Born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina, in 1933, the future Nina Simone was bound for musical greatness at a young age. The daughter of a Methodist minister and a preacher, Simone grew up in her mother’s church, surrounded by gospel and classical music. By the age of three, Simone could play the piano by ear, and had not yet discovered her singing talents. As her passion for the piano increased, Simone began studying classical music with an Englishwoman, Muriel Mazzanovich. It was during these study sessions that Simone developed a life-long love for classical artists such as Sebastian Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert. Even as Simone’s musical genres expanded, elements of her love of classical music can be heard throughout her career. At a young age, Simone developed a dream of one day studying piano at world renown schools such as Julliard in New York City, and The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. After graduating as Valedictorian from her High school, the community decided to raise money for a scholarship for the talented Simone, and her and her family moved to Philadelphia. Despite Simone’s undeniable talent, and her eagerness to attend, both schools rejected her. Later in life, as discussed in her autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You”, Simone contemplated whether her lack of admission was due to the sheer racism that was so profoundly present in the States throughout that time. Despite this set back, Simone did not shed her love of music, and instead pioneered through, turning Eunice Waymon into the infamous, Nina Simone.
For money, Simone began teaching music to local students and children, as a supplement to this income, she auditioned to sing at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, in 1954. Simone blew them away and became a regular pianist and singer, dabbing into the songs and writings of Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Gershwin, and the lovely Billie Holiday. Simone had a unique combination of styles and genres while performing, ranging from classical, blues, jazz, folk, and popular music of the time. Her velvety voice lured club goers all over the coast to attend her performances. It was here that Simone officially assumed the stage name Nina Simone. At the age of twenty-four, Simone began submitting demos to numerous record labels, she was finally signed by Syd Nathan (owner of King’s records—home to James Brown), to hiss jazz label; Bethlehem Records. Throughout her stay at Bethlehem Records, Simone recorded to full albums; her first, Little Girl Blue (1958), and Nina Simone and Her Friends (1959). One of the tracks incorporated on Little Girl Blue, was entitled “My Baby Just Cares For Me”. Previously recorded by Nate King Cole, Count Basie, and Woody Herman, Simone’s rendition of the song blew everyone away. The song didn’t get full recognition, however, until about twenty years later when the track ran in a Chanel perfume ad, resurfacing the classic hit. “I Loves You, Porgy” is another tune off of Little Girl Blue that fared extremely well with audiences; it reached the top of the pop, R&B, and Hot 100 charts.
Despite two successful albums with Bethlehem Records, Simone’s stay with them was rather short lived. In 1959, after moving to New York City, she was signed by Joyce Selznik of Colpix Records (a division of Columbia Pictures). Under this new label, Simone released her LP, The Amazing Nina Simone, which debuted in 1959. The album did relatively well and Simone began performing all over the city. Simone’s live performances and the response that they generated among audiences, convinced Colpix to record her live shows. The first was in 1959, at the mid-Manhattan Town Hall, where she performed “You Can Have Him”, a song previously recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. Shortly after that first major performance at the Town Hall, Simone’s career skyrocketed and she was invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival on June 30th, 1960, alongside Al Shackman, Chris White, and Bobby Hamilton. The performance was recorded by Colpix, and its release of the old blues song, “Trouble in Mind”, marked Simone’s third charted hit.
Nina’s stay with Colpix resulted in nine successful albums, with tracks topping the Pop and R&B charts. Throughout her career with Colpix, Simone evolved her singing and song writing, becoming more and more influenced by society and relevant issues such as class and race. She released one civil rights song while under contract with Colpix, entitled “Brown Baby”. Around this time, critics were really struggling to classify her music; she was playing popular songs with a classical style and technique, that was heavily influenced by blues, folk, and cocktail jazz. Virtually everyone can relate to and appreciate Nina’s work. It wasn’t until Simone moved to Phillips Records however, that her civil rights advocacy became prevalent in her work. Songs like “Mississippi Goddamn” (which was banned in the south), “Four Women”, and “Strange Fruit”, continued to push the boundaries—making her one of the few performers of her time to use music as a vice to question society and push for social change. Nina states that it was the murder of Medgar Evans and the Alabama Church bombing that served as a catalyst for her career in protest music. All of her songs told a story, it didn’t matter if it was a cover or one of her original works, Nina’s deep rich vocals combined with her moody piano styles combined to form beautiful narrative every time she sang. Songs like, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, “I Put a Spell on You”, and “Ne Me Quitte Pas” illuminate the variety and drama she brought to the stage.
Nina Simone also recorded with RCA for seven years where she recorded two songs that were featured in the Broadway musical “Hair”; “Ain’t Got No-I Got Life”, and her cover of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”. Under RCA, Nina also recorded the anthem “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”. Simone continued recording all throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties, still using social commentary as her main inspiration. Throughout the later parts of her career, Simone traveled all around the world; residing in areas such as Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Her songs sparked a fire in the hearts of everyone that would listen, and begged people to change what they don’t like about society and the world. She is an artist that somehow seems reveal a little bit of her personality while performing; it was intimate and improvisational. She not only inspired audience members, she inspired fellow musicians and artists alike. When she died in April of 2003, her funeral service was attended by those such as Miriam Makeba, Patti Labelle, Sonia Sanchez, Ossie Davis, Elton John and many more.
Some of my favorites: