“Slavery has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking.” – Nina Simone
Nina Simone Biography
Nina Simone was a complicated woman. Extraordinarily talented musically, she played a wide variety of styles, and although well-known and critically acclaimed, she only had one song reach the top 20 chart in the United States throughout her whole career. However, it was the combination of her powerful, passionate music along with her strong views and activist nature which made Nina Simone an exceptional artist and campaigner for civil rights.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on 21 February 1933, Nina Simone was raised in the town of Tryon, North Carolina, and of the eight children born to her parents, she was the sixth. Although her family was incredibly poor, aged only three, Nina’s musical talents started to shine especially when it came to playing the piano. This talent was soon noticed and it wasn’t long before she was playing piano at her church and aged only 12 she was given the honour of playing a recital. It was not the music she played at this recital that would influence her future, but rather an event that occurred there that brought home to her what it was really like to be an African American in 1940’s USA. During the recital, Nina’s parents, who had sat in the front row to watch Nina play, were compelled to give up their seats to a white couple. However, Nina would have none of it and refused to perform until her parents were once again seated in the front row. From that point forward, Nina decided that she would dedicate her life and career to civil rights.
With the help of her parents, who although being very poor did what they could, and of various donations and funds that came her way thanks to the help of her music teacher, Nina Simone was able to attend Allen High School for Girls, which was located in Asheville, North Carolina. After graduating from high school in 1950 Nina sent in an application to the Curtis Institute of Music hoping for an audition. Her family had already moved to Philadelphia in anticipation of her acceptance into the program but her application was unceremoniously and without reason denied. Although the school denied it, Nina strongly believed that it was her skin colour that kept her from being accepted into the music program.
Nina did not take the news of her rejection lying down and decided to continue growing her skills at the piano through taking private lessons with one of the professors from the Curtis Institute. Getting private lessons from a prestigious teacher was expensive, so Nina took on singing jobs at local clubs and bars to pay for them. In 1954, she took on the name that she would be known by for the rest of her life – Nina Simone. The use of a stage name was important for her as her parents, who were devout Methodists, would not be supportive of the types of song their daughter would be singing as they would be considered immoral by the church. The stage name Nina Simone was intended to allow her to work on the music that was important to her without any interference from her family. The name Nina Simone was created from two separate ideas. Nina, Spanish for ‘little girl’, was a nickname her boyfriend had given her, while Simone was the name of a French actress Nina was fond of.
Throughout the 50s her time playing in different bars and clubs began to pay off as she developed a small but strong fan base.
In 1958, Nina met and married Don Ross, but she instantly regretted the decision. It was during this time that she also wrote what would become her only top 20 song in the United States, “I Loves You, Porgy.” Between this and her album “Little Girl Blue”, Nina Simone began to attract attention, although she would not benefit financially from the released versions of this early music as she had sold the rights outright for only $3000. It has been estimated that Nina lost more than a million dollars in royalties because of that decision. Nina’s popularity continued to grow throughout the late 50s and early 60s and she was able to get a recording contract with Colpix Records which included an agreement for Nina to create the music that she desired and in return for the record company recording it, she agreed to work exclusively with Colpix.
In 1961, Nina married for the second time, this time to a police detective in New York called Andrew Stroud. The relationship produced a daughter called Lisa, but it was a psychologically and physically abusive one. Nevertheless, Stroud also became Nina Simone’s manager.
Nina’s musical capabilities always drew from her passion and her background as a female African American artist. However, it was sometimes this heritage shining through in her music that caused the occasional backlash. Nina’s music took on a decidedly political tone after four little African American girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. The hate-filled attack stirred deep passions within Nina as she wrote the song “Mississippi Goddam.”
Such a passionately anti-racist piece of music, it was boycotted in a number of southern states. The thing that set Nina Simone apart from some of her contemporaries like Martin Luther King, Jr. is that she was a bigger proponent for violence and swift decisive action as the method of change in American society. She gravitated more towards Malcolm X and the black nationalist groups than to groups led by Dr King who believed that peace could achieve the goals of the civil rights movement and ensure equality for African-Americans through the legislative process as opposed to through militant tactics.
Working tirelessly in the civil rights movement, Nina Simone produced multiple pieces of music to help inspire and guide as well as speaking and conducting activist work directly. Nina Simone had a troubled relationship with the U.S. government, and left the country in 1970, initially staying in Barbados waiting for more work to come her way. The problem was though, that she had left behind her wedding ring, which Stroud interpreted as Nina wanting a divorce and as her manager he controlled her income. After waiting for work that didn’t come, Nina travelled to Europe and in the 1980’s she spent some time in London where she played a number of times at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, recording a live album there in 1984. Three years later, Chanel used the original recording of My Baby Just Cares for Me for an ad for their No5 perfume brand. The song was re-released and went straight to number 4 in the NME charts and off the back of this Nina enjoyed a short but rewarding popular revival. Upon her eventual return to the United States, she found that she was wanted for tax evasion and so in order to avoid prosecution, she went back to Barbados where she stayed for quite a while, having an affair while there with the then Prime Minister Errol Barrow. Never to live again in the United States again she was first persuaded to go to Liberia before she found herself back in Europe ultimately settling in France.
In the late 1980s, Nina was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and then throughout the 90s, she battled breast cancer. She released her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You” in 1992. She died at home in France on 21 April 2003.
Although Nina Simone has been considered by some as a figure of controversy, some things about her cannot be denied; that she was a woman gifted in music, passionate in spirit, and with a soul filled with music. Nina Simone’s work continues to inspire countless individuals to combine their passion with their music.