Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Simone, Nina (Eunice Kathleen Waymon)

Pianist and singer Nina Simone defied categorization by blending classical, jazz and popular music into an unconventional and highly personal idiom: over four decades, she galvanized audiences with albums and performances replete with deep passion and keen attention to emotion.

Fiercely honest, Simone was admired for her eccentricity and individualism. She was known for her spirited personality on and off the stage, which included flirting with audience members and voicing her opinions about social topics of the time.

The legacy of Simone’s music and message can be heard not only in jazz but amongst the many pop artists who cite her influence, including Jeff Buckley, Alicia Keys and John Legend. Several of Simone’s songs have become jazz standards, and her voice is even familiar to audiences who don't know her name through their frequent use in movie soundtracks and commercials.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tyron, North Carolina. The sixth of eight children, Simone’s mother, Mary Kate, was a minister and her father John was a barber, dry cleaner, and truck driver who suffered from bouts of ill health.

Simone showed musical talent at a young age. She began playing the piano at her local church and had her first classical piano recital at the age of ten at a local library. At this debut, her parents were seated in the front row, but were forced to move to the back of the hall to make room for white audience members. Simone declined to perform until her parents were allowed to sit back up front, and she cited this incident as a precursor to her involvement in the civil rights movement.

Simone’s mother encouraged her talent and paid for piano lessons. The local community in Tyron also supported her talent, and established a “Eunice Waymon Fund” to further her musical studies. At the age of seventeen, Simone moved to New York to take classes at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. She then moved with her family to Philadelphia, where she auditioned for the city's prestigious Curtis Institute, a conservatory of classical music.

Simone sought the help of a private instructor to help her audition for the Curtis Institute, but was ultimately denied after a supposedly excellent audition. Simone said she later found out from an insider at Curtis that she was denied entry because she was black. This heightened her anger over the racism which was pervasive in the United States during this period.

To make money, Simone began performing at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City. In order to get the job, the owner told Simone she would have to sing as well as play the piano. In 1954, Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone. Simone changed her name because she didn’t want her mother to know that she was playing the “devil’s music.”

Eunice became “Nina,” which was a nickname a boyfriend had given her. Waymon became “Simone,” which was named after the French actress Simone Signoret. Simone began to develop a small, but loyal fan base because of how well she blended classical, jazz, and popular music.

Simone continued to build her performance experience when she recorded a version of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” in 1958. The song became her only top forty hit, and was featured on her debut album Little Girl Blue on Bethlehem Records, which sold well.

On “I Loves You Porgy,” Simone begins the song with a beautiful introduction complete with classical-inspired trills on the piano. Simone reveals her vulnerability through her trademark free vibrato and deeply emotional timbre. Through exposing her melancholy Simone easily connects the listener to the tenderness of the song. The rhythm section of bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath allow Simone’s performance to shine.

Regrettably the contract Simone signed with Bethlehem gave away most of her recording rights and she didn’t see profits from the sales. For her next album, The Amazing Nina Simone, she signed to Colpix records, with the understanding that she would have creative control of her music. The album was praised by critics and raised her profile even more.

Simone’s popularity grew at a steady pace, and as a result she was invited to perform at prominent venues such as Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. In 1961, Simone married Andy Stroud, a New York City detective. Stroud would later act as her manager as well as writing songs for her. The following year, the couple’s daughter Lisa Celeste Stroud was born.

In 1963, Simone wrote the song “Mississippi Goddamn,” which she based on the murder of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who was murdered by a Ku Klux Klan member in Mississippi. The song became one of the many songs that Simone would write that dealt with the reality of race relations in America. “Mississippi Goddamn” appeared on her 1964 album Nina Simone In Concert.

On “Mississippi Goddamn,” Simone sets up the song with a simple two-beat feel, which allows her socially conscious lyrics to flow with ease. The straightforward song also allows her to interact with the audience, increasing the intimacy between the two. The simplicity of the chord progression complements Simone’s energetic execution of the lyrics.

Beginning in 1964, Simone began her association with Philips Records. Here partnership with Philips lasted three years and yielded seven albums. One of her most popular songs during this period was “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which was the opening tracks to her 1964 album Broadway-Blues-Ballads. It became one of her signature songs and was popular enough to be covered by the rock band The Animals in 1965.

On “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” Simone begins the song with a melody on the harp, which sets up the verses with a dream-like feel. The added strings and choir give the song an epic feel without being overwhelming or congesting. Though not written by her, Simone has a deep connection with the lyrics, noticeable by the sense of sadness in her performance.

Simone’s songs of racial injustice and civil rights were often times misunderstood. In 1966, Simone wrote “Four Women,” a song about four black women whose situations are related to slight pigments in skin color, was banned in New York and Philadelphia for being “insulting to people of color.”

In 1966, Simone signed with RCA Records, whom she stayed with until 1974. While at RCA, Simone recorded nine albums including High Priestess of Soul and Here Comes The Sun as well as several popular songs that would become permanent songs of her catalog. In 1969, Simone renounced America and decided to live as an expatriate. During this period she lived in Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom before finally settling in Cary-le-Rouet, France.

In 1970, Simone divorced Stroud and tried to manage her own career. In 1978, she was arrested for withholding taxes from 1971 to 1973 as a protest to the war in Vietnam. Simone recorded her last album for RCA, entitled Is It Finished, in 1974. She did not record another album until 1978 when she released Baltimore. While this album was hailed by critics, Simone felt very negatively towards the album stating she had little to no artistic input. The album held onto her varied tastes with songs ranging from spiritual songs to her sardonic cover of Hall & Oates’ pop hit “Rich Girl.”

In 1982, Simone recorded the album Fodder On My Wings. The album included songs which relate her negative experiences in the music industry, such as “I Was Just A Stupid Dog To Them.” Throughout the 1980s, Simone performed at Ronnie Scott’s club in London on a regular basis, and recorded the album Live At Ronnie Scott’s there in 1984. In 1989, Simone contributed to pop songwriter Pete Townshend’s musical The Iron Man. In 1990, Simone released her autobiography I Put A Spell On You.

In 1993, Simone released her last studio album, A Single Woman. The album was met once again with critical acclaim. Realizing the demand for her music, Simone began touring again, returning to America for the first time in almost ten years.

In 1995, Simone shot and wounded the son of her neighbor with a pistol after his laughing interrupted her attention. Simone also fired a gun at a record company executive for apparently withholding royalties from her. It was later discovered that Simone suffered from bipolar disorder, and began taking medication to treat it in the mid-1960s. Simone’s condition was disclosed in 2004 with the release of her biography Break Down And Let It All Out.

On April 21, 2003, Simone passed away after a battle with breast cancer, two months shy of her seventieth birthday. Simone is survived by her daughter, who performs under the name Simone as a singer and dancer.

Simone was the recipient of several awards over the years. On October 7, 1999, Simone received a Lifetime Achievement in Music Award in Dublin. In 2000, Simone received the Diamond Award for Excellence in Music from the Association of African American Music in Philadelphia and the Honorable Musketeer Award from the Compagnie des Mosquetaires d’Armagnac in France. As per her request, Simone’s ashes were spread in several African countries.

Simone also received two honorary degrees in music and humanities from the University of Massachusetts and Malcolm X College. Ironically, two days before she passed away, the Curtis Institute, the very institution that had rejected her at the beginning of her career, awarded Simone an honorary degree.

Select Discography

As Nina Simone

Little Girl Blue (1958)

The Amazing Nina Simone (1959)

Nina Simone Sings Ellington (1962)

Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall (1963)

Nina Simone in Concert (1964)

Broadway-Blues-Ballads (1964)

I Put A Spell On You (1965)

High Priestess of Soul (1967)

Here Comes The Sun (1971)

Is It Finished (1974)

Baltimore (1978)

Fodder On My Wings (1982)

Live at Ronnie Scott’s (1987)

A Single Woman (1993)

Contributor: Eric Wendell