This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Eunice Kathleen Waymon, known professionally as Nina Simone, was born on Feb. 21, 1933, to a family of 10 in Tyron, N.C. At around the age of three, Simone began to play piano, and it soon became her dream to become a concert pianist. Demonstrating her inherent talent, Simone began performing at her local church, and made her first classical recital performance debut at the mere age of 12. During this performance, Simone had her first profound encounter with racial discrimination when her parents were forced from the front rows of the recital hall to the back, in order to make room for white patrons. Confused and enraged, Simone repeatedly refused to play until her parents were moved back to their original seats in the front row. This incident was a pivotal moment in Simone’s life, and her profound passion to advocate for Black rights in America ensued. (Her music recorded during the Civil Rights Movement would be a large extension of this.)
In her teenage years, Simone went on to study classical music at the Juilliard School in New York with the help of some of her supporters in her home town. By 1954, she had accepted a job playing piano at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, N.J., where the owner expected her to play and sing. At twenty years old, Simone had never sang and performed in public, but after her debut, she became an instant success. Word began to spread about this “prolific songwriter” and “generous interpreter of music from various genres.” Simone often transformed popular tunes of the day into unique syntheses of jazz, blues, gospel, and folk music. She became revered for her “rich, deep velvet vocal tones,” combined with her mastery of the keyboard.
By the age of 24, Simone caught the eye of several recording companies, and after submitting a demo of songs she had recorded in New Hope, Penn., she was signed by Syd Nathan (owner of King Records) to his jazz imprint, Bethlehem Records. Her time with the record label was short lived, and in 1959, Simone relocated to New York City and signed by Joyce Selznick, a talent scout for Colpix Records. Soon after her debut LP for the label (titled The Amazing Nina Simone), she began to play at her first major NYC venue, the Manhattan Town Hall.
Simone’s stay with Colpix records resulted in nine successful studio albums. It was during the Civil Rights Movement era of the 1960s that some of Simone’s most powerful and notable songs were recorded. Some of these include I Put a Spell on You (1964), To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1966) and, of course, protest songs such as Mississippi Goddamn (1963). After fading from the radar during much of the 1970s, she made a comeback in Europe with her song My Baby Just Cares for Me in 1987. This song put her back on the map in smaller countries around the world, and also in the United States. By the 1980s, her selection of songs “ranged from rock and roll to Beatles and Bee Gees tunes,” including her rendition of the song To Love Somebody.
By the 1990s, Simone had lived and travelled in countries throughout Europe, had two marriages behind her, and an undeniably successful career. At the age of 70, she died in her sleep at her home in France on April 21, 2003.