Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, February 21, 1933, in Tryon, NC; died in her sleep of natural causes, April 21, 2003, in Carry–le–Rouet, France. Singer and pianist. Soulful singer Nina Simone had one top–20 hit during her lifetime—a 1959 version of George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy," but her powerful voice and commanding presence has continued to influence other musicians to this day. She blended jazz, blues, gospel, and European art songs with emotional honesty, and in the 1960s, was known for incorporating civil rights protests into her songs.
Simone was the sixth of seven children born to John Divine Waymon, a barber and dry cleaner, and Mary Kate Waymon, a Methodist minister. In her autobiography, You Put a Spell on Me, she wrote, "Everything that happened to me as a child involved music. Everybody played music. There was never any formal training; we learned to play the same way we learned to walk, it was that natural." When she was six years old, Simone became the pianist for her church, but it was apparent that even among her musically talented family, she had a greater gift. Recognizing that Simone would benefit from formal training with a piano teacher, but also realizing that the family could not afford the lessons, Simone's mother arranged to clean the home of a British piano teacher in exchange for lessons for her daughter.
Inspired by the lessons, the talented Simone hoped to be the first African–American concert pianist. She earned a one–year scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, but ran out of money and could not continue studying there. She was not accepted into her dream school, the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; for the rest of her life, she believed racism was the reason for her rejection. She dropped her plans for a classical piano career and began singing in clubs. In 1954, she began playing and singing at the Midtown, an Irish pub in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She took the stage name Simone partly in honor of her favorite actress, Simone Signoret, and partly to hide her nightclub singing from her mother, whose religious sensibilities forbade it.
When she started at the club, she assumed she had been hired simply to play the piano, but the manager explained to her that she had to sing as well as play. She began singing, at first in the style of Billie Holiday and other artists she admired. Although the patrons of the club were often indifferent to her music, she sang what she wanted to hear, often playing in a strictly classical style to accompany her folk, gospel, or jazz–inspired singing. This unique mixture of musical styles became her signature.
Simone's Midtown performances quickly brought her to the attention of jazz fans and record executives; she began singing in Philadelphia, then in Greenwich Village in New York City. In 1958, she was offered her first recording contract, with Bethlehem Records. In 1959, she recorded her most famous song, a rendition of George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy." Other hits included "I Put a Spell on You," "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "Gin House Blues," "Forbidden Fruit," and "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." After leaving Bethlehem Records, she recorded for the Colpix, Philips, and RCA labels and began a thriving concert career.
In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement unfolded, Simone became politically active, and began singing about social issues. When civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated, she wrote "Mississippi Goddam" in protest; she later wrote "Sunday in Savannah" and sang Langston Hughes' "Backlash Blues" in response to continuing racism in American society.
Simone had been married to her manager, Andy Stroud, for a decade by 1970, but the marriage ended in divorce; because of her singing career, she had missed much of her daughter's childhood. In addition, the civil rights movement had lost some of the fire it had held in the 1960s, as many of its heroes died or did not speak out as loudly. Discouraged by this lack of momentum, Simone left the United States, beginning a 15–year period of life as an expatriate in various countries, including Barbados, Liberia, Egypt, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Switzerland; ultimately, in 1994, she settled in the south of France.
In 2000, Simone returned to the United States for a rare appearance at the Wiltern Theatre. Her daughter, Lisa, who uses the single stage name Simone, joined her for several songs. Jazz critic Don Heckman wrote, according to Geoff Boucher in the Los Angeles Times, that the concert was "an experience that has as much to do with a soul–stirring, spirit–raising, shamanistic ritual as it does with a mere program of music.… But she could have come on to a stage with nothing more than her piano and a companion and the crowd would have been just as pleased, the music no less assertive and challenging."
Simone died in her sleep of natural causes on April 21, 2003, at her home in southern France; she was 70. She is survived by three brothers, a sister, and her daughter.
Entertainment Weekly, May 2, 2003; Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2003, p. B11; New York Times, April 22, 2003, p. A27; Ninasimone.com , http://www.ninasimone.com/rca.html (December 30, 2003); Times (London, England), http://www.timesonline.co.uk (April 22, 2003); Washington Post, April 22, 2003, p. B6.
— Kelly Winters