|Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born on February 21st 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, USA, the sixth of eight children (four boys and four girls). Early on in life she revealed a prodigious musical talent playing the piano and singing with her sisters in their mother's choir at the local church. In 1939 at the age of six, a benefactor paid for her first piano lessons.
Eunice made so much progress that in 1943, when she was ten, she gave her first piano recital at the town library. There she not only experienced her first applause, but also had her first encounter with racism: during the recital her parents were removed from the first row to accommodate some whites. This episode was a traumatic experience for her and may be the origin of her commitment to the fight for freedom and civil rights.
With the financial help of some local supporters, Eunice left North Carolina in 1950 and attend a summer course at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, the same school that Miles Davis attended. After New York her family moved to Philadelphia. She auditioned at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia but was rejected, so she took private lessons from Vladimir Sokoloff, who was for many years head of the accompanying department at the Curtis Institute.
In order to support herself and pay for further lessons she became an accompanist for a singing teacher. Later, in 1954, she took a job as a singer-pianist in the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, adopting the stage name Nina Simone. Nina was a pet name that a boyfriend gave her (niña means "girl" in Spanish), and Simone was chosen for its dignified sound (from the French actress Simone Signoret) .
It was at Midtown Bar, where Nina Simone sang, played and improvised, that her career took off. Subsequently she played in several Philadelphia clubs. Recognized as a talented pianist, she was given a recording session with Bethlehem Records in 1957, where she recorded 14 tracks.
Simone's first album Little Girl Blue (11 tracks), published in 1958 and also known as Jazz as played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, was a great success, first in Philadelphia and New York, and then in the whole USA. The single released from that recording (featuring "I Loves You Porgy" and "He Needs Me") became a national Rhythm & Blues hit (placing 13th) in the summer of 1959, selling over a million copies.
Thirty years later another selection from the same album, "My Baby Just Cares for Me" was adopted as the theme for a British television advert for Chanel No 5 perfume, and reached 5th place on the English pop charts. Bethlehem make use of the remaining three tracks recorded by Nina for the collective album And Her Friends, released when Nina have already signed with Colpix.
In 1958 Nina Simone briefly married Don Ross, and divorced him the next year.
Thanks to the success of her first recordings, in 1959 Simone signed with Colpix (Columbia Pictures Records), a collaboration that would last until 1964. Nina recorded 10 albums while signed to Colpix: six studio and four "live" albums. She recorded some songs of Columbia film soundtracks (including "Wild Is The Wind", "Sayonara", "Samson and Delilah") as well as a new version of the Bethlehem hit "I Loves You Porgy".
In 1961 she recorded the traditional song "The House of the Rising Sun". The same song was recorded by Bob Dylan in his debut album, issued in March 1962 and subsequently by the Animals in 1963. In the summer of 1964, "The House of the Rising Sun" by the Animals was at the top of the American and English charts, on the eve of the band's USA tour (part of the "British invasion").
In 1961 Nina marries Andy Stroud, a New York detective and the following year their daughter Lisa Celeste Stroud is born. Their marriage will end in divorce in 1970.
In 1964, Nina Simone began her association with Philips, a Mercury subsidiary. This collaboration lasted for three years during which Nina recorded seven albums. One of the first songs recorded during the Philips period is "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", from then on associated with her name. The songs is covered by the Animals in 1965, the same year in which Nina publishes "I Put a Spell on You", a 1956's song by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. This song is also immediately covered (August 1965) by the Alan Price Set, the group founded by organist Alan Price after his departures from the Animals.
During her association with Philips, and after the jazz and black periods, Nina wrote her first protest song "Mississippi Goddam!" following the murders of Medgar Evers in Mississippi (June 1963) and four black schoolchildren in Alabama (September 1963).
In 1966 Nina switches to RCA (her last long-term affiliation with an American label and where she wouls stay until 1974) in a deal negotiated by her husband who acted as her manager and to whom some compositions were credited. From the summer of 1968 through the end of 1969, "all of her recordings were produced by her husband-manager, although we can assume that it was really Nina who was making the final selections of repertoire and essentially masterminding the sessions" according to David Nathan.
While at RCA Nina records nine albums and some of her most popular songs. Her version of "Ain't Got No/I Got Life", a medley from the 60s musical Hair, got to N. 2 in UK and her soul version of "To Love Somebody" by the Bee Gees was a UK top 10 hit in the Spring of 1969. "To Be Young, Gifted And Black", inspired by a play of the same name by Lorraine Hansberr (a friend of Nina's) was recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1972.
Embittered by racism, Nina renounced her homeland in 1969 and became a wanderer, roaming the world. She lived in Barbados, Liberia (with the encouragement of Miriam Makeba), Switzerland, France, Trinidad, Netherlands, Belgium and UK at various times. In 1970 she and Stroud split up, and Nina attempt to manage herself and work with her brother Sam Waymon.
In 1974 she leaves RCA. In 1978 Nina was arrested, and soon released, for withholding taxes in 1971-73 in protest at her government's undeclared war in Vietnam. The same year she made the LP Baltimore for the CTI label and in 1982 the LP Fodder on my Wings for a Swiss label.
In 1985 she records Nina's back and Live and Kickin in US. In 1987 her previously-mentioned European success with "My Baby Just Cares For Me" brought Nina back into the public eye: her music was featured in 1992 movie Point Of No Return, with the lead character using Nina as inspiration. The same year she records Let It Be Me at The Vine Street Bar & Grill in Hollywood for Verve Records.
Nina moved to the southern French town of Bouc-Bel-Air near Aix-en-Provence, France in 1993 and died April 21st, 2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rhône, France.
A protest singer, jazz singer, pianist, arranger and composer, Nina Simone is a great artist who defies easy classification. She is all of these: a jazz-rock-pop-folk-black musician. In fact, we can find her biography in jazz, rock, pop, black and soul literature. Her style and her hits provided many singers and groups with material for hits of their own.
Other important bios on web
- Roger Nupie, President "International Dr. Nina Simone Fan Club" on All About Jazz
Articles about Nina
- Ruth Feldstein "I Don't Trust You Animore: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s" Journal of American History 91 (2005), pp. 1349-79
Documentaries about Nina's life and music
- An Historical Perspective, produced by Peter Aristotle Rodis, 1970