Nina Simone was a legendary musician known as the “High Priestess of Soul” because of her hypnotizing voice and ability to make the listener become completely absorbed in her music. Her first hit was “I Loves You Porgy” in 1959, and it made the Top 10 charts. Over the course of her musical career, Nina produced 40 original albums, and she is still remembered today for her unique voice and role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Nina was born in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21, 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon– “Nina Simone” was her stage name. She started playing the piano, learning by ear, when she was 3 years old. Her mother was a Methodist minister, and Nina played piano for her church growing up. Nina started studying classical music when English music teacher Muriel Mazzanovich moved to town, where she studied classical European composers including Bach, Chopin, Brahms, and Beethoven.
Nina graduated as the valedictorian of her high school, and her community raised enough money for her to study music at Julliard in New York City. She moved to Philadelphia after that, and she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music, but she was rejected. She attributes this to her being African American, and one of the first African American women to desire to become a professional classical pianist. Nina did not give up on her music despite these setbacks. She started teaching local students music to make ends meet, and in 1954, she ended up auditioning to sing at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. News about Nina’s talents quickly spread as she took popular songs of the time and gave them unique interpretations in jazz, blues, and classical music.
When Nina was 24, she submitted a demo of songs she recorded, and she was signed by Syd Nathan to the jazz sector of his recording studio, Bethlehem Records. Though Syd tried to control the songs Nina would debut, she ending up picking the music that she had performed at clubs and maintained her autonomy as a musician. At a 13-hour recording session in 1957, Nina recorded “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” a song that was recorded by iconic musicians including Nate King Cole, Count Bassie, and Woody Herman. This song was used in an ad for Chanel in the 1980s, and it made #5 of the British Charts.
In 1959, Nina moved to New York City and signed with Colpix Records, which is part of Columbia Pictures. She released her debut album The Amazing Nina Simone that same year. Nina had a reputation for being an exciting performer to watch during live shows, and she was invited to the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. Her performance was recorded, and the blues single “Trouble in Mind” was released in 1961, which was another charting record for her. Nina was a musician of all styles, and because she incorporated bits and pieces of everything in her work, critics were often frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t put a straightforward label on her. Nina played popular songs, children’s song, and spirituals in a classical style that also had a strong jazz sounds, as well as influences from blues.
Nina really began to attract global attention when she signed with Philips, a division of Mercury Records, in 1964 with the release of the LP, In Concert. This album showed Nina’s stand for justice and her advocacy in the US Civil Rights Movement. She recorded songs for Philips including “Four Women” and “Strange Fruit,” which was first performed by Billie Holiday in 1939. You can watch Nina’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” here!
Nina was one of the few musicians at the time to use her music to advocate for change and justice. “I Put a Spell on You,” “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” and “Mississippi Goddamn” were also songs that Nina sang to advocate for social change. Nina was actually very reluctant to write and sing protest songs, but the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers and the Alabama church bombings affected her deeply, and she threw herself into music that would contribute to the Civil Rights Movement.
Nina continued to sing and record charting music that captivated audiences though her mesmerizing voice and songs with themes that deeply connected to listeners. Nina died in her sleep on April 21, 2003, and her legacy as an activist continues to be remembered and revered to this day.
If you’re interested in learning more about Nina Simone and her music, look up the songs mentioned here, and check out the sources linked below! You can also take a look at ASI’s page on Nina Simone from our celebration of MLK Day!