|HIGH PRIESTESS OF SONG|
|Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21st, 1933, in the small town of Tryon, North Carolina. In a poor southern family, Eunice was the sixth of eight children - four boys and four girls. Early on in life, Eunice displayed extraordinary musical talent while playing piano and singing at the local church. At the age of six, a local benefactor and music teacher were so impressed with Eunice's talent that the "Eunice Waymon Fund" was established in order to finance her general and musical education.
By the age of ten Eunice had made so much progress she was invited to give her first piano recital at the town library. It was at this recital where Eunice first experienced the racism her everyday life had sheltered her from. During her performance, Eunice's parents were removed from the first row in order to accommodate white auidence members. This would be a bittersweet concert for Eunice as not only did she receive her first round of applause but, also, the seed for her future commitment to and passion for civil rights was planted.
With the help of the local financial supporters, Eunice enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York and left Tryon in 1950 to continue her musical education. After completing her lessons in New York, Eunice and her family moved to Philadelphia with the hopes of her enrolling in the prestigious Curtis Institute to become classically-trained. Eunice was denied a scholarship to the Curtis Institute after giving a reportedly stellar audition. Though she was told the reason for her denial was based on her musical performance, she was later told it was for another reason. Still somewhat naïve to racial inequalities, Nina was suprised when told by an insider she wasn't denied for any musical reasons but rather, "oh, it's because you're black!"
In order to support herself and pay for further education, Eunice became an accompanist for a singing teacher. Later realizing she could make more money giving lessons herself, Eunice began teaching piano and singing to young adults. Frustrated with the sub-par performance of her students and tired of dealing with the unrealistic expectations of their parents, Eunice looked for work as a performer. In 1954, she accepted a job at the Midtown Bar and Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, New Jersey. When Eunice appeared for her first night of work, she was informed by the bar owner she was not only hired to play piano but was also expected to sing. Without realizing what was happening or what lay in store for her future, Eunice reluctantly agreed and stepped into show business. In order to avoid disapproval from her family for performing in a bar, Eunice adopted a stage name. She combined "Nina," a pet name given her by a childhood boyfriend meaning "little one," with "Simone" from the French actress Simone Signoret for "its dignified sound." Eunice Waymon forever became Nina Simone.
|It was at the Midtown Bar and Grill where Nina’s fan base originated and where her career slowly began to grow. Using her performance time to build her repertoire by singing, playing and improvising, Nina received a reputation for being an original, versatile artist. Her devoted grassroots fan base grew into bar-filling crowds of regulars and those curious to hear the musician creating so much buzz around town. Nina’s distinct voice and look mesmerized her audience. She was a fully self-made artist and her authenticity fibered every note she played and sang.
In a world of Billie Holidays and Sarah Vaughns, a black female artist who not only sang but also played an instrument – especially the piano – was an undeniable rarity. But, besides a rarity, Nina’s ability to go from caressing the keys for classical standards to pounding the howls of blues out of them became her signature. Nina’s audience also immediately recognized the distinctiveness of her voice – a rich, deep, thick canvas best described as pure mahogany. And, even beyond her playing and voice, Nina displayed an innate understanding of timing, harmony, melody, reverberation and interpretation. She even ingeniously incorporated an aspect of music into her songs so many singers neglected to explore – silence and breathing. She would pause, shout, whisper, moan, repeat words or cry out. Piano, voice and physical gesture would remain separate elements and then, at once, she would make them meet. Nina Simone was not just a piano player, singer and performer. She was all these things – separately and simultaneously.
|Even from the beginning of her career, her repertoire included jazz standards, gospels and spirituals, classical pieces, folk songs of diverse origins, blues, pop songs, songs from musicals and operas, African chants, and her own compositions. Combining Bachian counterpoint, the improvisational approach of jazz and the modulations of blues, her talent could not be ignored.
Nina also had a unique appearance that married perfectly with her intense voice. She did not possess the glossy or soft looks of so many marketed women of the time. Whereas some felt this caused her to be a tough commodity to sell, she and others felt her looks reflected the structure, fullness and beauty of the black woman.
Her rejection of conventional definitions of music, race, femininity and beauty was part and parcel of her grand persona that ended up becoming just as famous as her music. One of the most definitive facets of Nina Simone became her ability to incorporate her character and personality into her music and performances. Known for chastising audience members who would not be quiet during her performances and even walking off stage in protest, Nina upset some spectators but enthralled most others. During performances, Nina would interact with her audiences in usual ways such as encouraging participation and in quiet unusual ways such as commenting on and singing about personal matters, politics, religion, history and, eventually, civil rights. Proving controversial and later causing her irreparable discord with the American music industry, Nina never faltered in being herself on stage. It was because Nina so seamlessly integrated this fiery spirit into her music and performances that her music retains its timeless and indescribable quality and why her fan base remains so devoted to her music and her. Though the word has lost much of its significance in today’s vernacular, Nina Simone was the diva of her time.
Becoming recognized as a talented pianist and singer, Nina was invited to perform in several Philadelphia clubs and later at NY clubs, such as the Village Gate. Subsequently, in 1957, she was given a recording session with Bethlehem Records. During this session, she recorded her first fourteen studio tracks.
|Simone's first album, Jazz As Played In An Exclusive Side Street Club, published in 1958 and also known as Little Girl Blue, was an immediate success in Philadelphia. After topping local radio charts in Philadelphia, her success soon spread and eventually took over New York. The single released from that recording, featuring I Loves You, Porgy and He Needs Me, became a national R&B hit in the summer of 1959, selling over a million copies.|
|Though a definite turning point in the rise of her career, Nina’s relationship with Bethlehem Records also began what developed into a lifelong battle between her and record labels. Of the fourteen tracks recorded in her first ever studio session, only eleven were placed on Jazz As Played… but, unbeknownst to Nina, Bethlehem released another album with the remaining tracks combined with those of other artists titled Nina And Her Friends. Nina stated she didn’t know about this record until she happened upon it in a store window while walking down a street in New York. This album was released after she had already left the label. Her contract with Bethlehem was just the beginning of a long string of Nina being robbed by record labels.|
|After the success of her first recordings, Simone signed with the major label Colpix (Columbia Pictures Records) in 1959. This collaboration lasted until 1964 throughout which Nina recorded ten full albums: six studio and four live recordings. She recorded some songs of Columbia film soundtracks, including Wild Is The Wind, Sayonara, and Samson & Delilah) as well as a new version of the Bethlehem hit, I Loves You, Porgy.
Her popularity and musical genius got her invited to perform at prestigious locations such as Carnegie Hall, Newport, and Town Hall, and gave stellar performances to sold-out crowds. The live recordings of these concerts are often referred to as some of her best recordings ever produced.
In 1961, Nina married Andy Stroud, a New York city police detective. He later became her manager and also wrote songs for her. In 1962, their daughter Lisa Celeste Stroud (Lisa "Simone" Kelly) was born.
|In 1964, Nina began her association with Philips, a Mercury Records subsidiary. This collaboration lasted for three years, during which Nina recorded another seven albums. One of the first songs recorded during the Philips period was Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, from then on associated with her name. The song was covered by the Animals in 1965, the same year Nina publishes I Put A Spell On You, a 1956 song by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. This song is also immediately covered by the Alan Price Set, the group founded by organist Alan Price after his departure from the Animals.
After the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in which four black schoolgirls were killed in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, Nina wrote Mississippi Goddamn. The song would be the first of many protest songs by Nina and is a bitter and furious accusation of the reality of racial relations in the United States. The strong emotional approach of this song and others on her first Philips full-length release, Nina Simone In Concert, would become another familiar theme of her repertoire.
Though sheltered from firsthand experience of racism when she was younger, Nina grew more conscious of racial inequality and incorporated this awareness into her songs. This awakening became a central theme for Nina, her life and music. Not only is this shift in focus obvious in her music but can even be observed in the change in her appearance. Nina quickly changed from her wardrobe of polished, supperclub style into African-influenced attire and a large, proud afro. Her style would continue to evolve but would remain based in her African roots.
|Although Nina was dubbed the High Priestess of Soul and was respected by fans and critics worldwide as a mysterious, almost religious figure, she was often misunderstood as well. When she penned Four Women in 1966, an intelligently 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 perceived as “insulting to people of color.”
Nina’s repertoire grew to include more civil rights songs: Why? The King Of Love Is Dead, capturing the tragedy of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown Baby, Images (based on a Cuney poem), Go Limp, Old Jim Crow, Strange Fruit, Blackbird and more. One of her original compositions, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s play with the same title, became the anthem for the civil rights movement and for blacks in the United States.
In 1966, Nina switched labels and signed with RCA, with whom she stayed until 1974 (her last long-term affiliation with an American label). This deal was negotiated by her husband-manager. From the summer of 1968 through the end of 1969, “all of her recordings were produced by her husband-manager, although we can assume it was really Nina making the final selections of repertoire and, essentially, masterminding the sessions,” according to longtime friend, former fan-club president and biographer, David Nathan.
|While at RCA, Nina recorded nine albums and some of her most popular songs. Her interpretation of Ain’t Got No/I Got Life, from the sixties musical Hair, rose to number two on the UK charts and her R&B version of the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody in 1969 stayed at the top ten for months.
Disgusted and embittered by racism and feeling manipulated and betrayed by record companies, Nina renounced her homeland in 1969 and became a wanderer, roaming and exploring the world. She lived in Liberia, Barbados, Switzerland, Trinidad, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom before finally settling in France. She remained living in Carry-le-Rouet France until her death in 2003.
Nina divorced Stroud in 1970 and attempted to manage herself and work with her brother and fellow musician, Sam Waymon. She left RCA in 1974. In 1978, Nina was arrested, but immediately released, for withholding taxes from 1971-73 in protest of her government’s “undeclared war in Vietnam.” The same year, she produced the album Baltimore for CTI Records. Though hailed as a success, Nina states this is her least favorite album and reports despising the experience of the recording session. According to Nina, she had very little to no artistic input on Baltimore and states the entire line-up was decided upon before she even walked into the studio. In 1982, Nina recorded another album, Fodder On My Wings, in Paris. This album contained many songs regarding her experiences in the United States and her dislike for the music industry and– such as I Was Just A Stupid Dog To Them. On this album, Nina also began her work with African-rooted classical music. She is now considered a pioneer in this genre. More determined than ever to make her own music, Nina wrote, adapted and arranged the songs, played piano and harpsichord, and sang in English and French. The 1988 re-release of this album included some bonus tracks, e.g. her extraordinary version of Alone Again Naturally, reminiscing her father’s death. She had been very close to her father as a young girl but, after overhearing him lying about his role in supporting their family, she stopped speaking with him and never had a chance to regain this connection before he died.
|In 1985, one of her concerts at Ronnie Scott’s in London was recorded and filmed, resulting in a captivating video. As with the Village Gate in the US, Nina was a regular at Ronnie Scott’s and her shows there were almost always sold-out. In 1985, she recorded Nina’s Back and Live and Kickin’ in the United States. In 1987, her song My Baby Just Cares For Me was used in a commercial on UK television for Chanel. She stayed on the UK charts for almost a year and, because of this, Nina was brought back into the public eye. In 1989, she contributed to Pete Townsend’s musical The Iron Man.
In 1990, her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You, was published. It was immediately translated into French, German, and Dutch.
Her music was then featured in 1992 movie Point Of No Return, with the lead character using Nina as inspiration and even a namesake. The same year, she recorded Let It Be Me at The Vine Street Bar & Grill in Hollywood for Verve Records. Her music slowly began seeping back up into public awareness in the US and began popping up in movies, such as the remake of The Thomas Crowne Affair, and television commercials. In 1993, Nina released a new studio album, A Single Woman. This release was met with critical acclaim and stayed on the top of the jazz charts for months.
Nina made appearances at various festivals, celebrations and events. After realizing the demand for her music and appearance, Nina and her personal manager arranged the Millennium Tour, and began touring again, returning to the US for the first time in almost ten years, and continued touring until her death. Even Nina’s more recent concerts were sold-out and met with extraordinary fanfare. Critics of her concerts who were not impressed with the quality of her aged voice still could not deny her excellent piano playing and, more commonly, the praise and adulation her fans showered upon her.
Nina died in her sleep at her home in France on April 21st, 2003 from cancer. She was exactly two months from her seventieth birthday. She was survived by her daughter, Lisa, who performs under the name Simone as a singer and dancer.
Nina Simone died still bitter at the world she knew simultaneously took advantage of her and underappreciated her. Sadly, she died at the in the midst of her music, life and career rising again to unknown limits. The quantity and quality of her music surpasses most others and, as mentioned before, many fans consider her in almost religious terms. Beyond entertainment, for her attention to civil rights alone, Nina should be hailed as a leader and ultimate activist. She remains largely ignored and unrecognized. Many of her fans are determined not to let this happen and continue to fight for the respect one of the greatest musicians of all times rightfully deserves.
|Though dubbed the High Priestess of Soul, Nina did not prefer this title. Nina did not want to be pigeonholed into one genre and often accused critics of being racist for labeling her as a jazz or soul artist. Nina considered herself a musician with no particular style or pattern. She often spoke of music itself in religious terms and noted the godlike reflection in the arrangement of sounds. Perhaps we can make proper tribute to Nina Simone and recognize her as the High Priestess of SONG.|