Born: February 21, 1933 | Died: April 21, 2003 Primary Instrument: Piano
The High Priestess -
Eunice Waymon was born in Tryon, North Carolina as the sixth of seven children in a poor family. The child prodigy played piano at the age of four. With the help of her music teacher, who set up the Eunice Waymon Fund, she could continue her general and musical education. She studied at the Julliard School of Music in New York.
To support her family financially, she started working as an accompanist. In the summer of 1954 she took a job in an Irish bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The bar owner told her she had to sing as well. Without having time to realize what was happening, Eunice Waymon, who was trained to become a classical pianist, stepped into show business. She changed her name into Nina (little one) Simone (from the French actress Simone Signoret).
In the late 50's Nina Simone recorded her first tracks for the Bethlehem label. These are still remarkable displays of her talents as a pianist, singer, arranger and composer. Songs as Plain Gold Ring, Don't Smoke In Bed and Little Girl Blue soon became standards in her repertoire.
One song, I Loves You, Porgy, from the opera Porgy and Bess, became a hit and the nightclub singer became a star, performing at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival. Even from the beginning of her career on, her repertoire included jazz standards, gospel and spirituals, classical music, folk songs of diverse origin, blues, pop, songs from musicals and opera, African chants as well as her own compositions.
Combining Bachian counterpoint, the improvisational approach of jazz and the modulations of the blues, her talent could no longer be ignored. Other characteristics of the Simone art are: her original timing, the way she uses silence as a musical element and her often understated live act, sitting at the piano and advancing the mood and climate of her songs by a few chords.
Sometimes her voice changes from dark and raw to soft and sweet. She pauses, shouts, repeats, whispers and moans. Sometimes piano, voice and gestures seem to be separate elements, then, at once, they meet. Add to this all the way she puts her spell on an audience, and you have some of the elements that make Nina Simone into a unique artist.
When four black children were killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham in 1963, Nina wrote Mississippi Goddam, a bitter and furious accusation of the situation of her people in the USA. The strong emotional approach of this song and the others on her first Philips record (Nina Simone In Concert), would become another characteristic in her art. She uses her voice with its remarkable timbre and her careful piano playing as means to achieve her artistic aim: to express love, hate, sorrow, joy, loneliness - the whole range of human emotions - through music, in a direct way.
One moment, she is the actress who turns a Kurt Weill- Bertold Brecht song as Pirate Jenny into great theater, then, after a set of protest songs, she will sing Jacques Brel's fragile love song Ne Me Quitte Pas in French.
Although Nina was called High Priestess of Soul and was respected by fans and critics as a mysterious, almost religious figure, she was often misunderstood as well. When she wrote Four Women in 1966, a bitter lament of four black women whose circumstances and outlook are related to subtle gradations in skin color, the song was banned on Philadelphia and new York radio stations because it was insulting to black people...
The High Priestess would walk different paths to find the adequate music to spread her message. Her first RCA album, Nina Simone Sings The Blues, includes her own I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl, Do I Move You, a haunting version of My Man's Gone Now (again from Porgy & Bess) and the protest song Backlash Blues, based on a poem written for her by Langston Hughes.
Her repertoire includes more Civil Rights songs: Why? The King of Love is Dead, capturing the tragedy of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Brown Baby, Images (based on a Waring Cuney poem), Go Limp, Old Jim Crow, … One song, To be Young, Gifted and Black, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's play with the same title, became the black national anthem in the USA.
She surprised even her most devoted fans with an album on which she sings and plays alone. Nina Simone And Piano!, an introspective collection of songs about reincarnation, death, loneliness and love, is still a highlight in her recording career.
Her gift to give new and deeper dimensions to songs resulted in remarkable versions of Ain't Got No / I Got Life (from the musical Hair), Leonard Cohen's Suzanne, Bee Gees songs as To Love Somebody, the classic My Way done in a tempo doubled on bongos, Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues and four other Bob Dylan songs. This gift culminated on her record Emergency Ward: she set up an atmosphere that left no illusions and no escape, performing two long versions of George Harrison songs: My Sweet Lord (to which she added a David Nelson poem, Today is a Killer) and Isn't it a Pity.
But Nina tried to escape anyway. She felt she had been manipulated. Disgusted with record companies, show business and racism, she left the USA in 1974 for Barbados. During the following years she lived in Liberia, Switzerland, Paris, The Netherlands and finally the South of France, where she is still residing. In 1978 a long awaited new record was released, Baltimore, containing the definite rendition of Judy Collins' My Father and an hypnotizing Everything Must Change.
Her next album, Fodder On My Wings, was recorded in Paris in 1982 and is based on her self-imposed exile from the USA. More than ever determined to make her own music, Nina wrote, adapted and arranged the songs, played piano and harpsichord and sang in English and French. The 1988 CD re-release of this album included some bonus tracks, e.g. her extraordinary version of Alone Again Naturally, reminiscing her father's death.
In 1984, one of her concerts at Ronnie Scott's in London was filmed, resulting in a captivating video, featuring Paul Robinson on drums. A song from her very first record, My Baby Just Cares For Me, became a huge hit and Nina's Back was not only the title of a new album; her concerts would take her all over the world again.
In 1989 she contributed to Pete Townsend's musical The Iron Man. In 1990 she recorded with Maria Bethania; in 1991 with Miriam Makeba. That same year, her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You was published. It was translated into French (Ne Me Quittez Pas), German (Meine Schwarze Seele) and Dutch (I Put A Spell On You, - Herinneringen).
In 1993 a new studio album was released. A Single Woman includes several Rod McKuen songs, Nina's own Marry Me, her version of the French standard Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux and a very moving Papa, Can You Hear Me?
No less than five songs from her repertoire were used in the 1993 motion picture sound track of Point Of No Return (also called The Assassin, code name: Nina). Many other films feature her songs (e.g. Ghosts of Mississippi, 1996: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, Stealing Beauty, 1996: My Baby Just Cares For Me and One Night Stand, 1997: Exactly Like You).
Her music continues to excite new and young listeners. Ain't Got No / I Got Life was a big hit in 1998 in The Netherlands, just as it had been there 30 years before...
Together with her regular accompanists Leopoldo Fleming (percussion), Tony Jones (bass), Paul Robinson (drums), Xavier Collados (keyboards) and her musical director Al Schackman (guitar), she still excites audiences all over the world. At the Barbican Theatre in London in 1997 she sang Every Time I Feel The Spirit as a tribute to one of America's first and foremost leaders in the cause of Civil Rights, peace and brotherhood, singer and actor Paul Robeson. More spirituals and blood songs would follow: Reached Down And Got My Soul, The Blood Done Change My Name and When I See The Blood.
Nina was the highlight of the Nice Jazz Festival in France in 1997, the Thessalonica Jazz Festival in Greece in 1998. At the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin, Ireland in 1999 her daughter, Lisa Celeste, performing as Simone, sang a few duets with her mother. Simone has toured the world, sung with Latin superstar Rafael, participated in two Disney theatre workshops, playing the title role in Aida and Nala in The Lion King. She is currently working on her upcoming debut album, Simone Superstar.
On July 24, 1998 Nina Simone was a special guest at Nelson Mandela's 80th Birthday Party. On October 7, 1999 she received a Lifetime Achievement in Music Award in Dublin.
In 2000 she received Honorary Citizenship to Atlanta (May 26), the Diamond Award for Excellence in Music from the Association of African American Music in Philadelphia (June 9) and the Honorable Musketeer Award from the Compagnie des Mousquetaires d'Armagnac in France (August 7).
Dr. Simone passed away after a long illness at her home in her villa in Carry-le-Rouet (South of France) on April 21, 2003. As she had wished, her ashes were spread in different African countries.
The Diva, who was as well an Honorary Doctor in Music and Humanities, has an unrivalled legendary status as one of the very last 'griots. She is and will forever be the ultimate songstress and storyteller of our times.
By Roger Nupie, President International Dr. Nina Simone Fan Club