Before researching Nina Simone, all I knew of her was that she was a great and talented pianist and singer, and that she had a deeply troubled past. I considered this simply a cursory knowledge of Nina Simone. At that time I did not know how special Nina Simone truly was, and the extent that her gift would and has reached us. The sources I found were mostly paper books and scholarly articles.
Nina Simone had held music dear to her heart since she was a child. She was enrolled in classical piano lessons and choir from a young age and she took to them almost instantly. That love of music and natural talent went on to propel her, though not necessarily smoothly, through her music career. After facing countless struggles against racism throughout her academic career she had to hustle to provide for herself. After getting her start in secular nightclubs she faced rejection from those closest to her, her parents. Despite that rejection she continued to pursue her calling. It was that spirit that would fortify her through her long struggle through the civil rights era. When Simone released her first civil rights song, “Mississippi Goddamn” she was aware of how it might affect her career but she persisted and became one of the most influential civil rights advocates of her time and ours.
Throughout the wide variety of genres performed by Ms. Simone what remained the most consistent was the presence of civil rights activism in her music.
Nina Simone was actually born Eunice Waymon, on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina. She was the sixth out of eight children to father, John Davan Waymon a barber and mother, Kate Waymon, a deeply religious housekeeper. Despite the humble professions the Waymons were fairly well off. “They [the Waymons] were respected members of black Tryon and were treated with the patronizing courtesy whites traditionally reserved for those black residents deemed ‘a cut above.’”(Cohodas 6) Even though Simone was not necessarily destitute, she was not exempt from the judgments and racism of white people. Because, from personal experience, while patronizing courtesy isn’t directly harmful, it can still do harm to a psyche, especially that of a child.
Despite that, Simone was a ‘prodigy’ though she was too young to know what that meant. “By the time she was two and a half, Eunice could hoist herself onto the stool in front of the organ, sit at the keyboard, and make sounds come out, and not just any sounds. One time she played her mother/s favorite hymn, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” without a mistake.”( Cohodas 17) Obviously Simone was incredibly talented but her family taught her that her talent was not her own, it ultimately belonged to God. Simone’s mother came from a long line of preachers and ministers and ultimately was one herself. As a black woman preacher in rural North Carolina, Simone’s mother, Kate surely was a strong woman, and as such its no surprise that Simone ended up embodying and personifying her mother’s strength.
Sometime when Simone was 11 and she had been in classical piano lessons for a year or so, her teacher arranged for her to have a recital for the white people of Tryon, in the library. Her parents, JD and Kate came and they initially sat in the front row. However upon seeing that her parents had been asked to sit in the back in favor of a white couple Simone, at age 11 said to a room full of white people, that “If anyone expected her to play…they better let her parents sit right where she could see them.” (Cohodas 37) I believe that Simone decided then and there that she wasn’t going to let the little matter of racism stop her.
In order to prepare Simone for her auditions for the Curtis Institute of Music, she was admitted into the Juilliard School’s summer program. Simone was determined to be a concert pianist. However during her stint at the Juilliard School she began to uncover more of the nasty world of double standards and racism. “Once again Eunice lived in two worlds, among white students and teachers during the day, and among other blacks in Harlem in the evening and on the weekends. (Cohodas 49) So we see that again, in a different location Simone was observing the differences between black and white cultures.
Following her summer at Juilliard, Simone auditioned for the Curtis School. Feeling so confident in her audition, she, along with her family, officially relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is where the Curtis School was located. Simone was heartbroken when she was shortly thereafter informed that she did not gain entry into the Curtis School. After a short refractory period of sorts, when Simone briefly decided to give up music, she resumed piano lessons under the tutelage of Vladimir Sokoloff. Sokoloff was an instructor at Curtis who agreed to teach her with the knowledge that he was preparing her for her own audition the following semester. To pay for her new lessons she began accompanying a local voice teacher in her lessons. Because of this Simone was able to learn some things about singing as well as more of the popular songs.
After giving voice lessons for a period of time, Simone grew restless, listless, and depressed. She even devoted some of the money that she had to go see a therapist weekly. Following her students to Atlantic City, New Jersey she discovered that she might be able to double her salary playing piano at a hotel bar. When she received her first booking the manager asked her how she would want to be billed. Instantly thinking of what her staunchly religious mother might think of her deeply secular nightlife, she created the pseudonym ‘Nina Simone’, and thus the character that would influence countless people, musicians and otherwise, was born. As she started to perform more at the Midtown Hotel Bar, she began to synthesis her various musical backgrounds together and began forming her own unique sound.
Nina Simone was highly unusual as her influences came from a lot of places. Because she was initially trained as a classical pianist, Simone drew heavily on those famous classical names. Names like Bach and Marian Anderson were two of the most prominent that she drew influence from. However because Simone’s primary talent, outside of her piano playing, was her ability to synthesize music, she truly was influenced by everyone and everything.
The next summer Simone returned to the Midtown Hotel Bar to a moderate level of recognition. While Simone truly was enjoying her experience playing, many of her fans at the Hotel Bar were white which led to some discomfort on her part. Pushing past her discomfort Simone performed her first real hit, and what would later become one of her most recognizable covers, “I Loves You Porgy” from the opera Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin. As Simone began to gather more and more fame she realized that she had to tell her mother about her pseudonym and her other life. Her mother was predictably disappointed but as always Simone did not that that dissuade her.
In February 1959 Bethlehem Records released Nina Simone’s first record Little Girl Blue, to little fanfare from the press. Due to this Nina Simone was released from her contract with Bethlehem Records. However as soon as her Bethlehem door closed, another door opened, and soon after Nina Simone was signed to Columbia Pictures’ record division, Colpix. With Colpix Nina Simone released her LP, The Amazing Nina Simone. As Simone’s fame grew and grew she developed more friends in the ‘New York black elite’ friends such as Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin. Her involvement with them was the catalyst for her greater involvement in civil rights groups like SNCC and the NAACP.
Simone performed in Carnegie Hall for the first time on May 21 1961. The event itself was momentous because Simone shared the stage with Miriam Makeba, a Xhosa tribeswoman from South Africa. The event was also personally significant because Simone had long dreamed of performing in Carnegie Hall.
Nina Simone met Andy Stroud in 1961 and the two courted throughout the year. Stroud was a police officer, and although he lied to Simone about his profession at first, she still accepted him saying that when the two of them were together “Nina felt safe.” (Cohodas 113) After a sudden and serious bout of illness, Simone and Stroud vowed that they would get married to each other. Before their wedding however, there were many bumps on the road. In one instance Stroud physically assaulted and possibly even raped Simone. “He pushed her into the bedroom, she wrote, tied her up, and forced himself on her.”(Cohodas 118) Despite this incident she stayed with him citing her immense loneliness as the reason that she wanted to remain in the relationship. Simone and Stroud got married on December 4th 1961. The two had their first daughter on September 12th 1962.
Racial tensions were beginning to heat up between blacks and whites in the early 60’s and many of Simone’s ‘Black Elite’ friends, ie. Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and James Baldwin were participating. However Simone elected to wait on the sidelines, and stay out of direct racial controversy. On June 12th 1963 Medgar Evers was murdered, however it still wasn’t enough to get Simone involved in the movement. Until the September 15 1963,when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, and four young girls were killed. Simone was angry, “She was so angry, she went to the garage to see if she could fashion a weapon. She wanted to hurt someone, anyone.” (Cohodas 145). While she couldn’t physically hurt those responsible, what she could do was go to her music, and that’s what she did. “Within an hour she had a song. She called it ‘Mississippi Goddamn’.”(Cohodas 145) Mississippi Goddamn was Simone’s first official protest song. With this her roles as a civil rights leader and protest song leader were cemented.
In conclusion, Nina Simone was a pianist, she was a singer. Nina Simone was a mother, a daughter, and a sister. Nina Simone was a jazz singer. Nina Simone was influenced by gospel. Nina Simone was progressive but, Nina Simone always held fast to her roots. Ultimately the most important thing to realize about Nina Simone is that she was not monolithic. She existed on all planes of herself and she was ok with that. She never claimed to be perfect, but she never had to. Nina Simone had a strong foundation in herself, sparked by the strength and determination of her mother. Nina Simone’s ability to synthesize all genre’s of music into her own style was unparalleled. It was rivaled only by her ability to fight civil injustices within her music and to influence those around, and after her. The list of artists that are influenced by Nina Simone is lengthy, and her legacy will live on forever.
Little Girl Blue (1958)
Nina Simone and Her Friends (1959)
The Amazing Nina Simone (1959)
Nina Simone ar Town Hall (1959)
Nina Simone at Newport (1960)
Forbidden Fruit (1960)
Nina at the Village Gate (1962)
Nina Simone Sings Ellington (1962)
Nina’s Choice (1963)
Nina Simone in Concert (1964)
I Put a Spell on You (1965)
Sincerely Nina (1965)
Pastel Blues (1965)
Nina Simone with Strings (1966)
Let It All Out (1966)
Wild Is the Wind (1966)
High Priestess of Soul (1967)
Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967)
Silk & Soul (1967)
‘Nuff Said! (1968)
Saga of the Good Life and Hard Times (1968)
Nina Simone and Piano (1969)
To Love Somebody (1969)
A Very Rare Evening (1969)
Gifted and Black (1970)
Black Gold (1970)
Here Comes the Sun (1971)
Emergency Ward (1972)
Sings Billie Holiday – Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Live at Berkeley (1973)
Gospel According to Nina Simone (1973)
It Is Finished (1974)
The Rising Sun Collection Let it Be Me (1980)
Fodder on My Wings (1982)
Nina’s Back (1985)
Live & Kickin (1985)
Let it Be Me-Live at Vine St. (1987)
Live at Ronnie Scott’s (1987)
The Nina Simone Collection (1987)
Compact Jazz (1989)
Live in Germany, October 23, 1989 (1989)
A Single Woman (1993)
Acker, Kerry. Nina Simone. Women in the Arts. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.
Bratcher, Melanie E. The Words and Songs of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone : Sound Motion, Blues Spirit, and African Memory. Studies in African American History and Culture. London: Routledge, 2012.
Cohodas, Nadine. Princess Noire : The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Elliott, Richard. Nina Simone. Icons of Pop Music. Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishing, 2013.
Feldstein, Ruth. How It Feels to Be Free : Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Greig, Charlotte. Icons of Black Music. San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 1999.
Hampton, Sylvia, David Nathan, and David Nathan. Nina Simone : Break Down & Let It All Out. London, United Kingdom: Sanctuary, 2004.
Kernodle, Tammy L. “‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’: Nina Simone and the Redefining of the Freedom Song of the 1960s.” Journal of the Society for American Music 2 (3). Cambridge University Press (2008): 295–317.
Simone, Nina, and Stephen Cleary. I Put a Spell on You : The Autobiography of Nina Simone. 1st Da Capo Press ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993.
Tillet, S. (2014). “Strange sampling: Nina Simone and her hip-hop children.” American Quarterly, 66(1). (2014)119-137, 260.