Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina during the Great Depression. Simone’s mother, Mary Kate Waymon, was a Methodist minister and housekeeper and her father, John Divine Waymon, worked as a handyman and part-time minister. At three years old, Eunice displayed musical talent by playing the piano by ear. At seven, she joined her mother in church by playing the piano at the Sunday services. It was her mother’s employers who heard Eunice playing the piano and arranged for her to study with English pianist Muriel Mazzanovich. She introduced Eunice to the classical masters, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Schubert, from when she was 10 years old until she was 16. Mazzanovich and the local community helped to establish an education fund for her to go to the Allen School of Music in Asheville, and later to the Julliard School of Music in New York.
Eunice spent several years studying music and graduated from the top of her class in high school in North Carolina as a valedictorian. At 17 years old, Eunice went to New York to study classical piano at the Julliard School of Music. She taught piano and worked as an accompanist. While at Julliard, she took the entrance examination at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but the rejection devastated her and caused her to accuse the school of racism many years later.
After her funds ran out, she left New York and relocated to Philadelphia to live with her family. She vowed that she would reapply to Curtis. Determined to support herself, she moved to Atlantic City to play in the night clubs and bars where young musicians found work. It was at the Midnight Bar that she was told she would have to sing as well as play jazz standards. Eunice took the first name that her boyfriend suggested, Nina, and the last name, Simone, from the French actress Simone Signoret. Overnight, Eunice became known professionally as Nina Simone and spent an electric musical career as a black female pianist and singer.
Nina Simone adapted an elegant, crisp vocal sound mixing traditional jazz and the blues, resulting in a loyal following. She played in nightclubs along the East coast, in the New York music scene and overseas in Europe.
In 1957, Simone created a demo tape and signed with Syd Nathan of the Ohio-based King country and blues record label, which was home to James Brown. She signed a contract with their jazz division, Bethlehem Records. It was at Bethlehem Records that she argued for artistic control over the selection of compositions to be recorded. In 1958 she had her first hit with her interpretation of “I Loves You Porgy,” from the George Gershwin folk opera Porgy and Bess and the DuBose Haywood novel Porgy, about the black fishing community of Charlestown, South Carolina. This tender blues pop composition interweaved an elegant modern and traditional piano sound. This single rose to the top 20 of the pop charts in 1958.
Simone followed “I Loves You Porgy” by recording “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” previously recorded by Nat King Cole. This single became a massive overseas hit for Simone and placed No. 5 on the British Pop Charts.
Simone’s stay at Bethlehem Records was short-lived, lasting only two years. She was then signed by Joyce Selznik of Colpix Records, a division of Columbia Pictures. The signing with Colpix Records helped to launch the musical career of a powerful black female voice that displayed not only classical piano technique but also an intelligent sound, which mixed standards with pop and blues. She gained a reputation as a powerful and electric performer. Her second Colpix release, “Nina Simone at Town Hall,” was the first of a long list of live recordings that gave her room to show off her piano and vocal influences. She didn’t achieve another pop hit similar to “I Loves You Porgy” while at Colpix. Two of her following Colpix compositions, “Trouble in Mind” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” entered the pop charts as singles.
In 1964, with the Civil Rights movement underway, Simone left Colpix for Phillips Records. This new record deal coincided with changes in her music, reflecting the ongoing struggles in the Civil Rights movement. She became identified as a voice of the Civil Rights struggle and wrote and performed songs addressing social justice issues. She penned three songs highlighting race, including “Mississippi Goddam” about the Medgar Evers assassination and the Birmingham church burnings, “Four Women,” and “Young, Gifted and Black.” The latter song was inspired by a play by her friend, literary writer and mentor Lorraine Hansberry. Simone had a 1964 hit, “Don’t Le Me Be Misunderstood,” on the British Pop Charts. She would next hit the British and American pop charts with a Screaming Jay Hawkins composition, “I Put A Spell On You.”
In 1967, she struck a new deal with the well-respected RCA Victor. Simone’s RCA work comprised contemporary pop, rock, blues and soul with a progressive music focus. She recorded “Ain’t Got No/ I Got Life” from the musical “Hair.” She also turned her attention to her European career.
As the 1960s came to a close, Simone left the United States, settled in Barbados and divorced her husband and manger Andrew Stroud. Simone took a stand against the U.S. because of its involvement in Vietnam, and refused to pay income taxes. She only came back periodically for concert and recording dates. Simone released her last record with RCA, It Is Finished in 1974. She spent the next eight years touring overseas with occasional concert dates. In between, she recorded the LP Baltimore for Cred Taylor’s CTI label.
Simone’s next recording was “Fodder On my Wings” on the Dutch Carrere Label in 1982. Simone next released an album in 1985 called Live and Kicking for the American VPI label. This was followed by the Verve Let It Be Me in 1989. These releases were followed by a major resurgence in her European career. She also had a top-10 hit on the UK pop charts with “My Baby Just Cares For Me.”
Simone started the 1990s by releasing her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You. She followed this book with a concert tour. Three years later, she signed with the record label Elecktra and released an album called A Single Woman. Simone relocated to France and concentrated on performing in Europe. She continued to perform live in Europe and in the United States until the summer of 2002. Simone’s battle with breast cancer ended April 21, 2003 in Carry-le-Roulet, France. She is survived by a daughter, Lisa Stoud, who took the stage name Simone.