Eunice Waymon was born in Tryon, North Carolina as the sixth of seven children
in a poor family. The child prodigy played piano at the age of four. With the help
of her music teacher, who set up the “Eunice Waymon Fund”, she could continue
her general and musical education. She studied at the Julliard School of Music in
To support her family financially, she started working as an accompanist.
In the summer of 1954 she took a job in an Irish bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The bar owner told her she had to sing as well. Without having time to realize
what was happening, Eunice Waymon, who was trained to become a classical
pianist, stepped into show business. She changed her name into Nina (“little one”)
Simone (“from the French actress Simone Signoret”).
In the late 50’s Nina Simone recorded her first tracks for
the Bethlehem label. These are still remarkable displays of her
talents as a pianist, singer, arranger and composer. Songs
as Plain Gold Ring, Don’t Smoke In Bed and Little Girl Blue
soon became standards in her repertoire.
One song, I Loves You, Porgy, from the opera “Porgy and Bess”, became a hit and
the nightclub singer became a star, performing at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and the
Newport Jazz Festival. Even from the beginning of her career on, her repertoire
included jazz standards, gospel and spirituals, classical music, folk songs of diverse
origin, blues, pop, songs from musicals and opera, African chants as well as her own
Combining Bachian counterpoint, the improvisational approach of jazz and the
modulations of the blues, her talent could no longer be ignored. Other characteristics
of the Simone art are: her original timing, the way she uses silence as a musical
element and her often understated live act, sitting at the piano and advancing
the mood and climate of her songs by a few chords.
Sometimes her voice changes from dark and raw to soft and sweet. She pauses,
shouts, repeats, whispers and moans. Sometimes piano, voice and gestures seem
to be separate elements, then, at once, they meet. Add to this all the way she puts
her spell on an audience, and you have some of the elements that make Nina Simone
into a unique artist.
When four black children were killed in the bombing of a
church in Birmingham in 1963, Nina wrote Mississippi
Goddam, a bitter and furious accusation of the situation of
her people in the USA. The strong emotional approach of this
song and the others on her first Philips record (“Nina Simone
In Concert”), would become another characteristic in her art.
She uses her voice with its remarkable timbre and her careful
piano playing as means to achieve her artistic .. to express
love, hate, sorrow, joy, loneliness – the whole range of human
emotions – through music, in a direct way.
One moment, she is the actress who turns a Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht song as Pirate
Jenny into great theater, then, after a set of protest songs, she will sing Jacques
Brel’s fragile love song Ne Me Quitte Pas in French.
Although Nina was called “High Priestess of Soul” and was respected by fans and
critics as a mysterious, almost religious figure, she was often misunderstood as
well. When she wrote Four Women in 1966, a bitter lament of four black women
whose circumstances and outlook are related to subtle gradations in skin color,
the song was banned on Philadelphia and new York radio stations because “it was
insulting to black people…”
The High Priestess would walk different paths to find the
adequate music to spread her message. Her first RCA album,
“Nina Simone Sings The Blues”, includes her own I Want A
Little Sugar In My Bowl, Do I Move You, a haunting version
of My Man’s Gone Now (again from “Porgy & Bess”) and the
protest song Backlash Blues, based on a poem written for
her by Langston Hughes.
Her repertoire includes more Civil Rights songs: Why? The King of Love is Dead,
capturing the tragedy of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Brown Baby,
Images (based on a Waring Cuney poem), Go Limp, Old Jim Crow, … One song, To
be Young, Gifted and Black, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s play with the same title,
became the black national anthem in the USA.
She surprised even her most devoted fans with an album on which she sings and
plays alone. “Nina Simone And Piano!”, an introspective collection of songs about
reincarnation, death, loneliness and love, is still a highlight in her recording career.
Her gift to give new and deeper dimensions to songs resulted in remarkable versions
of Ain’t Got No / I Got Life (from the musical “Hair”), Leonard Colhen’s Suzanne,
Bee Gees songs as To Love Somebody, the classic My Way done in a tempo doubled
on bongos, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and four other Bob Dylan songs. This gift
culminated on her record “Emergency Ward”: she set up an atmosphere that left no
illusions and no escape, performing two long versions of George Harrison songs:
My Sweet Lord (to which she added a David Nelson poem, Today is a Killer) and
Isn’t it a Pity.
But Nina tried to escape anyway. She felt she had been manipulated. Disgusted with
record companies, show business and racism, she left the USA in 1974 for Barbados.
During the following years she lived in Liberia, Switzerland, Paris, The Netherlands
and finally the South of France, where she is still residing.
In 1978 a long awaited new record was released, “Baltimore”, containing the definite
rendition of Judy Collins’ My Father and an hypnotizing Everything Must Change.
Her next album, “Fodder On My Wings”, was recorded in Paris in 1982 and is based
on her self-imposed “exile” from the USA. More than ever determined to make her
own music, Nina wrote, adapted and arranged the songs, played piano and harpsichord
and sang in English and French. The 1988 CD re-release of this album included some
bonus tracks, e.g. her extraordinary version of Alone Again Naturally, reminiscing her
In 1984, one of her concerts at Ronnie Scott’s in London was
filmed, resulting in a captivating video, featuring Paul Robinson
on drums. A song from her very first record, My Baby Just
Cares For Me, became a huge hit and “Nina’s Back” was not
only the title of a new album; her concerts would take her
all over the world again.
In 1989 she contributed to Pete Townsend’s musical “The
Iron Man”. In 1990 she recorded with Maria Bethania; in 1991
with Miriam Makeba. That same year, her autobiography,
“I Put A Spell On You” was published. It was translated into French
(“Ne Me Quittez Pas”), German (“Meine Schwarze Seele”) and
Dutch (“I Put A Spell On You, – Herinneringen”).
In 1993 a new studio album was released. “A Single Woman” includes several Rod
McKuen songs, Nina’s own Marry Me, her version of the French standard Il n’y a pas
d’amour heureux and a very moving Papa, Can You Hear Me?
No less than five songs from her repertoire were used in the 1993 motion picture
sound track of “Point Of No Return” (also called “The Assassin, code name: Nina”).
Many other films feature her songs (e.g. “Ghosts of Mississippi”, 1996: I Wish I
Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, “Stealing Beauty”, 1996: My Baby Just Cares
For Me and “One Night Stand”, 1997: Exactly Like You).
Her music continues to excite new and young listeners. Ain’t Got No / I Got Life was
a big hit in 1998 in The Netherlands, just as it had been there 30 years before…
Together with her regular accompanists Lepoldo Fleming
(guitar), she still excites audiences all over the world. At the
Barbican Theatre in London in 1997 she sang Every Time I
Feel The Spirit as a tribute to one of America’s first and
foremost leaders in the cause of Civil Rights, peace and
brotherhood, singer and actor Paul Robeson. More spirituals
and “blood songs” would follow: Reached Down And Got My
Soul, The Blood Done Change My Name and When I See The Blood.
Nina was the highlight of the Nice Jazz Festival in France in 1997, the Thessalonica
Jazz Festival in Greece in 1998. At the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin, Ireland in
1999 her daughter, Lisa Celeste, performing as “Simone”, sang a few duets with her
mother. Simone has toured the world, sung with Latin superstar Rafael, participated
in two Disney theatre workshops, playing the title role in Aida and Nala in The Lion
King. She is currently working on her upcoming debut album, “Simone Superstar”.
On July 24, 1998 Nina Simone was a special guest at Nelson Mandela’s 80th Birthday
Party. On October 7, 1999 she received a Lifetime Achievement in Music Award
In 2000 she received Honorary Citizenship to Atlanta (May 26), the Diamond Award
for Excellence in Music from the Association of African American Music in Philadelphia
(June 9) and the Honorable Musketeer Award from the Compagnie des Mousquetaires
d’Armagnac in France (August 7).
Dr. Simone passed away after a long illness at her home in her villa in Carry-le-Rouet
(South of France) on April 21, 2003. As she had wished, her ashes were spread in
different African countries.
The Diva, who was as well an Honorary Doctor in Music and Humanities, has an
unrivalled legendary status as one of the very last ‘griots”. She is and will forever
be the ultimate songstress and storyteller of our times.
Courtesy of http://www.ninasimone.com/