Eunice Kathleen Waymon (February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003), better known by her stage name Nina Simone (/ˈniːnə sɨˈmoʊn/), was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist. Although she disliked being categorized, Simone is most associated with jazz music. Simone originally aspired to become a classical pianist, but her work covers an eclectic variety of musical styles that include classical, jazz, blues, soul, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop. Her vocal style is characterized by intense passion, a loose vibrato, and a slightly androgynous timbre, in part due to her unusually low vocal range which veered between the alto and tenor ranges (occasionally even reaching baritone lows). Also known as The High Priestess of Soul, she paid great attention to the musical expression of emotions. Within one album or concert she could fluctuate between exuberant happiness and tragic melancholy. These fluctuations also characterized her own personality and personal life, amplified by bipolar disorder with which she was diagnosed in the mid-1960s, something not widely known until after her death in 2003, though she wrote of it openly in her autobiography published in 1992. According to Nadine Cohodas, Simone's biographer, Ms. Simone was first diagnosed with multiple personality disorder and later with schizophrenia.
Simone recorded over 40 live and studio albums, the greatest body of her work released between 1958 (when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue) and 1974. Her most well known songs include "My Baby Just Cares for Me", "I Put a Spell on You", "Four Women", "I Loves You Porgy", "Feeling Good", "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", "Sinnerman", "To Be Young, Gifted and Black", "Mississippi Goddam", "Ain't Got No, I Got Life," "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl", and "Love Me or Leave Me".
Her music and message made a strong and lasting impact on culture, illustrated by the numerous contemporary artists who cite her as an important influence . Several hip hop musicians and other modern artists sample and remix Simone's rhythms and beats on their tracks. In particular, Talib Kweli and Mos Def routinely pay tribute to her outstanding and soulful musical style. Many of her songs are featured on motion picture soundtracks, as well as in video games, commercials, and TV series.
Life and career
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. One of eight children in a poor family, her ancestry was mixed heritage, and included Native American, African American and Irish. She began playing piano aged three; the first song she learned was "God Be With You, Till We Meet Again". Demonstrating a talent with the instrument she performed at her local church, but her concert debut, a classical recital, was given when she was twelve. Simone later claimed that during this performance her parents, who had taken seats in the front row, were forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for white people. Simone said she refused to play until her parents were moved back to the front, the incident contributing to her later involvement in the civil rights movement.
Simone's mother, Mary Kate Waymon (who lived into her late 90s), was a housemaid and also a strict Methodist minister. Simone's father, John Divine Waymon, was a handyman who at one time owned a dry-cleaning business, but who also suffered bouts of ill health. Mary Kate's employer, hearing of Nina's talent, provided funds for piano lessons. Subsequently, a local fund was set up to assist in Simone's continued education. With the assistance of this scholarship money, Simone moved to New York City, where she attended high school at the Juilliard School of Music.
After finishing high school, she studied for an interview with the help of a private tutor to further study piano at the Curtis Institute, but she was rejected. Simone believed that this rejection was related directly to her being black.
Early success (1954–1959)
To fund her private lessons Simone performed at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, whose owner insisted that she sing as well as play the piano. In 1954 she adopted the stage name Nina Simone, to keep her mother from learning that she was playing "the devil's music". "Nina" (from niña, meaning 'little girl' in Spanish) was a nickname a boyfriend had given to her, and "Simone" was taken from the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she had seen in the movie Casque d'or. Simone's mixture at the bar of jazz, blues and classical music, earned her a small but loyal fan base
After playing in small clubs, in 1958 she recorded a rendition of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" (from Porgy and Bess), which she learned from a Billie Holiday album and performed as a favor to a friend. It became her only Billboard top 40 success in the United States, and her debut album Little Girl Blue soon followed on Bethlehem Records. Simone missed out on more than $1 million in royalties (mainly because of the successful re-release of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" during the 1980s) and never benefited financially from the album, after selling its rights for $3,000.
Becoming popular (1959–1964)
After the success of Little Girl Blue, Simone signed a contract with the larger company Colpix Records, followed by a string of studio and live albums. Colpix relinquished all creative control, including the choice of material that would be recorded, to her in exchange for her contracting with them. Simone, who at this point only performed popular music to make money to continue her classical music studies, was bold with her demand for control over her music because she was indifferent about having a recording contract. She would keep this attitude towards the record industry for most of her career.
Simone married a New York police detective, Andrew Stroud, in 1961; Stroud later became her manager.
Civil rights era (1964–1974)
During 1964, she changed record distributors, from the American Colpix to the Dutch Philips, which also meant a change in the contents of her recordings. Simone had always included songs in her repertoire that hinted about her African-American origins (such as "Brown Baby" and "Zungo" on Nina at the Village Gate during 1962). But on her debut album for Philips, Nina Simone In Concert (live recording, 1964), Simone for the first time openly addresses the racial inequality that was prevalent in the United States with the song "Mississippi Goddam". It was her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black children. The song was released as a single, being boycotted in certain southern states. With "Old Jim Crow" on the same album she reacts to the Jim Crow Laws.
From then onwards, a civil rights message was standard in Simone's recording repertoire, where it had already become a part of her live performances. Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as at the Selma to Montgomery marches. Simone advocated violent revolution during the civil rights period as opposed to Martin Luther King's non-violent approach, and hoped that African Americans could, by armed combat, form a separate state (Simone was not, however, a racist, and wrote in her autobiography that her family and indeed herself regarded all races as equal.) She covered Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (on Pastel Blues (1965)), a song about the lynching of black men in the South, and sang the W. Cuney poem "Images" on Let It All Out (1966), about the absence of pride in the African-American woman. Simone wrote "Four Women", a song about four different stereotypes of African-American women. and sings it on Wild Is the Wind (1966).
Simone moved from Philips to RCA Victor during 1967. She sang "Backlash Blues", written by her friend Langston Hughes on her first RCA album, Nina Simone Sings The Blues (1967). On Silk & Soul (1967) she recorded Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" and "Turning Point". The album Nuff Said (1968) contains live recordings from the Westbury Music Fair, April 7, 1968, three days after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. She dedicated the whole performance to him and sang "Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)", a song written by her bass player, Gene Taylor, directly after the news of King's death had reached them.
Together with Weldon Irvine, Simone turned the late Lorraine Hansberry's unfinished play "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" into a civil rights song. Lorraine Hansberry had been a personal friend whom Simone credited with cultivating her social and political consciousness. She performed the song live on the album Black Gold (1970). A studio recording was released as a single, and the song has been covered by Aretha Franklin (on 1972s Young, Gifted and Black) and Donny Hathaway.
Later life (1974–2003)
Simone left the United States in September 1970. She flew to Barbados, expecting her husband and manager, Stroud, to communicate with her when she had to perform again. However, Stroud interpreted Simone's sudden disappearance (and the fact that she had left behind her wedding ring) as a cue for a divorce. As her manager, Stroud was also in charge of Simone's income. This meant that after their separation Simone did not have any knowledge about how her business was managed and what she was actually worth. Upon returning to the United States, she also learned that she was wanted for unpaid taxes, causing her to go back to Barbados again to evade the authorities and prosecution. Simone stayed in Barbados for quite some time, and had a lengthy affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow. A close friend, singer Miriam Makeba, persuaded her to go to Liberia. After that she lived in Switzerland and the Netherlands, before settling in France during 1992.
She recorded her last album for RCA Records, It Is Finished, during 1974. Simone did not make another record until 1978, when she was persuaded to go into the studio by CTI Records owner Creed Taylor. The result was the album Baltimore, which, while not a commercial success, did get good reviews and marked a quiet artistic renaissance in Simone's recording output. Her choice of material retained its eclecticism, ranging from spiritual songs to Hall & Oates' "Rich Girl". Four years later Simone recorded Fodder On My Wings on a French label. During the 1980s Simone performed regularly at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London, where the album Live at Ronnie Scott's was recorded during 1984. Though her on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, in later years, Simone particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences by recounting sometimes humorous anecdotes related to her career and music and soliciting requests. In 1987, the original 1958 recording of "My Baby Just Cares For Me" was used in an advert for Chanel No. 5 perfume in the UK. This led to a re-release which stormed to number 5 in the UK singles chart giving her a brief surge in popularity in the UK. Her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, was published during 1992 and she recorded her last album, A Single Woman, in 1993.
In 1993, Simone settled near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. She had been ill with breast cancer for several years before she died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rhône on April 21, 2003. Her funeral service was attended by singers Miriam Makeba and Patti Labelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis and hundreds of others. Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message "You were the greatest and I love you". Simone's ashes were scattered in several African countries. She left behind a daughter, Lisa Celeste, now an actress/singer who took on the stage name Simone and has appeared on Broadway in Aida.
Throughout her career, Simone gathered a collection of songs that would become standards in her repertoire (apart from the civil rights songs) and for which she is still remembered, even though most of these songs did not perform well on the charts at the time. These songs were self-written tunes, cover versions (usually with a new arrangement by Simone), or songs written especially for Simone. Her first hit song in America was a cover of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" (1958). It peaked at number 18 in the pop singles chart and number 2 on the black singles chart. During that same period Simone recorded "My Baby Just Cares for Me", which would become her biggest success years later in 1987, when it was featured in a Chanel no. 5 perfume commercial. A music video was then created by Aardman Studios.
Well known songs from her Philips albums include "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" on Broadway-Blues-Ballads (1964), "I Put a Spell on You", "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (a Jacques Brel cover) and "Feeling Good" on I Put A Spell On You (1965), "Lilac Wine" and "Wild Is the Wind" on Wild is the Wind (1966). Especially the songs "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", "Feeling Good" and "Sinnerman" (Pastel Blues, 1965) have great popularity today in terms of cover versions (most notably The Animals' version of the former song), sample usage and its use on various movie-, TV-series- and videogame soundtracks. "Sinnerman" in particular has been featured in the TV series Scrubs, on movies such as The Thomas Crown Affair, Miami Vice, and Inland Empire, and sampled by artists like Talib Kweli and Timbaland. The song "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" was sampled by Devo Springsteen on "Misunderstood" from Common's 2007 album Finding Forever, and by little-known producers Rodnae and Mousa for the song "Don't Get It" on Lil Wayne's 2008 album Tha Carter III. The song "See-Line Woman" was sampled by Kanye West for "Bad News" on his 808s and Heartbreak album.
Simone's years at RCA-Victor spawned a number of singles and album songs that were popular, particularly in Europe. In 1968, it was "Ain't Got No, I Got Life", a medley from the musical Hair from the album 'Nuff Said! (1968) that became a surprise hit for Simone, reaching number 2 on the UK pop charts and introducing her to a younger audience. In 2006, it returned to the UK Top 30 in a remixed version by Groovefinder. The following single, the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" also reached the UK top 10 in 1969. "House of the Rising Sun" featured on Nina Simone Sings The Blues in 1967, but Simone had recorded the song earlier in 1961 (featuring on Nina At The Village Gate, 1962), predating versions by Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan. It was later picked up by The Animals and became their signature hit.
Simone's regal bearing and commanding stage presence earned her the title "High Priestess of Soul". Her live performances were regarded not as mere concerts, but as happenings. She was a piano player, singer and performer, "separately and simultaneously". On stage, Simone moved from gospel to blues, jazz and folk, to numbers infused with European classical styling, and Bach-style counterpoint fugues. She incorporated monologues and dialogues with the audience into the program, and often used silence as a musical element Simone compared it to "mass hypnosis. I use it all the time" Throughout most of her life and recording career she was accompanied by percussionist Leopoldo Fleming and guitarist and musical director Al Schackman.
Simone had a reputation in the music industry for being volatile and sometimes difficult to deal with, a characterization with which she strenuously took issue. In 1995, she shot and wounded her neighbor's son with a pneumatic pistol after his laughter disturbed her concentration. She also fired a gun at a record company executive whom she accused of stealing royalties. It is now recognized that this "difficulty" was the result of bipolar disorder. Simone reluctantly took medication for her condition from the mid-1960s on. All this was only known to a small group of intimates, and kept out of public view for many years, until the biography Break Down And Let It All Out written by Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan revealed this secret in 2004.
Legacy and influence
Nina Simone is often cited by artists from diverse musical fields as a source of inspiration. Musicians who have cited her as important for their own musical upbringing are among others Elkie Brooks, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Kanye West, John Legend, Elizabeth Fraser, Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Mary J. Blige, Michael Gira, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, Ian MacKaye, Kerry Brothers, Jr. "Krucial", Amanda Palmer and Jeff Buckley. John Lennon cited Simone's version of "I Put a Spell on You" as a source of inspiration for the Beatles song "Michelle".Musicians who have covered her work (or her specific renditions of songs) include Black Rock Coalition Orchestra, J.Viewz, Carola, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Manson, Donny Hathaway, David Bowie, Elkie Brooks, Roberta Flack, Jeff Buckley, The Animals, Muse, Cat Power, Katie Melua, Timbaland, Feist, Shara Worden, and Michael Bublé. Simone's music has featured in soundtracks of various motion pictures and video games, including but not limited to The Big Lebowski (1998), Point of No Return (AKA The Assassin, 1993) Notting Hill (1999), Any Given Sunday (1999), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Six Feet Under (2001), The Dancer Upstairs (film) (2002), Before Sunset (2004), Cellular (2004), Inland Empire (2006), Sex and the City (2008), Revolutionary Road (2008), Watchmen (2009), and The Saboteur (2009). Her music is frequently used in remixes, commercials and TV series.
The documentary Nina Simone: La Legende (The Legend) was made in the '90s by French filmmakers. It was based on her autobiography I Put A Spell On You and features live footage from different periods of her career, interviews with friends and family, various interviews with Simone herself while she was living in the Netherlands, and on a trip to her birthplace. A significant amount of footage from The Legend was taken from an earlier 26-minute biographical documentary by Peter Rodis, released in 1969 and titled simply Nina.
Her filmed 1976 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival is available on video courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment, and is screened annually in New York City at an event called "The Rise and Fall of Nina Simone: Montreux, 1976," curated by Tom Blunt .
Plans for a Nina Simone biographical film were released at the end of 2005. The movie will be based on Simone's autobiography I Put A Spell On You (1992) and will also focus on her relationship in later life with her assistant, Clifton Henderson, who died in 2006. TV writer Cynthia Mort (Will & Grace, Roseanne) is working on the script, and singer Mary J. Blige will play the lead role. The movie is scheduled for 2012.
On Human Kindness Day 1974 in Washington, D.C., more than 10,000 people paid tribute to Simone. Simone received two honorary degrees in music and humanities from the University of Massachusetts and Malcolm X College. She preferred to be called "Dr. Nina Simone" after these honors were bestowed upon her. Only two days before her death, Simone was awarded an honorary degree by the Curtis Institute, the school that had turned her down at the start of her career
1958 Little Girl Blue Studio Bethlehem Records
1959 Nina Simone and Her Friends Studio
The Amazing Nina Simone Studio Colpix Records
Nina Simone at Town Hall Live and studio
1960 Nina Simone at Newport Live 23 (pop)
Forbidden Fruit Studio
1962 Nina at the Village Gate Live
Nina Simone Sings Ellington Live
1963 Nina's Choice Compilation
Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall Live
1964 Folksy Nina Live
Nina Simone in Concert Live Philips Records 102 (pop)
1965 I Put a Spell on You Studio 99 (pop)
Pastel Blues Studio 8 (black)
1966 Nina Simone with Strings Studio (strings added) Colpix
Let It All Out Live and studio Philips 19 (black)
Wild Is the Wind Studio 12 (black)
1967 High Priestess of Soul Studio 29 (black)
Nina Simone Sings the Blues Studio RCA Records 29 (black)
Silk & Soul Studio 24 (black)
1968 Nuff Said Live and studio 44 (black)
1969 Nina Simone and Piano Studio
To Love Somebody Studio
1970 Black Gold Live 29 (black)
1971 Here Comes the Sun Studio 190 (pop)
1972 Emergency Ward Live and studio
1974 It Is Finished Live
1978 Baltimore Studio CTI Records 12 (jazz)
1980 The Rising Sun Collection Live Enja
1982 Fodder on My Wings Studio Carrere
1984 Backlash Live StarJazz
1985 Nina's Back Studio VPI
1985 Live & Kickin Live
1987 Let It Be Me Live Verve
Live at Ronnie Scott's Live Hendring-Wadham
The Nina Simone Collection Compilation Deja Vu
1993 A Single Woman Studio Elektra Records 3 (top jazz)
1969 A Very Rare Evening Live PM Records (Japan)
1975 The Great Show Live in Paris Live RCA? 1997 Released Compilation RCA Victor Europe
2003 Gold Studio remastered Universal/UCJ
Anthology Compilation (from many labels) RCA/BMG Heritage
2004 Nina Simone's Finest Hour Compilation Verve/Universal
2005 The Soul of Nina Simone Compilation + DVD RCA DualDisc
Nina Simone Live at Montreux 1976 DVD only Eagle Eye Media
2006 The Very Best of Nina Simone Compilation Sony BMG
Remixed and Reimagined Remix Legacy/SBMG 5 (contemp.jazz)
Songs to Sing: the Best of Nina Simone Compilation/Live Compilation Deluxe
Forever Young, Gifted & Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit Remix RCA
2008 To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story Compilation Sony Legacy
2009 The Definitive Rarities Collection - 50 Classic Cuts Compilation Artwork Media
? Nina Simone Live DVD only: Studio 1961 & '62 Kultur/Creative Arts Television