Nina Simone (born Eunice Waymon, 02/23/1933, Tyron, North Carolina) is widely regarded as one of the most diverse musical artists who defies any classification.
Born the sixth of eight children, Eunice quickly proved herself to be a child prodigy by beginning piano lessons at the age of four and giving her first recital at the age of ten - all of this supported financially by her music teacher. It was at this first recital that Eunice also experienced her first taste of the racism prevalent during those times - her proud parents were forced to give up their front-row seats to a white couple. This traumatic experience proved to be a defining moment in Eunice's life as it charged her with a sense of activism in the civil rights arena.
In 1950, Eunice left North Carolina to begin studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Following her studies there, her family moved with her to Philadelphia where she applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute to continue lessons. Unfortunately, she was rejected - officially for musical reasons but most likely due to her colour.
After the rejection in Philadelphia, Eunice began work as an accompanist to help support her family. In 1954, she was hired to perform at the Midtown Bar and Grill, an Irish bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey. While Eunice had primarily been trained in classical piano, the owner of the bar informed her that the performing job required her to sing. It was at this point that Eunice Waymon changed her stage name to Nina (Spanish for "little one" and a nickname given to her from a boyfriend) Simone (from the French actress Simone Signoret).
The gig at the bar turned into regular performances at several other locations in Philadelphia. Word of her talent on the piano spread and she was soon given a recording session at Bethlehem Records in 1957 where she recorded fourteen tracks. Nina subsequently recorded the album Jazz as played at an Exclusive Side Street Club (aka Little Girl Blue) which was released in 1958 to immediate success. Nina's rendition of I Loves You, Porgy from that album was released as a single and became a national hit, selling over a million copies.
Nina's success as a recording artist led her to grand performances at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall, and the Newport Jazz Festival. Audiences marvelled at her skills as a pianist, vocalist, arranger, and composer. They were treated to a diverse repertoire which included jazz standards, gospel tunes, classical pieces, folk tunes, blues, African chants, and more. At the base of all of this were jazz and blues influences as evidenced in the improvisation and modulation of her performances. As well, her voice proved to be captivating as it bounced between soft and harsh, often many times within a single tune.
In 1959, Nina signed with Colpix (Columbia Pictures Recordings) and her relationship with that label (which ended in 1964) bore ten albums - six studio albums and four live recordings. She also recorded songs for several Columbia movie soundtracks, including Samson and Delilah and Wild is the Wind.
In 1961, Nina married Andy Stroud, a New York detective. The following year saw the birth of their child, Lisa Celeste Stroud.
In 1964, Nina began recording on the Philips label. Her first album for the label was Nina Simone in Concert, which included her composition Mississippi Goddam, a dark and angry song that was a reaction to the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the killing of four black schoolchildren in a church bombing in Alabama (both in 1963). Thus began her first foray into political and social activism.
The year of 1966 saw Nina switch to the RCA label and her time there saw the release of nine albums, as well as some of her most popular covers, including To Love Somebody (Bee Gees) and Ain't Got No/I Got Life (from the musical Hair). The song Four Women was also released to controversy - a bitter attack on the different circumstances in life for four women of different shades of black colour, the song was banned in Philadelphia and New York as it was deemed insulting to black people.
In 1969, embittered by racism in her homeland, Nina renounced her country and left to wander around the world, turning up in places such as Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and the UK. In 1970, Nina and her husband parted ways. In 1974, Nina left the RCA label.
Nina was arrested in 1978 for witholding taxes during the 1971-1973 period as a protest against the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. The album Baltimore was released the same year on the CTI label.
Her next album came out in 1982 and it was Fodder on My Wings. The album was recorded in both English and French and was based on her "exile" from the United States.
Nina grandly returned to American shores with the 1985 release of Nina's Back. The same year also saw the re-emergence of her rendition of My Baby Just Cares For Me from her very first album which became an international chart-topper, over 30 years after the first release.
In 1989, Nina collaborated with Pete Townsend (The Who) on his musical The Iron Giant.
Nina's autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, came out in 1991. In 1993, Nina moved to the southern French town of Bouc-Bel-Air near Aix-en-Provence.
Since then, Nina Simone is still recording and touring at various international stages and festivals on occasion. I still get a kick out of finding her music in various sections at some music stores - on any given day, you'll find her albums in jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, and even rock sections.
Love me or leave me, let me be lonely...
Update 2003/04/21: R.I.P. - Nina Simone passed away today at her home in France after a long illness.
- Nina Simone Official Website (www.ninasimone.com)
- Sing365.com biography on Nina Simone (www.sing365.com)