Nina Simone was born on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. Her birth name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon. By the age of four, Simone was learning to play the piano while singing in her church choir. Simone and her family grew up in poor conditions, and despite being the sixth of seven children she had a dream of making music. Simone’s music teacher started a special fund to help pay for her musical education. That education paid off. After high school, she was awarded a scholarship to attend the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Her scholarship led her to train as a classical pianist. While attending Julliard Simone taught others to play piano and accompanied other performers during performances. Simone’s family's financial troubles started catching up with her. She eventually had to leave Julliard because she ran out of funds. She then moved to Philadelphia to live with family members to help save money and pay for school. Simone applied to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was denied admittance. Simone believed she was denied simply because of her race.
After being denied by the institute, her passion for music was still burning, so her next step was to start playing the local clubs. In 1950, Simone began learning and playing American standards such as jazz and blues while in the clubs to make a living. At the request of the owner of the bar, Simone started singing along with the music she was playing. Her next step was to give herself a catchy stage name, “Nina Simone” is what she came up with. “Nina” was a nickname meaning “little one” and “Simone” came from the actress Simone Signoret. Nina Simone was created and a bright future was ahead of this young star. She began to catch the attention of popular writers from the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin.
By the late 1950s, Simone had begun recording music under the Bethlehem Record Label. In 1958, she released her first album “Little Girl Blue” which featured the songs “Plain Gold Ring” and “Little Girl Blue”. That album also included her only top 40 hit “I Loves you Porgy,” her version of the song from the musical Porgy and Bess. Simone’s music was different and it defied industry standards, she drew from her classical training as well as her gospel, pop, and folk musical backgrounds. Because of her presence, talent, and influence, she was named the “High Priestess of Soul,” even though she was not fond of the name. Simone explained that she would rather be classified as a folk singer than a jazz or soul singer; “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,” Simone stated. Around 1965, Simone was becoming the voice of the civil rights movement. In response to the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the Birmingham church, killing four little black girls, she wrote the song “Mississippi Goddam.” In 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she wrote, “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” and “Young Gifted and Black.” “Young Gifted and Black” was a title borrowed from a play written by Lorraine Hansberry, that song became a theme for the time period in black America.
As racial tensions grew in America it began affecting the music industry. Simone was not happy with America and its politics, so she moved out of the country. She began living in other countries including Liberia, Switzerland, England, Barbados, and South France. During this time, she struggled with finances, the rigors of the music industry, and the IRS. Despite her troubles, she continued to create music. She began covering popular music and adding her own flavor to the songs. She covered Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “Here Comes the Sun,” by the Beatles. She would later record “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” before taking a musical break. In 1978, she returned to the music scene and released the album “Baltimore”, which was received well by critics but did not sell well commercially.
In the late 1980s a perfume commercial in the UK used Simone’s song “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” the commercial caused her song to become a number-ten hit in Britain. In 1992, she wrote her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You. In 1993, she recorded and released the song “A Single Woman”, then returned to the United States to perform her songs which promoted her art. Simone toured regularly which helped maintain and continue building an ever-growing fan base. In 1998, she performed in New York City for the first time in five years, and that performance received critical acclaim. Later in the year, Simone attended the 80th birthday party of beloved South African President Nelson Mandela. In 1999, Simone performed in Dublin, Ireland at the Guinness Blues Festival. Nina Simone died in 2003 due to complications with her health. She left a rich ever-growing legacy that will stand the test of time. She stood for freedom and equality and set a standard that black women in America can follow and be proud of. With prominent Negroid features, she shattered the American standard of beauty, while igniting the souls of anyone who listened to her music. Her music influenced a whole generation of music lovers and creators, from rap artists to folk singers. She also set political and cultural standards that showed future generations how to use music to influence and uplift its listeners. Ms. Nina Simone, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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