American jazz and rhythm-and-blues composer, singer, and pianist Simone is noted for the depth of her musical interpretations and the sense of mystery and power in her voice and her persona. Her protest songs formed a significant aspect of her musical identity, and they added an original dimension to her versatile and adventurous blend of musical idioms.
Born: February 21, 1933; Tryson, North Carolina
Died: April 21, 2003; Carry-le-Rouet, France
Nina Simone (sih-MOHN) was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in a small town in North Carolina during the Great Depression. Demonstrating musical gifts at an early age, she was aided by members of the black community in her town who paid for piano lessons and eventually sent her to the Juilliard School of Music inNew York. In 1954, after a music conservatory's rejection that appeared to be more about her race than about her talent, Simone took a job in a nightclub in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she sang and played a mix of jazz, blues, and classical piano. Changing her name to Nina, Spanish for little one, and Simone, after the popular French actress Simone Signoret, she soon developed a highly successful recording and performance career. In 1961 Simone married Andy Stroud, a New York detective who became her manager, and in 1962 she gave birth to their daughter, Lisa Celeste.
The marriage ended in 1970. In the 1960's, Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights demonstrations, but, frustrated by the racial situation and the music industry, she left the United States in the 1970's, living in exile in such places as Barbados, Liberia, and Switzerland, until she settled in the South of France in 1993. Beginning in 1985, Simone returned to the United States for a series of acclaimed performances. She died in her home in France; as requested, her ashes were spread in different African countries.Twodays before her death, she was given an honorary degree by the Curtis Institute, the school that had rejected her at the start of her career. The Music Simone is generally classified as a jazz musician, but she preferred to be associated with black classical music, which allowed for other styles of black music, such as gospel, rhythm and blues, soul, and funk.
She included in her repertoire her compositions, songs from musical theater and opera, as well as cabaret, folk, rock, and pop songs. Her eclectic repertoire- which could move from a cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You" to George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun", to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Pirate Jenny"- reflected her free-spirited, inventive, and unpredictable musical temperament. Her unique vocal style was distinguished by a haunting vibrato and an earthy alto, and she was capable of expressing an emotional range that included intense passion, deep anguish, playful exuberance, brooding melancholy, and cold fury. In her live performances, her commanding presence was a further confirmation of her status as the High Priestess of Soul. Little Girl Blue. Simone's first album, Little Girl Blue, was released in 1958, and it became an instant success. This album included her legendary soulful performance of George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy", which, as a single, became her only Top 40 hit in the United States. This album also includes her haunting, expressive interpretation of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "Little Girl Blue", which demonstrated her signature blending of classical counterpoint, blues, and improvisational jazz.
Another important track is her jaunty interpretation of Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn's "My Baby Just Cares for Me", which, as with "Little Girl Blue", featured an inventive vocal against a Bachstyle piano counterpoint. Simone's interpretation of this song would become a hit again years later in 1987, helping to relaunch her career. "Mississippi Goddam". Written by Simone in 1964, this song was a response to themurder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black children. While Simone's voice projects anger and grief, the tune is bright and up-tempo, a disarming counterpoint to the accusatory words and the bitter vocals. This song added considerably to Simone's identity as a protest singer, and it became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. "Four Women".
Written in 1966 by Simone, this song made a significant contribution to the growing black feminist movement of the time. The almost novelistic song lyrics describe four black women whose personalities and situations are related to the gradations of their skin color. In exploring these women's differing backgrounds, Simone also responded to the temper of the times by introducing into her lyrics specifically AfricanAmerican historical references. Expressing both pain and anger, this song became a powerful expression of Simone's developing political activism and her identity as a protest singer. "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black". Simone wrote this song in 1970 with Weldon Irvine, as a tribute to her friend, the African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry,whohad an unfinished play of the same name. This song was a commercial hit, but, even more, it expressed the empowering sentiments of the growing Black Pride movement, and the song became one of its anthems. It was the most recorded song in Simone's repertoire, and it is likely her most inspiring and affirmative protest song.
Musical Legacy Simone left a strong musical legacy of performances and recordings, and she influenced the social and political history of the United States through her involvement as a singer and songwriter in the cause of civil rights for African Americans. Her song "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black" spoke not only to her own generation but to the black artists who came of age after the civil rights era. She has been an inspiration and a role model to such black female musical artists as Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, and Meshell Ndegeocello. Her music and performance style have inspired many singers and singing groups, both black and white; her original recordings have been covered by such artists as Jeff Buckley, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, and Michael Bubl?. Simone was the recipient of numerous music awards as well as honorary degrees in music and humanities from the University of Massachusetts and Malcolm X College.