Who was Nina Simone?
Nina Simone was one of the most iconic American musical icons of the 20th century. She was a successful singer, musician, pianist, songwriter, and social activist. Born and raised in North Carolina, Nina belonged to a highly religious family. In 1950, she started learning music at the ‘Juilliard School’ in New York City but had to drop out of the course due to lack of funds. Soon, she started performing in night clubs and hoped to build a career in music. Her major breakthrough was the 1957 song ‘I Loves You, Porgy.’ This was the beginning of the era of Nina Simone. She rocked the blues and jazz music charts throughout her career. Over the 1960s, she became one of the most popular female music and fashion icons. In the 1970s, she faced major mental and financial issues, which gave rise to speculations that her career might have ended. However, she made a comeback in the 1980s and earned herself an iconic status. Throughout her career, she has released 40 albums. Some of her most well-known international hits were ‘Sinner Man’ and ‘Feeling Good.’
Childhood & Early Life
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, on February 21,1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, US. She was the sixth of the eight children in her family. She managed to survive very narrowly, owing to extreme poverty. She started playing the piano at the age of four, and by the time she reached her teenage years, she had made up her mind to make a career in music.
Her performances at the local church served as a great training ground for her. However, according to her, she often faced painful racist behavior in her early years. During her church performances, her parents and family were often asked to move to the back rows, so that the white people could sit in front. This strengthened the foundation of her long fight against racism.
Her father was a handyman, who once owned a dry-cleaning business, and her mother worked as a housemaid and a church minister. Her parents could not afford educating all eight of their children. Nina’s music teacher helped Nina arrange funds for her education. With the help of that and a few other funds, Nina was finally able to graduate from ‘Allen High School for Girls.
In 1950, Nina enrolled into music classes under tutor Carl Friedberg at the ‘Juilliard School.’ She wished to study music at the ‘Curtis Institute of Music’ in Philadelphia, but her application was rejected. It was suspected that this was due to racial discrimination. By then, she had settled in Philadelphia, where she took private piano lessons and also taught music to make ends meet.
In the 1950s, tired of classical music and her failures, she switched her focus to jazz and blues, two music forms which were in demand back then. Soon, she started singing as “Nina Simone” in the Atlantic City bars and pubs. Gradually, she developed a big fan base, which included celebrities such as James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry.
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By the late 1950s, she had enough experience and backing to start working on her debut music album. She released her first album in 1957, with the label ‘Bethlehem Records.’ The album featured songs such as ‘Plain Gold Ring’ and ‘Little Girl Blue.’ The album also had a chart-topping number, ‘I Loves You, Porgy.’
The success of her debut album furthered her way into the music industry and she churned out several music albums through the 60s. Some of her path-breaking records from that time were ‘The Amazing Nina Simone,’ ‘Nina Simone Sings Ellington!,’ ‘Silk and Soul,’ and ‘Wild Is the Wind.’ Apart from creating original tracks, she also created cover versions of songs by famous musicians, such as Bob Dylan and the ‘Beatles.’
While she performed in almost all the genres, she was her best with soft romantic ballads, such as ‘Take Care of Business’ and ‘I Put a Spell on You.’ She took inspiration from gospel, folk, and contemporary pop music. Classical influences were also apparent in her music. She was called the “High Priestess of Soul,” but she hated the nickname and said that she would rather like to be known as a folk singer.
Apart from creating music, she also devoted her time to the ‘Civil Rights Movement.’ Her personal experiences with racism had her raising her voice against such atrocities. She extensively protested the Birmingham Church bombing that took the lives of four young black girls. Her social activism also infiltrated her music, and she wrote many songs about racial injustice, such as ‘Four Women’ and ‘Young, Gifted and Black.’ She also raised her voice against racism in her live shows.
By the late 1960s, she had started gaining immense popularity in the UK too, with chart-busting hits such as ‘I Put a Spell on You’ and her version of the ‘Bee Gees’ hit ‘To Love Somebody.’ She was highly upset through the late 1960s, when she saw no end to the racial divide in the American society and this made her leave the US. Following this, she lived in many European countries, such as England and Switzerland, and finally settled in France.
Throughout the 1970s, she struggled a lot with mental issues. During that time, she was mostly stuck in controversies due to her clashes with music labels, record companies, and co-workers. In 1978, she made a comeback with the album ‘Baltimore.’ The album was critically appreciated, but the slow commercial reaction to the album proved that she was losing her popularity.
Despite the lack of new recordings through the 1980s and the 1990s, her live performances were almost always housefull. ‘A Single Woman,’ released in 1993, was her last album, and a year prior to that, she had published her autobiography, ‘I Put a Spell on You.’
Nina inspired several major artists over the years, and many of her songs have been used in major TV shows and films. David Lynch’s film ‘Lost Highway’ famously used Marilyn Manson’s cover of her song ‘I Put a Spell on You.’ Her song ‘Sinner Man’ was used in the famous ‘BBC’ series ‘Sherlock.’ Several popular musicians, such as Elton John, Adele, and Taylor Swift, have listed Nina Simone as their main inspiration.
Nina Simone married her manager Andy Stroud in 1961. The couple divorced in the early 1970s. She accused Andy of violent behavior and physical assault. Prior to her relationship with Andy, she was married to Donald Ross for a short time. She is survived by a daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud.
She suffered from bouts of mental health issues throughout her life. In 1980, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and during the last few years of her life, she suffered from breast cancer. She died in her sleep on April 21, 2001. Her ashes were scattered in many countries across the African continent.
Nina Simone is known as one of the most influential musicians of the second half of the 20th century. She was honored with a place in the ‘North Carolina Music Hall of Fame’ in 2009 for her contribution to the world of music. She has a street named after her in Nijmegen, Netherlands.
She was nominated for the ‘Grammy Awards’ four times in her career. Her inspiring life story has found its way into her biographies, written by David Nathan, Richard Williams, and Andy Stroud.