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Nina Simone Biography

Home > Music > S > Simone, Nina > Biography

Birth Name: Eunice Kathleen Waymon
Birth Place: Tryon, North Carolina, United States
Years Active: 1954—2003
Genres: Jazz, Blues, Soul, R&B, Folk, Gospel

Eunice Kathleen Waymon (February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003), known by her stage name Nina Simone, 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, soul, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop.

The sixth child of eight children in a poor family, she began playing piano at age three. Her mother’s employer, hearing of Nina'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. Simone moved to New York City, where she studied at the Juilliard School of Music. After finishing high school, she studied for an interview with the help of a private tutor to further study piano at the Curtis Institute, but she was rejected. Simone believed that this rejection was related directly to her being black.

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. Simone's mixture at the bar of jazz, blues and classical music, earned her a small but loyal fan base.

After playing in small clubs, in 1958 she recorded a rendition of George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy" which she learned from a Billie Holiday album. It became her only Billboard top 40 single in the United States, and her debut album “Little Girl Blue” soon followed on Bethlehem Records.

After the success of “Little Girl Blue,” Simone signed a contract with the larger company Colpix Records, followed by a string of studio and live albums. Colpix relinquished all creative control, including the choice of material that would be recorded, to her in exchange for her contracting with them. During 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 hinted about her African-American origins (such as "Brown Baby" and "Zungo" on “Nina at the Village Gate” during 1962). But on her debut album for Philips, “Nina Simone In Concert” (live recording, 1964), Simone for the first time openly addresses the racial inequality that was prevalent in the United States with the song "Mississippi Goddam." It was 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, being boycotted in certain southern states. With "Old Jim Crow" on the same album she reacts to the Jim Crow Laws.

From then on, a civil rights message was standard in Simone's recording repertoire, where it had already become a part of her live performances. Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as at the Selma to Montgomery marches. She covered Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (on “Pastel Blues” in 1965), a song about the lynching of black men in the South, and sang the W. Cuney poem "Images" on “Let It All Out” in 1966, about the absence of pride in the African-American woman. Simone wrote "Four Women," a song about four different stereotypes of African-American women which appeared on “Wild Is the Wind” in 1966.

Throughout her career, Simone also gathered a collection of songs that would become standards in her repertoire (apart from the civil rights songs). Well known songs from her Philips albums include "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" on 1964’s “Broadway-Blues-Ballads” (1964), "I Put a Spell on You," "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (a Jacques Brel cover) and "Feeling Good" on 1965’s “I Put A Spell On You,” "Lilac Wine" and "Wild Is the Wind" on 1966’s “Wild is the Wind.”

Especially the songs "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," "Feeling Good" and "Sinnerman" (“Pastel Blues,” 1965) have great popularity today in terms of cover versions (most notably The Animals' version of the former song), sample usage and its use on various movie, TV-series and videogame soundtracks. "Sinnerman" in particular has been featured in the TV series “Scrubs,” on movies such as “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Miami Vice,” and “Inland Empire,” and sampled by artists like 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 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 “808s and Heartbreak” album.

Simone moved from Philips to RCA Victor during 1967. She sang "Backlash Blues" written by her friend, poet Langston Hughes on her first RCA album, “Nina Simone Sings The Blues” in 1967. On 1967’s “Silk & Soul” she recorded Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" and "Turning Point." The 1968 album “Nuff Said” 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.

Together with Weldon Irvine, Simone turned the late Lorraine Hansberry's unfinished play "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" into a civil rights song. Lorraine Hansberry had been a personal friend whom Simone credited with cultivating her social and political consciousness. She performed the song live on the album 1970 “Black Gold.” A studio recording was released as a single, and the song has been covered by Aretha Franklin (on 1972s “Young, Gifted and Black”) and Donny Hathaway.

She recorded her last album for RCA Records, “It Is Finished,” in 1974. Simone did not make another record until 1978, when she was persuaded to go into the 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 the album “Live at Ronnie Scott's” was recorded during 1984.

Though her on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, in later years, Simone particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences by recounting sometimes humorous anecdotes related to her career and music and soliciting requests. In 1987, the original 1958 recording of "My Baby Just Cares For Me" was used in an advert for Chanel No. 5 perfume in the UK. This led to a re-release which stormed to #5 in the UK singles chart giving her a brief surge in popularity in the UK. Her autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You,” was published during 1992 and she recorded her last album, “A Single Woman,” in 1993.

In 1993, Simone settled near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. She had been ill with 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.