Nina Simone

Birth name: Eunice Kathleen Waymon
Birthplace: Tryon, North Carolina
February 21, 1933  —  April 21, 2003
Years Active:  1954 — 2003

Nina Simone was a pianist, songwriter, bandleader, vocalist and social activist. Her unique approach to song and the artist’s capacity to create social change shaped a remarkable recording and performing career that spanned nearly a half century and made her an international star. Simone left a unique mark in multiple musical genres including Jazz, Blues, R&B and Pop. She summed up her artistic point of view with the statement “an artist’s duty is to reflect the times.”

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933. The sixth of eight children born to a Methodist minister mother and a father who worked as a handyman, she was raised in Tryon, North Carolina near the South Carolina border. She began to play the piano by ear at the age of three, and as a child accompanied the congregation in the church where her mother served as a Methodist minister. She took piano lessons with Muriel Mazzanovich, an English woman who lived in her hometown. Eunice Waymon gave her first recital at Saint Luke Christian Methodist Episcopal Church at the age of 10. After graduating as valedictorian of her high school class, Eunice continued studying the piano at the Juilliard School. She was able to attend Juilliard because her community raised the funds to pay her tuition and fees. 

Eunice taught music to support herself. In 1954, in an effort to supplement her income, she auditioned to sing at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Eunice booked the job and generated a buzz as she sang, played standards and cultivated an audience with her unique arrangements of popular songs. Waymon’s rich voice and unusual facility at the keyboard led to more performances.

Waymon continued to perform after her family moved to Philadelphia. There, she adopted the name Nina Simone, in part because she did not want her mother to know that she was performing in bars. Soon thereafter, Simone signed to King Records, the label on which James Brown recorded a debut in 1957 at the age of 24. Simone’s record with King Records would yield two career-defining hits: “I Loves You, Porgy” from the musical Porgy and Bess, and a cover of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” originally recorded by Nat “King” Cole. “I Loves You, Porgy” was the first single by Nina Simone to appear on the Billboard chart, where it spent 15 weeks. 

Simone’s relationship with King Records was short-lived and ended when she was scouted by Colpix, a division of Columbia Records which would release her debut on that label in 1959. That year, Simone also performed at The Town Hall in New York City. In the following year, she appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival. Simone released a total of nine albums with Colpix, and between 1960 and 1970, five of her singles appeared on the Billboard charts.

“Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing,” writes Nina in her 1991 autobiography I Put A Spell On You, “and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in. It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz. On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.” 

In the 1960s, Simone’s place in history was secured as she carved out a niche with music that was as timely as it was timeless. Her two 1965 releases I Put A Spell on You and Pastel Blues were released in a short four months. Pitchfork ranked Pastel Blues #21 of the 200 Best Albums of the 1960s. Jimi Hendrix’ landmark Are You Experienced is ranked at #39 in the same list.

Nina Simone was an artist who could not be easily classified and her social circle was comprised of the other visionary artists of her time, including playwright Lorraine Hansberry and writers Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. Simone wrote that her function as an artist is “…to make people feel on a deep level. It’s difficult to describe because it’s not something you can analyze; to get near what it’s about you have to play it. And when you’ve caught it, when you’ve got the audience hooked, you always know because it’s like electricity hanging in the air.”

Simone’s repertoire reflected her pan-African worldview, a commitment to social justice and her experience as a Black woman–as seen perhaps best in her song, “Four Women,” which contextualizes four archetypal Black women. One of her best known recordings and compositions, “Mississippi Goddam”, is a scathing indictment of white supremacy and structural racism in the United States. Three days after the 1968 assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nina Simone recorded  “Why? (Now That the King of Love is Dead)” an elegy written by her bass player, Gene Taylor, in reaction to the violent snatching of King’s life. Simone announces the song that unfolds over the course of fifteen minutes as “a tune written for today, for this hour, written for Dr. Martin Luther King.” Simone’s 1969 release, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, which she wrote with lyricist Weldon Irvine, was a tribute to her deceased friend, Lorraine Hansberry, who had died in 1965 at the age of 34. The title and the first line of lyrics are borrowed from an autobiographical play of the same name written by Hansberry. Adopted as an anthem of Black affirmation, self-love and possibility, the song was covered by Donny Hathaway on his studio debut Everything is Everything, and is the title track of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 album, which went gold.

Nina Simone spent much of the 1970’s and early 1980’s living in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. In 1993, with her heavy touring schedule behind her, Simone settled in the south of France. Nina Simone’s debut album, I Loves You, Porgy was inducted Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000. Nearly forty years after recording Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall, a 1963 release on Colpix, Nina Simone returned to the United States to give her last headline performance on the famed New York stage in 2002. Simone died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rout, Bouches-du-Rhone, France on April 21, 2003. Her discography is comprised of more than 40 albums recorded over the course of four decades. Simone was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Mary J. Blige in 2018.