Nina Simone - Biography
Truly in a musical class by herself, never compromising her uniqueness for commercial gain, Nina Simone is one of the most chameleon-like musicians in history, trying on all kinds of different hats and fitting well in all of them. She has been considered a jazz singer, a pop singer, a blues singer, and a soul singer. These transitions were always made rapidly, as Simone released nearly 50 albums in her four-decade long career and many of these LPs contain these different styles within them. The songstress never fully made it to the big time, and one can argue that she is still more of a really well-respected cult figure, like Tom Waits, than a star. All the same, she was iconic in her personal life as well as in her music. Her eccentricity and stubbornness, two reasons why she is so memorable, were also her worst enemies at times, getting her into trouble throughout her career with her fans, her finances, and the law.
Nina Simone was born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21st, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. One of eight children, Simone grew up in a house where there was always noise, always music. She had rudimentary skills on the piano by the age of four, and a financial fund to heighten this talent was set up in Eunice's name by her mother's employer, who encouraged the passion for music in the young girl. By age ten, she gave her first recital and played superbly. Her success on the keys that evening was not what made it memorable, however; Simone's parents were forced to leave their front row seats and watch the performance from the back of the hall, giving the young pianist her first personal taste of the bewildering civil injustice that would become a major concern of hers by the height of her career.
In her mind, Simone was well on her way to becoming a classical pianist and little besides. She attended Juilliard School of Music, a rare occurrence for a black woman in the 1950's. Her family took her to Philadelphia after her schooling, where she applied to do further studying at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. The school denied her admittance, citing that her skills on the piano were not of Curtis caliber. Simone saw it differently, and was sure the denial was based purely on her race. So that she wouldn't go broke, she worked as a piano accompanist and a teacher of the instrument as well. She found a regular gig at nearby Atlantic City's Midtown Bar & Grill, which proved to be fateful for her; the club owner gave her the job on the condition that she would sing, not just play the piano. She agreed to these terms, soon enough finding herself entertaining crowds of people on a regular basis and, so her mother wouldn't find out, she did so under the pseudonym of Nina Simone; “Nina” meaning “Little one,” and “Simone” because of the actress Simone Signoret.
From there, she built a name for herself as, not just a pianist, but a secular singer, playing in clubs throughout Philadelphia. Bethlehem Records, a subsidiary of the popular King label, gave Simone a recording contract and a session in which she recorded 14 tracks. What resulted was the young singer's debut album, Little Girl Blue (1957, Bethlehem). Also known as Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, the debut gave her the only top 40 song she would ever release, a cover of George Gershwin's “I Loves You Porgy” (2 R&B, 18 pop). She then switched to the Stu Phillips-founded Colpix label, releasing both The Amazing Nina Simone and Nina Simone at Town Hall, one of her finest recordings, in 1957 on her new label. Simone belonged among the fervent nightclub crowd, and she was not a slave to the single, the way so many of her contemporaries were. Her respect was for the album, of which she put out nine in the early 60's alone, including Nina Simone at Newport (1960, Colpix), Forbidden Fruit (1961, Colpix), and Nina Sings Ellington! (1962, Colpix), a collection of songs by Duke Ellington. Nina Simone at Newport went to number 23 on the pop charts. Simone would break the top 100 of the Billboard pop album charts only once more, when I Put a Spell on You went to number 99 in 1965. In 1961, Simone married her manager Andy Stoud, a former detective, and a year later, the couple welcomed a daughter, Lisa Celeste Stoud.
1963 saw the release of Nina's Choice (Colpix), which included “Trouble in Mind,” a successful R&B single, charting at 11. Simone peaked as a creative force in the mid-60's, when she left Colpix in favor of Philips, releasing seven albums in three years. For an artist to saturate the market with her own material in such a way is a bold move, as it might result in a thinning, bored audience. Simone did not care about the implications, and continued to be prolific in her recording. She was not crazy about writing her own material, however, and would often choose to use the words of others to get her messages across. When she did try her hand at the craft, she nailed it, as on the classics “Old Jim Crow,” “Go Limp,” and “Mississippi Goddam.” The latter song was written in light of murderous events in Alabama and Mississippi, and all three songs are bitter accounts of racial injustice, appearing on Nina Simone in Concert (1964), her debut for Philips. Simone was becoming more and more invested in the civil rights movement of the 60's, and her mid-60's output reflected her concerns. She released I Put a Spell on You (Philips) in 1965, which contained original songs by Stoud.
The Billie Holiday-informed Pastel Blues (1965, Philips) followed, a number 8 R&B album that contained one of Simone's most popular songs, a ten-minute, manic version of the traditional “Sinnerman.” On that album's heels was Let it All Out, which came in 1966 on Philips, and then High Priestess of Soul (1966, Philips), which was possibly Simone's greatest album achievement. She had come to be called the “High Priestess of Soul,” and this LP saw her embodying that role while at the summit of her powers. This also marked her final release for the label that had put out some of her best work. Simone switched to RCA in the late 60's for the release of Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1966, RCA), a Simone classic that ranks among her best. She released nine albums very quickly for the label, and a string of them were uninspired and not up to the par of her previous Philips output. Simone had become enamored with the sounds of Dylan and the Byrds, and so she covered their songs to results that were often very good, but occasionally awkward.
In the late 60's, she had hits in Britain with “Ain't Got No/I Got Life” from the Hair musical and a cover of the Bee Gee's “To Love Somebody,” off her 1969 mostly-covers album of the same name (RCA). She wrote “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” with Weldon Irvine, Jr., which reached number 8 on the R&B charts and went on to be covered by Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. In the late 70's, she divorced from her husband and manager, Andy Stroud, and was dealt some severe financial problems including the loss of her home to the IRS. She began to move around a lot, living in Barbados, Switzerland, France, Britain, and Liberia. She was arrested in 1978 for early 70's tax evasion, but was quickly released. She had left RCA and was recording very little, but did issue Baltimore (CTI) in 1978, which was well thought of by critics, peaking at 12 on the jazz charts. Simone panned her own album, however, shortly after its release.
The singer released Fodder on My Wings in 1982 for the Carrere label, a noteworthy effort because Simone wrote every song except for one. Most of the 80's were otherwise very quiet for Simone, but in 1987, she reemerged in popularity when her 1958 single “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” was a surprise hit in Britain after its use in a perfume commercial. She kept out of the studio for a time after that, and wrote an autobiography called I Put a Spell on You, publishing it in 1991. In 1993, her new album, A Single Woman (Elektra/Asylum) Simone's return to a major label in America, came out and peaked at number 3 on the jazz charts. By now, Simone was considered to be more of a jazz artist than any other kind. Several of her songs were used in the 1993 Bridget Fonda film, Point of No Return, in which Simone and her music play a central role.
By the late 90's, Simone's physical condition had become noticeably deteriorated, and she had to be helped on stage at a performance at Carnegie Hall in 2001, often resting in a wheelchair when not performing. Having spent most of her retirement in Carry-Le-Rouet, France, Simone died there at her home on April 21st, 2003.