Nina Simone Biography

Eunice Kathleen Waymon, 21 February 1933, Tryon, North Carolina, USA, d. 21 April 2003, Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rhône, France. An accomplished pianist as a child, Eunice Waymon made her public debut at the age of 10 in her native North Carolina. She later moved to Philadelphia and studied at New York’s Juilliard School Of Music but left in 1954 after struggling to make headway in the tradition bound classical music world. Her rejection by the prestigious Curtis Institute was a crucial incident in the artist’s development, ruining her dreams of becoming a classical pianist and informing her passionate stance on racial injustice.

Waymon began working as a singer-pianist in the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, taking her stage surname from the French actress Simone Signoret and ‘Nina’ from nickname given to her by a boyfriend. Now known as Nina Simone, she secured a small fanbase for her club act of jazz, blues and classical standards. Her jazz credentials were firmly established in 1959 when she secured a US Top 40 hit with an emotive interpretation of George Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You Porgy’ (from Porgy And Bess). The track was one of the highlights of her debut album Little Girl Blue aka Jazz As Played In An Exclusive Side Street Club, recorded for the jazz label Bethlehem Records in 1958. The album also included sublime readings of ‘Don’t Smoke In Bed’ and ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, with the latter, originally a throwaway track recorded at the end of the session, becoming one of her signature tunes. Nina Simone And Her Friends, which featured outtakes from the Little Girl Blue sessions, was released after Simone had switched to the Colpix Records label.

Simone stayed with Colpix between 1959 and 1964, recording four studio sets and four live albums, with a later release (the poorly over-dubbed With Strings) issued without the artist’s approval. Notable highlights from this period included ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’, ‘Gin House Blues’ and ‘Forbidden Fruit’. Her reading of the blues standard ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ was a notable influence on the Animals’ later hit version, while the album it was included on (At The Village Gate) veered away from jazz to explore folk and traditional African music. Simone’s broad repertoire during her Colpix years set the standard for her later career, with jazz, folk, blues, spirituals and movie themes all grist to her mill.

Simone switched to the Philips Records label in 1964, making her debut the same year with the live album In Concert. Recorded over three nights at Carnegie Hall in New York City, several songs on the album marked Simone’s growing militancy. The self-written ‘Mississippi Goddam’ detailed the singer’s enraged reaction to the deaths of four children in the bombing of a Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963. When it was released as a single, promotional copies were smashed and returned to Simone’s record label by a Carolina radio station, reflecting the danger a black performer faced in challenging ingrained prejudice. The studio release Broadway-Blues-Ballads played down the civil rights angle, and featured a popular version of Bennie Benjamin’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’. The 1965 follow-up I Put A Spell On You featured some of the singer’s most enduring recordings, including the title track and a brilliant version of the Anthony Newley / Leslie Bricusse musical number ‘Feeling Good’. Even the lesser Pastel Blues included a great reading of the spiritual ‘Sinnerman’. 1966’s Let It All Out included the Bob Dylan song, ‘The Ballad Of Hollis Brown’, while the following year’s misleadingly titled High Priestess Of Soul featured the backing of the Hal Mooney big band.

Simone’s popular fortune flourished upon her signing with RCA - Victor Records. Her debut for the label, 1967’s Sings The Blues, featured a upbeat re-recording of ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’ and the strident ‘Backlash Blues’, the latter co-written with poet Langston Hughes. Simone’s growing militancy was reflected on tracks such as Billy Taylor’s ‘I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free)’ and ‘Turning Point’ from 1967’s Silk & Soul, and on the following year’s live album ‘Nuff Said! The latter was recorded at Westbury Music Fair on 7 April 1968, three days after the murder of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King. One of three studio tracks included on the album, ‘Ain’t Got No - I Got Life’, a song lifted from the musical Hair, reached number 2 on the UK charts. Her energetic version of the Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’ was another major UK hit, while an album of the same name featured an uneasy Simone tackling material by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Of more note were the solo piano recording Nina Simone And Piano (the artist’s favourite album) and the live Black Gold. The latter featured the Simone composition ‘To Be Young, Gifted And Black’, dedicated to her late friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

Releases grew more infrequent as Simone’s political activism increased. She began exploring African-American history and struck up a close association with Liberia, a country to which she would frequently return throughout the following decades. She left the US in 1970, moving between Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France. In 1992, in a final snub to an America she perceived as uncaring, Simone settled in Bouc-Bel-Air in France where her work continued to flourish. A commanding, if taciturn and sometimes difficult, live performer, Simone’s appearances became increasingly focused on benefits and rallies, although a fluke UK hit, ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, a resurrected 50s master, pushed the singer, momentarily, into the commercial spotlight when it reached number 5 in 1987 thanks to its use in a commercial for Chanel No 5. She gave a series of mesmerising performance at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club during this period.

Simone’s standing as a performer was increasingly at odds with her turbulent personal life. In 1995, a suspended eight-month jail term for firing a scattergun in the direction of two teenagers in the pool of the villa next to hers indicated ongoing personal problems (later attributed to borderline personality disorder), but during this period Simone was buoyed by winning back the licensing rights to several of her original recordings. Her live performances continued to enthral and enrage in equal measure, a situation completely in keeping with her stature as one of popular music’s great divas. She recorded one final studio album, A Single Woman, before succumbing to cancer in 2003.

An uncompromising personality with a distinctive voice, Nina Simone’s interpretations of pop, soul, jazz, blues and standards were both compulsive and unique.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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