Simone, Nina (1933—)

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Simone, Nina (1933—)

African-American singer, songwriter, and pianist. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21,1933, in Tryon, North Carolina; daughter of John Divan Waymon (a day laborer) and Mary Kate Irvin (a minister); graduated as valedictorian of an Asheville, North Carolina, boarding school; attended the Juilliard School in New York; married Donald Ross, in 1958 (divorced 1959); married Andy Stroud, in 1961 (divorced 1970); children: Lisa Celeste Stroud (b. 1961).

Named by the Radio Disc Jockeys as Most Promising Singer of the Year (1960); was the first woman to receive Jazz Cultural Award; honored by Jazz at Home Club as Woman of the Year (1966); designated by the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers as Female Jazz Singer of the Year (1967).

Selected discography:

Little Girl Blue (Bethlehem, 1958); Nina Simone & Her Friends (Bethlehem, 1959); The Amazing Nina Simone (Colpix, 1959); Nina Simone at Town Hall (Colpix, 1960); At Newport (Colpix, 1961); Forbidden Fruit (Colpix, 1961); At the Village Gate (Colpix, 1962); Sings Ellington (Colpix, 1962); Nina's Choice (Colpix, 1963); At Carnegie Hall (Colpix, 1963); Broadway-Blues-Ballads (Philips, 1964); Folksy Nina (Colpix, 1964); In Concert (Philips, 1964); I Put a Spell on You (Philips, 1965); Let It All Out (Philips, 1966); Pastel Blues (Philips, 1966); Wild Is the Wind (Philips, 1966); With Strings (Colpix, 1966); High Priestess of Soul (Philips, 1967); Silk & Soul (RCA, 1967); Sings the Blues (RCA, 1967); 'Nuff Said (RCA, 1968); The Best of Nina Simone (Philips, 1969); And Piano! (RCA, 1969); To Love Somebody (RCA, 1969); Black Gold (RCA, 1970); The Best of Nina Simone (RCA, 1971); Here Comes the Sun (RCA, 1971); Gifted & Black (Canyon, 1971); Emergency Ward! (RCA, 1972); Live at Berkeley (Stroud, 1973); It Is Finished (RCA, 1974); Lamentations (Versatile, 1977); Black Soul (RCA, 1977); Pure Gold (RCA, 1978); Baltimore (CTI, 1978); Cry Before I Go (Manhattan, 1985); Nina's Back (VPI, 1985); Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (Mercury, 1988); The Best of Nina Simone (RCA, 1989); The Blues (Novus, 1991); The Best of the Colpix Years (Roulette, 1992); A Single Woman (Elektra, 1993); Point of No Return (soundtrack; RCA, 1993); The Essentials (RCA, 1993); The Essentials, Vol. 2 (RCA, 1993); Feeling Good (Mercury, 1994); After Hours (Verve, 1995); The Colpix Years (Rhino, 1996); Sings Nina (Verve, 1996); Saga of the Good Life and Hard Times (RCA, 1997).

Perhaps one of the most difficult singers to categorize, Nina Simone has recorded comfortably in many genres—from soul and jazz to gospel and popular music. Called the "High Priestess of Soul" by many of her admirers, Simone indicated in a 1997 interview with Brantley Bardin that she prefers to be remembered as "a diva from beginning to end who never compromised in what she felt."

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933. She was the sixth of eight children born to John Divine Waymon and Mary Kate Waymon , who raised the children in an environment of music. She began playing piano by ear at the age of three, recalling in her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You: "Everybody played music. There was never any formal training; we learned to play the same way we learned to walk, it was that natural." Simone's substantial gift for music caused many to think of her as a prodigy; by the age of six, she was the regular pianist at the family's church. When the family was unable to afford piano lessons, a woman for whom Simone's mother worked paid for formal lessons with Muriel Massinovitch , who passed on her appreciation of Bach to her pupil. By the time Simone was in her senior year of high school, she had earned a one-year scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Intending to become the first black concert pianist, Simone had hoped her study at Juilliard might propel her into an opening at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Her dreams ended when the institute rejected her application. Disappointed and convinced that racism was to blame, Simone stayed in Philadelphia for a while teaching piano. However, when she learned that one of her less-talented students had secured a summer job playing piano in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was earning twice as much as she was earning, she left Philadelphia for Atlantic City herself. She took a job playing in a nightclub in 1954 and changed her name to Nina Simone (choosing "Nina" after a childhood nickname, and "Simone" after the actress Simone Signoret ).

Simone's career as a singer began serendipitously when the nightclub owner informed her that playing the piano wasn't enough, that she was required to sing as well. As she performed, she began to blend the genres that had influenced her into a fresh synthesis of music. "I knew hundreds of popular songs and dozens of classical pieces," she wrote in her autobiography, "so what I did was combine them: I arrived prepared with classical pieces, hymns and gospel songs and improvised on those, occasionally slipping in a part from a popular tune." Her increasing popularity prompted a move to more upscale dinner clubs, and in 1957 New York's Bethlehem Records signed her to cut an album. After the album's release the following year as Little Girl Blue, Simone signed a contract in which she unknowingly relinquished all her rights—a mistake that cost her more than $1 million. It would be the first of many troubled relationships with her record labels. The success of the album's first single—a version of George and Ira Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy"—established her reputation, however, and became a Top 20 hit. It also prepared the way for her first concert at New York's Town Hall. Her popularity was such that she was soon touring throughout America and Europe.

Although Simone occasionally composed her own music, she found the most success by recording songs of other singers. Audiences loved her vocal interpretations, and her record label capitalized on the power of her performance by releasing several live albums. John S. Wilson of The New York Times hailed Simone as a unique and gifted interpreter who made each song her own: "[By] the time she has finished turning a song this way and that way, poking experimentally into unexpected crannies she finds in it, or suddenly leaping on it and whaling the daylights out of it, the song has lost most of

its original colorization and has become, one might say, 'Simonized.'" The early 1960s saw the release of at least nine albums, half of which were live; as the decade wore on, she released another seven in a three-year period.

Simone rejected the label "jazz singer" as a way to describe her, and even thought of it as a racial epithet because she believed it was a label the white community used for black musicians. In the early 1960s, Simone's feelings of racial oppression merged with the influential friendship of civil-rights activist and playwright Lorraine Hansberry . Simone's songs soon began to combine political aspects of the civil-rights movement, causing some to label her a protest singer, another term she dismissed. Inspired, however, by the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black girls, Denise McNair , Cynthia Wesley , Addie Mae Collins , and Carol Robertson , and the assassination of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi, Simone wrote "Mississippi Goddam," which became an anthem of sorts for the civil-rights movement. The song won her the admiration of such black artists and leaders as Stokely Carmichael, Miriam Makeba , Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin. For the rest of the decade Simone was regarded as the true singer of the civil-rights movement, with songs like "Sunday in Savannah," "Backlash Blues," and a ballad declared by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to be the black national anthem, "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black." She received accolades as the "Most Promising Singer of the Year" in 1960, "Woman of the Year" by the Jazz at Home Club in 1966, and "Female Jazz Singer of the Year" by the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers in 1967.

Despite her professional success, the 1960s were a time of personal struggle for Simone. Following the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry, and Langston Hughes, she believed the civil-rights movement had ended and felt pessimistic about the United States, believing it could probably never abolish racism. As an artist, she was disturbed by disrespectful audiences and angry over pirated recordings and the inadequate compensation she received for her work. Moreover, the Internal Revenue Service, accusing her of tax evasion, had begun to pursue her. After a divorce from her second husband, her manager Andy Stroud, in 1970, she began what would be a 15-year exile from the United States, residing variously in Switzerland, Liberia, Barbados, France, and England. Although she had released nine albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the RCA label, Simone recorded little after leaving America with the exception of the critically acclaimed Baltimore album in 1978. In an attempt to revive her career, she went to London where a man who had promised to help her instead assaulted and abandoned her. She unsuccessfully attempted suicide, awaking gratefully the following morning in a London hospital with renewed hope for her future.

In 1985, Simone ended her self-imposed exile and returned to the United States. She performed in several concerts and recorded the album Nina's Back. Two years later, an advertising agency in England chose a 1958 Simone song, "My Baby Just Cares for Me," for a Chanel perfume commercial. The song was rereleased in Europe in 1987 and became a hit. Simone settled in Bouc-Bel-Air in the south of France in 1991. That same year, she published her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, to positive reviews. In 1993, Simone signed to the Elektra label and recorded her first album for a major studio in nearly 20 years, A Single Woman, which met with mixed reviews. Simone was also featured on the soundtrack of the movie Point of No Return that year.

Simone gained some unwanted press in 1995, however, when the media reported that she had shot a teenaged boy. Apparently, while gardening in her backyard, she had been disturbed by the noise of two boys swimming next door. After they ignored two requests by Simone to be quiet, she shot a buckshot rifle over the hedge in their direction. One of the teenagers suffered slight injuries, and she was ordered to pay a fine of $4,600 plus damages to his family. Placed on probation for 18 months, Simone also received psychological counseling. That same year, she was also given a two-month suspended sentence, plus a $5,000 fine, for causing and fleeing a 1993 automobile accident in which two motorcyclists had been injured in Aix-en-Provence, France.

During the late 1990s, Simone's career enjoyed a surge with the release of anthology collections of her work by Verve, Rhino, and RCA. In an assessment of Simone's work in All Music Guide to Jazz, Richie Unterberger, who considers the recordings she made for Philips in the mid-1960s to be her best, captures the artist's essence: "Simone's moody-yet-elegant vocals are like no one else's, presenting a fiercely independent soul who harbors enormous (if somewhat hard-bitten) tenderness."


Details. January 1997, p. 66.

Igus, Toyomi, ed. Book of Black Heroes: Great Women in the Struggle. Just Us Books, 1991.

Newsweek. September–October 1995.

Phelps, Shirelle, ed. Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 15. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1997.

Simone, Nina, with Stephen Cleary. I Put a Spell on You (autobiography), 1991.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Time. October 2, 1995.

Unterberger, Richie. All Music Guide to Jazz. Edited by Michael Erlewine, et al. San Francisco, CA: Miller Freeman, 1996.

Howard Gofstein , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan