The “I Put A Spell On You,” songstress, Nina Simone left a lasting impression on world, through her music, artistry, and courageous activism. To this day, her legacy lives on, continuing to inspire and influence generations both young and old. She captivated listeners with her her powerful voice and commanding presence. Let’s learn more about the polarizing perpetual force known as Nina Simone.
Born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, she was the oldest of 2 children born to Mary Kate Waymon and John Divine Waymon. Her father was a preacher, handyman who once owned a dry cleaning business. Her mother was a Methodist minister and housemaid.
Ms Simone’s prodigal gift was recognized at an early age when she began playing the piano (by ear) at the age of three. She played the piano in her mother’s church, but did not sing. Determined to help develop this raw talent, an Englishwoman named Muriel Mazzanovich give young Eunice piano lessons. Under her tutelage, Ms Simone studied Bach, Johann Sebastian, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert. Her teacher also organized local concerts for Ms Simone to display her talent. Funds raised from the concerts were used to further Ms Simone’s education.
After graduating from Allen High School in Asheville North Carolina, as Valedictorian of her class, she matriculated to the famed Julliard School in New York City. Eventually she had to leave the school when her means of funding her education were depleted. Hoping to be accepted into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, she along with her family moved Philadelphia. However, her hopes were dashed when she was denied acceptance into the school in-spite of rendering a well received recital. She believed, racism was the reason for the rejection. Two days prior to her death, the same institution bestowed upon her an honorary doctorate.
As a means of survival, Ms Simone began teaching music to local students. In 1954, seeking to supplement her income, she auditioned to sing at Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Word quickly spread about the new singer and pianist who took the stage, showcasing plush vocal tones combined with mastery of the keys. She attracted several club goers up and down the Coast. Her growing popularity prompted her to change her name in order to disguise the fact that she was playing in bars, a notion her parents would gravely disapprove of had they been aware due to her strict upbringing. Therefore Eunice Waymon changed her name to Nina Simone by taking Nina meaning “little one” in Spanish and Simone after the French actress Simone Signoret.
At the age of 24, she got her break into the record industry when she signed with Bethlehem Records. It is with that particular label she recorded “I Loves You, Porgy” which lead to a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and “My Baby Just Cares For Me” which was used in a Chanel No. 5 commercial in Europe and became a massive hit topping the British charts at #5.
Having recorded more than 40 albums during her career, Nina Simone employed a broad range of musical styles which included jazz, blues folk, classical, spiritual, and pop. Clearly she was an extraordinary talent who could not be easily classified.
During the Civil Rights Era, Nina was deeply affected by the killings of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham Church bombing, which claimed the lives of four African American girls. These events ignited the first of many civil rights songs “Mississippi Goddamn.” In 1962, she had befriended noted playwright Lorraine Hansberry and spoke often with her about the Civil Rights Movement. Hansberry had been a personal friend whom Simone credited with cultivating her social and political consciousness. “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was a play Hansberry had been working on prior to her death. Ms. Simone took Hansberry’s play and turned it into a song, in Hansberry’s memory. “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was also credited as a civil rights anthem.
Ms Simone’s circle of friends was infused with prominent men and women, who were well read, well traveled, motivators, and agents of change. Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz were both friends and neighbors of Ms Simone, residents of Mount Vernon New York. Prolific author, writer, and public speaker James Baldwin and Harlem Renaissance leader, and famed poet Langston Hughes were among other affiliates.
Ms. Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as the Selma march. In 1968, after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Simone and her band performed “Why (The King Of Love Is Dead), at the Westbury Music Festival, in honor of the legendary Civil Rights Leader. “Four Women” and “Strange Fruit” continued to keep her in the forefront of the few artists willing to use music as a catalyst for social change. During that time of extreme civil upheaval, such risks were scarcely taken by performers. She stood up for her beliefs and sacrificed her career for her activism.
As the 1960’s drew to a close, Simone tired of the American music scene and the country’s deeply divided racial politics. She spent a good deal of the 1970’s and early 1980’s living in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Eventually, she settled down in the South of France.
For years, Ms. Simone dealt with personal struggles such as martial, financial, and severe mental health issues. Her marriage to Andrew Shroud (former manager) was abusive physically, mentally, and emotionally. She had frequent outbursts and clashes with managers, record labels, and the Internal Revenue Service regarding her finances. In the late 1980’s, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder..
On April 21, 2003, Ms. Simone died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rout, Bouches-du-Rhone France. Her funeral service was attended by an array of famous artists such as Miriam Makeba, Patti Labelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis, actress Ruby Dee, and hundreds of others. World renowned singer, Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message, “You were the greatest and I love you”. Her legacy continues…
Photography Credit: Chelsea “Ollie” Tyson
“There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.”
“Everything that happened to me as a child involved music. Everybody played music. There was never any formal training; we learned to play the same way we learned to walk, it was that natural.”
“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”
“Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music.”
“I’m a real rebel with a cause.”
“Once I understood Bach’s music, I wanted to be a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music, and it was that teacher who introduced me to his world.”