, as she had no creative control over it. In the 80s, she performed regularly in London, and a recording of a live show in 1984 was released as an album in 1987. She moved to Paris and frequently performed at a small jazz club there. In 1988, she moved to the Netherlands, and then back to France in 1993. Her final album, A Single Woman, was released that year.
  • Simone was an influential jazz artist whose legacy grew as she aged. Her version of I Loves You, Porgy was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000, and in 2018 she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2019, Mississippi Goddam was selected for inclusion into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. And she received three honorary degrees in music and humanities – including one from the Curtis Institute of Music, learning of that honor two days before she died.
  • Simone performed I Loves You, Porgy on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1960. Here’s her performance.

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