Nina Simone

(1933 – 2003)

Beyond her status as one of Jazz's most distinctive and dynamic vocal stylists, singer-pianist Nina Simone won attention and respect for her feisty, commanding personality.  Performing her own personally charged compositions as well as a broad array of outside material drawn from the worlds of Jazz, Pop, Soul, Blues, Folk, Gospel, and Broadway, Simone resisted easy categorization but put a fiercely personal stamp on every song she sang. Over a performing and recording career that covered four decades, Simone’s uncompromising approach to her work helped establish her as a role model for subsequent generations of performers.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, she was one of eight children of a strict Methodist minister, and began playing piano in church at the age of 10. Originally intending to pursue a career as a classical pianist, she studied at New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music — a notable achievement for an African-American woman in the 1950s — while supporting herself by giving piano lessons and playing in bars and nightclubs. In 1954, the owner of an Atlantic City nightspot insisted that she sing as well as play, and before long she'd developed a reputation for her impassioned vocals. The same year, she adopted the stage name Nina Simone, reportedly to keep her parents from discovering that she was performing secular music.

Simone began recording in the late 50s, scoring an early Top 20 Pop hit with her reading of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy," and continued to record prolifically for various labels through the 60s. An outspoken critic of the era's racial injustice, she steered her music into increasingly topical territory, with many of her compositions addressing the Civil Rights and Black Pride movements. In 1967, Simone moved to the RCA Victor label, where she released nine albums, including such highly regarded works as Nina Simone Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul, and turned Lorraine Hansberry's play To Be Young, Gifted and Black into the civil-rights anthem of the same title; the song became one of Simone's most-covered compositions.

Beset by business and financial problems in the 70s, Simone spent much of that decade traveling the world, settling at various times in England, Switzerland, Barbados, Liberia, and the Netherlands. She finally landed in France, where she lived while continuing to record sporadically up through the 90s. Simone died in 2003, after a battle with cancer.