Nina Simone’s Biography

Nina Simone was born February 21, 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. Daughter of John D. Waymon and Mary Kate Waymon, an ordained Methodist minister, Simone was the sixth of eight children. The house was filled with music, Nina Simone recalled, and she learned to play piano early. When her mother took a job as a maid for extra money, the family she worked for saw that young Nina had special musical talent and began sponsoring classical piano lessons for her.

Nina eventually went on to attend the Juilliard School in New York in her last year of high school with the hopes of being accepted to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but was rejected. Nina Simone believed that she was good enough for the program, but that she was rejected because she was black-- one of many disappointments she would encounter and attribute to racism.

In 1954, she began playing piano at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, adopting the name of Nina Simone to avoid her mother's religious disapproval of her playing in a bar. She attracted audiences of younger people who were fascinated by her diverse musical repertoire and eclectic style of singing. Performing in nightclubs throughout Philadelphia and in Greenwich Village, New York, Nina’s moody vocals and unique vocal styles seduced audiences everywhere.

Nina recorded her first tracks, including "Plain Gold Ring" and "Don't Smoke in Bed." But she gained fame in 1959 with her recording of "I Loves You Porgy," from the opera "Porgy & Bess." It sold well, and her recording career began. For her next album she signed with Colpix and released "The Amazing Nina Simone." With this album came increased critical acclaim.

It was her alto voice, with its rich timbre and distinctive interpretation of standards, blues and jazz compositions that shot her to prominence. But she hated being pigeonholed as a jazz singer. "To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that's not what I play," Nina Simone said in one interview. "I play black classical music."

Nina Simone briefly married Don Ross in 1958, and divorced him the next year. She married Andy Stroud in 1961 -- a former police detective who became her manager and business partner -- and they had a daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud—now known as “Simone.”

In the 1960s, Nina Simone was part of the civil rights movement and later the black power movement. Nina wrote "Mississippi Goddam" after the bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama killed four little girls.

Other Nina Simone songs were adopted by the civil rights movement as anthems including, "Backlash Blues," "Old Jim Crow," "Four Women" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black." The latter was composed in honor of her friend Lorraine Hansberry and became an anthem for the growing black power movement.

As one of the most honest artists to grace the world music landscape, Nina’s voice became the heart and voice of the people for her generation. But Nina's growing bitterness over America's racism eventually led to her decision to leave the United States. She moved to Europe in 1978 and built her career slowly, having small successes.

In 1985, Nina Simone returned to the United States to record and perform, this time choosing to de-emphasize her political views. Her career reinvigorated when a British commercial for Chanel used her 1958 recording of "My Baby Just Cares for Me," which then became a hit in Europe.

Though she was a gifted songwriter, Simone also recorded songs from artists as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and the Bee Gees and made them her own. Perhaps one of her more popular covers was her version of "Here Comes the Sun,” by the Beatles.

In 1991, Nina Simone moved back to Europe -- first to the Netherlands then to the South of France, publishing her biography, I Put a Spell on You.

With a deep and husky voice that growled and whispered and a musical repertoire that combined spiritual, jazz and protest songs, Nina Simone, dubbed the “High Priestess of Soul,” grew to become one of the most gifted singers, composers and pianists of her time, recording close to 60 albums throughout her musical career.

Nina Simone died April 21, 2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, France. Her last public performance was July 2002, in Poland. Survived by her daughter, Simone Kelly, two grandsons and a granddaughter, Nina was a great artist who defied easy classification. Two days before her death, Nina was thrilled to learn that The Curtis Institute—the school that formerly denied her acceptance—had awarded her with an honorary diploma.

Nina Simone’s legacy lives on. Her songs remain a mainstay on jazz and blues stations around the world, providing many singers and groups with material for hits of their own and inspiring generations of new talent, from Aretha Franklin, to india.arie, to newcomer Norah Jones. Considered one of the last divas of jazz, and one of the finest songwriters and musicians of her day, Nina Simone is a woman whose artistic, civic and civil rights contributions have left an indelible mark on mankind and have set a standard for musicians the world over.