“…when you’ve got the audience hooked, you always know because it’s like electricity hanging in the air.” —Nina Simone
I first heard the eclectic and delightfully eccentric singer Nina Simone at university. You might hear a song like My Baby Just Cares for Me and live your life beyond it and never really get what it was on about until one day it affects you differently. It was catchy and cheerful and the piano sounded as if the singer were strolling down a street. Nina’s deep voice sang smoothly and confidently over a jazzy piano backbone of classical music.
It was a time when my musical repertoire was expanding. I was a DJ at the radio station there and was being exposed to a wide variety of music. If an artist was particularly good, their work wouldn’t stay long on the playlist as someone would inevitably “liberate” it from the library. I was lucky enough to find a misplaced copy of Little Girl Blue among the independent grunge music. I had found the “High Priestess of Soul,” a masterful jazz storyteller (as James Brown was the “Godfather of Soul.”). She was taking the music to another level; one that was hypnotic and endearing.
She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21st, 1933. As a child, she was able to play piano by ear. Both her mother and father were involved in the church (her mother was a Methodist minister), and Nina played piano there. Her talent was exceptional and she studied classical music with Muriel Mazzanovich, an Englishwoman who had recently moved to Tryon. Nina’s lifelong affinity for classical composers such as Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert began there.
Nina was destined for a successful career as a classical pianist, but high hopes came crashing down when she was refused admission to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Despite her clear talent, receiving a scholarship, and graduating as the valedictorian of her class, her dreams were sidetracked. Nina declared that it was racism, pure and simple, that prevented her admission to the school. She taught music to local students to survive, and played classical, blues and jazz music in the bars of Atlantic City, where she amassed a following.
She signed to Bethlehem Records and recorded My Baby Just Cares for Me in 1957 at a 13 hour New York studio session. In 1959 she moved to New York and signed with Colpix Records (Columbia). Her live performances reinforced her spontaneous and empowering persona, one that would continue to challenge her audience. Her involvement with the growing civil rights movement was brave and in her autobiography I Put A Spell on You, she said:
“…it was difficult [for critics] because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz. On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances … songs automatically identified with the folk movement .. there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.”
This contributes to her lasting appeal. She crossed genres effortlessly and stamped a song with her own infectious interpretation. She signed with Phillips Records in 1964, and recorded Mississippi Goddam, which was banned in the southern US. Her music had become politically charged and dangerous, and she said:
“…nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning … ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me … I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate … the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”
She made many songs, but particularly striking ones include classics like I Put a Spell on You, Feeling Good, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Ne Me Quitte Pas, Here Comes the Sun, Just Like a Woman, and See-Line Woman.
In the 1970s and 80s, she traveled extensively around the world. When CTI approached her to make another album, she recorded it in Belgium and it was mixed in New York. It included elaborate songs such as Baltimore. She later said she hated the album despite its brilliance.
She recorded some live albums, and after having married and divorced (twice) she settled in Carry-le-Rout, near Aix-en-Provence in 1993 in Southern France. She died there on April 21, 2003.
Her empowering and genre-defying music lives on.