Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21st, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone was the sixth of eight children. She started playing piano by ear at the age of 3 and church organ by 7. She dreamed of becoming the first black concert pianist in the United States and gathered a handful of strong supporters from her small North Carolina town. During her first recital at 12 years old, Simone took a stand against the injustices of the Jim Crow South and refused to play until her parents were moved from the back row to their rightful place in the front.
Simone attended Allen High School for Girls, a private school for Black girls in nearby Asheville, then went on to study music at Julliard the summer of 1950 while applying for a scholarship at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Simone’s parents relocated to Philadelphia with the expectation that Nina would be admitted to Curtis, but despite a strong audition, she was denied. She blamed her rejection on racism and it further fueled her passion for Civil Rights.
Simone began to play clubs in Atlantic City for income, where singing along with playing the piano made her more money. To avoid embarrassing her religious family, she adopted her stage name in 1954: Nina – a boyfriend’s nickname of ‘little one’ in Spanish, and Simone, for the French actress Simone Signoret.
Her first album, Little Girl Blue; Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, was recorded in 1958. Simone still hoped to become a classical concert pianist and signed away all her rights to the songs on the album for $3,000, eventually losing around a million dollars of royalties because of the deal. Simone didn’t believe that Bethlehem Records promoted her enough so she left them for Colpix Records, recording Nina Simone at Town Hall in 1959. In 1964 she left Colpix for Dutch Philips and began to address racism injustice in her songs with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ her response to the murder of Medgar Evans and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama:
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
She went on to record other powerful songs such as Four Women, and Young, Gifted, and Black, a tribute to her friend Lorraine Hansberry that also became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
Over her lifetime, Simone recorded over forty albums, mostly between 1958 and 1974, and became known as the High Priestess of Soul, releasing an album under that title even though she didn’t like to be labeled. She was known for her deep contralto and for her unique music inspired by cˀlassical, Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Spirituals, Pop, and R&B – her music reaching across genres and too deep to file into any specific category.
Simone was known for being boldly outspoken – personally and socially.
In the 1970s and 1980s, she lived mostly abroad, in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and The Netherlands. During this time she struggled with mental health and financial issues. Her career enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s after Chanel used her song My Baby Just Cares for Me in a 1987 perfume ad. She penned an autobiography; I Put a Spell on You that was published in 1991.
Nina Simone died in her sleep April 21, 2003, in France.
Several documentaries about Simone’s life have been released in the past few years, including The Amazing Nina Simone and What Happened, Miss Simone in 2015, the latter of which was accompanied by a book of the same title published in 2016 by Alan Light. A biopic called Nina was released in 2016 but quickly came under fire by critics and the estate of Nina Simone, who, in modern-day boldly brash Simone fashion, told the lead actress to “… please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life” via Twitter.
Simone was a 2017 nominee for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and finally inducted in 2018 by Mary J. Blige. Her brother, composer, and actor Sam Waymon accepted the honor on her behalf.
In 2017, the childhood home of Nina Simone was listed for sale in Tryon, North Carolina. Four artists formed an LLC and purchased it and have been working with the National Trust, the Nina Simone Project, World Monuments Fund, and North Carolina African American Heritage Commission to preserve the small home. A statue of Nina Simone has also been added to downtown Tryon in her memory.
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.