The month of February is Black History month, and to celebrate it here at WUMB we are highlighting artists who have shaped the history of music over time. Today we highlight the “High Priestess of Soul”, singer, civil rights activist, arranger, songwriter and pianist, Nina Simone.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, Simone was the sixth of what would be eight children in Tryon, North Carolina. Simone began playing piano at the age of three, and gave her first concert at twelve years old. This concert would later inspire her to join the Civil Rights Movement. Her parents had been sitting in the front row of the audience and were forced to move to the back so that white people could have their seats. Simone refused to play until they were allowed to return to the front row. Simone’s mother, Mary Kate Waymon, worked as a maid and her employer, upon discovering how talented Mary Kate’s daughter was, paid for Simone’s piano lessons. A scholarship fund was also set up in the town to pay for Simone’s education at Allen High School for Girls in Asheville, North Carolina. After graduating from Allen High School for Girls Simone auditioned for the Curtis Institute but was not accepted, a decision that she believed to be based on her race. So she moved to New York and attended Julliard instead.
In order to pay for private lessons Simone performed in Atlantic City and it was there that she adopted the name Nina Simone. A boyfriend had given her the nickname niña, meaning girl, so she took the first name of Nina. Simone came from the French actress Simone Signoret who she had seen in the film Casque D’or. It was while performing in small clubs that Simone recorded her only Top 20 hit, “I Loves You, Porgy” from the musical Porgy and Bess and her debut album Little Girl Blue. Unfortunately she sold the rights to the record for $3,000 and therefore never profited from the album sales. In 1961 Simone married Andrew Stroud, a New York police detective, who would later become her manager.
It was in 1964, after switching her record distributer from Colpix to Dutch Phillips, that she released Nina Simone in Concert. This album which featured tracks such as, “Old Jim Crow” and “Mississippi Goddam”, was her first to openly address racial inequality in America. As a Civil Rights Activist Simone spoke and performed at multiple Civil Rights meetings including but not limited to the Selma To Montgomery Marches. On April 7th, 1968, three days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, she performed at the Westbury Music Fair. Her entire performance was dedicated to Dr. King, and she performed the song that Gene Taylor, her bassist, had written immediately after receiving the news of his death, “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)”. She also converted the unfinished play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black by the late Lorraine Hansberry, who contributed greatly to Simone’s political and social ideologies, into a into a Civil Rights Song, along with composer, poet, musician and playwright, Weldon Irvine. The song was later covered by Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway.
Simone flew to Barbados in 1970 without telling Stroud, her manager at that time, that she was leaving. Upon her return it was brought to her attention that, due to unpaid taxes in protest of The Vietnam War, there was a warrant for her arrest. She returned to Barbados where she stayed for a period of time, then moving to Liberia, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and France where she settled in 1992. Her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You was recorded that same year. She died of breast cancer a year later and her ashes were scattered across numerous African countries. She has been cited as an inspiration to artists including John Lennon, Emile Sande, Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave, Amanda Palmer, Van Morrison, Lana Del Rey, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys and many more.