There is a quotation attributed to Richard Pryor that states: “White people had Judy Garland — We had Nina.” Nina Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, 1933-2003) was a masterful, superb singer-songwriter, pianist, arranger, composer, goddess, a civil rights activist, “High Priestess of Soul”, and a beautiful woman the likes of which the world will never see again. There are so many of her songs that I love, including, “Four Women” (a song of four different women who epitomize America’s racist, sexist mistreatment of black women), “Mississippi Goddamn”
(a scathing indictment of white America’s racist mistreatment of her black citizens);
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black”,
her black ballad which would become Black America’s national anthem, “Strange Fruit”,
…….her inspiring rendition of the legendary Billie Holliday classic), and my favourite, “My Baby Just Cares For Me”,
a song that is an homage to the beauty of black women (ironically the song appeared in a Chanel No. 5 commercial decades ago).
Nina recorded over 40 live and studio albums, the biggest body of her work being released between 1958 (when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue) and 1974. Songs she is best known for include “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, “I Put a Spell On You”, “I Loves You Porgy”, “Feeling Good”, “Sinnerman”, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, “Strange Fruit”, and “Ain’t got no-I got life”. The “High Priestess’s” music and message made a strong and lasting impact on Black American culture, illustrated by the numerous contemporary artists citing her as an important influence (among them Alicia Keys, Jeff Buckley and Lauren Hill), as well as the extensive use of her music on soundtracks and in remixes.
At a concert debut, Nina made a classical piano recital, at the age of ten. During her 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. Nina refused to play until her parents were moved back to their seats. This incident of racism propelled her into the Civil Rights Movement. Nina aspired to become a classical pianist. With the help of a private tutor she studied for an interview to further study piano at the Curtis Institute, but she was rejected. Simone believed that this rejection was directly related to her being black, as well as being a woman. It further fueled her hatred of the widespread and institutionalized racism present in the U.S. during the period. It seemed that her dream to become the first Black American classical pianist would not be fulfilled.
Nina played at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City to fund her study. The owner said that she would have to sing as well as play the piano in order to get the job. She took on the stagename “Nina Simone” in 1954 because she did not want her mother to know that she was playing “the devil’s music”. “Nina” (meaning “little girl” in Spanish) was a nickname a boyfriend had given to her and “Simone” was after the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she had seen in the movie Casque d’or. Simone played and sang a mixture of jazz, blues and classical music at the bar, and by doing so she created a small but loyal fan base.
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. In a single concert she could be a singer, pianist, dancer, actress, activist, as well as both therapist and patient all simultaneously.
On her debut album for Philips, Nina Simone In Concert (live recording, 1964), Nina openly openly addressed 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 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little black girls (Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14)—were killed in the blast, while 22 more were injured) . 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.
Together with Langston Hughes, Simone turned the late Lorraine Hansberrys unfinished play “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” into a civil rights song. She performed it live on Black Gold (1970). A studio recording was released as a single, and the song became the official “National Anthem of Black America” and has been covered by Aretha Franklin (on 1972s Young, Gifted and Black) and Donny Hathaway.
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 neighbour’s son with a pneumatic pistol after his laughing disturbed her concentration. She also fired a gun at a record company executive whom she accused of stealing royalties. It is now recognised that this ‘difficulty’ was not just the result of an overly-perfectionist rigor, but her raging outbursts and diva-like extremes were actually the result of a psycho-medical condition, most probably a bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. Simone reluctantly took medication for her condition from the mid sixties 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.
Nina left the United States in September 1970. The continuous performances and decline of the Civil Rights movement had exhausted her. 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, convinced her to come to Liberia. After that she lived in Switzerland and the Netherlands, before settling in France in 1992. Simone’s divorce from her husband and manager can be seen as the end of her most successful years in the American music business, and the beginning of her (partially self-imposed) exile and estrangement from the world for the next two decades.
After her last album for RCA Records, It Is Finished (1974), it was not until 1978 that Simone was convinced by CTI Records owner Creed Taylor to record another album, Baltimore. While not a commercial succes, the album did get good reviews and marked a quiet artistic renaissance in Simone’s recording output. Her voice had not lost its power over the years, but developed an additional warmth and a vivacious maturity.
Her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, was published in 1992 and recorded her last album A Single Woman in 1993.
In 1993 Simone settled near Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. She had been ill with breast cancer for several years before she died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rouet on April 21, 2003, aged 70. 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 “We 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 stagename Simone and has appeared on Broadway in Aida.
On Human Kindness Day 1974 in Washington DC more than 10,000 people paid tribute to Simone for her music and commitment to humanity.
The documentary Nina Simone: La Legende was made in the 90’s by French filmakers. It was based on her autobiography I Put A Spell On You and features live footage from different periods of Nina’s career, interviews with friends and family, various interviews with Nina herself while she was living in the Netherlands, and on a trip to her birthplace.
Plans for a Nina Simone biographical picture were released at the end of 2005. The movie will be based on Nina 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 has been slated to take on the lead role. The movie is scheduled for a 2009 release.
Among numerous awards and accolades, Nina 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, Nina was awarded with an honorary diploma by the Curtis Institute, the school that had turned her down at the start of her career.
Blessed are those who were able to see her perform in person. For those of us who were not so lucky, here is her performance of her song, “Four Women”.
Rest in peace, Eunice.
(Additional information from Wikipedia Encyclopedia)
Simone (Lisa Lawson) the daughter of Nina Simone (Eunice Waymon) singing ‘Breakdown’, a song she wrote for her mother just before she died in 2003. Video filmed in Paradiso Amsterdam, The Netherlands, June 2007: