A black American singer, epitomising the culture of the time.
By Mike Alexander: Music Columnist
Nina Simone is among the most widely renowned and revered artists of the 20th century.
However she was also a controversial figure whose endeavours as an activist in the American Civil Rights movement are almost as widely recognised as her music. The scope of her influence, particularly among artists within the African American community is vast. Jazz, hip-hop and dance musicians have cited Simone as an influence, with classic songs such as “Feeling Good” being sampled by the likes of Kanye West and Timberland?, a far cry from Simone’s own Classical and Gospel routes.
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21 1933 to a poor family of eight in Tryon, North Carolina. Beginning to learn to piano at the age of three, by the age of six Simone became an accompanist at her local church and set about the ambition of becoming America’s first black concert pianist. Contrary to the racial segregation practiced within most areas of the southern United States during this period, Tryon was later said by Simone to be reasonably integrated with relations between white and black people always being “cordial”.
It wasn’t long however before prejudices were made abundantly clear to the young Simone. During a recital, aged 12; Simone’s parents were forced to relinquish their seats at the front of the hall to make room for white audience members. Simone, displaying an admirable sense of social justice refused to play until her parents were returned to their original seats. It was perhaps this experience among other encounters in her young life that would inform her later involvement within the American Civil Rights movement.
In the early 1950’s, Simone enrolled at the prestigious Juilliard School of music in New York City under Carl Friedburg in preparation for an audition for a scholarship to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was denied admission despite making a good impression at the audition, a decision she would again later attribute to racial discrimination.
She did however manage to secure private tuition with one of Curtis’s Professors, Vladimir Sokoloff. In order to pay for the tuition and generally make ends meet, Simone took a job playing “cocktail piano” at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The owner of the bar insisted that she sing as well as play which earned Simone an income of $90 a week. It was this move that effectively launched her career as a Jazz Singer, though she remained adamant throughout her life that she was a pianist first. Knowing that her mother would not approve of her playing the “devils music” Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone adopting her stage name in 1954,.
As Simone, she made her recording debut in 1958, with a mix of Jazz standards such as “I loves you Porgy” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and “My Baby just cares for me” her version of which would be re-released in the late 1980’s. Simone went on to release 40 Albums in the period between 1958 and 1974.
Over the years, many fans have come to revere Simone as the very essence of what it is to be black in America, with some referring to her as a “Regal African Queen reincarnate” and “The high Priestess of Soul”. During the 1960’s, anger became the defining emotion of much of her work and in 1964, she released the single “Mississippi Goddamn” in response to the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young black girls and injured a fifth.
The song called for more immediate action in combating the established order and was boycotted in some southern states including Simone’s home state of North Carolina. Simone increased her activism throughout the 60’s both performing and speaking at Civil Rights rallies and marches and later causing further controversy by advocating black nationalism and endorsing the violent revolutionary tactics of Malcolm X ( he was a neighbour of hers at the time )over the non-violent methods adopted by Martin Luther King.
Following the boycott of “Mississippi Goddamn”, Simone left the US in disgust, moving to Barbados in 1970. She returned later in the year to discover a warrant for her arrest. This was for taxes Simone refused to pay in protest against the US involvement in the Vietnam war.
Following this, Simone fled back to Barbados where she remained for most of the 1970’s. There is no record of Simone having returned to the United States following this period.
Over the next 23 years Simone moved between countries including Liberia, Switzerland and the Netherlands before settling in Southern France in 1993. Though her recording career declined (a notable exception being a huge European hit for the re-release of “my baby just cares for me” in 1988), her live career flourished with her becoming a regular at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London during the 1980’s.
She also released a live album at the venue in 1984. There were also several notable performances at Aux Trois Mailletz, a small Jazz Club in Paris, which ranged from some of the best to some of the worst of Simone’s career on account of a fluctuating temperament which eventually saw her diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 1988.
Simone released her final studio album in 1993 and for the last ten years of her life focused predominantly on her live performances, which continued until a year before her death. Nina Simone died on 21st April 2003 following a long struggle with breast cancer, she was 70 years old. Throughout her life and career Nina Simone certainly established herself both as a considerable talent and a force to be reckoned with in terms of campaigning for genuine lasting change.
In addition to this, she paved the way for many artists in the western world both black and white, with many 90s female hip hop artists such as Lauren Hill deriving inspiration from her spirited work as both an artist and activist. Even bands as diverse as Muse have drawn inspiration from her work, releasing a cover of “Feeling Good” in the early 2000’s. To conclude, Simone is yet another artist more than worthy of her place in this series of articles.