Nina Simone was an African-American singer, pianist and civil rights activist. Her birth name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She was born in Tryon, North Carolina to Mary Kate Waymon and John Divine Waymon. She was the sixth of seventh children and the family was quite poor when Simone was growing up. Simone was a talented musician from an early age. Her mother’s employer provided financing for Simone’s musical education by establishing a special fund to help pay for it. She won a scholarship to go to Julliard school of Music to study classical music.
She attended Julliard for a while, but had to leave because her family couldn’t afford her further education. She then moved to Philadelphia where she hoped to enroll at the Curtis Institute of Music. However, much to her disappointment, her application was rejected despite the fact that her audition was impressive. She suspected that this was because of racial reasons. She then turned her attention towards jazz and blues, and began to perform at the popular clubs. It was during this time that she adopted the stage name Nina Simone and also turned her attention to singing. She began to gain attention in local circles and quickly became a rising star.
In the 1950s, Simone joined the Bethlehem label and recorded her first full album in 1958. The album included the hits “I Loves You Porgy”, “Plain Gold Ring” and “Little Girl Blue”. Her music included influences of soul, gospel and folk music as well as classical music which she had studied as a child. She earned the nickname the “High Priestess of Soul” but she disliked that title as she didn’t believe her music could be labeled under the genre of jazz, soul or blues. Simone was an active voice during the Civil Rights movement. She wrote several songs in support of African American solidarity including “Mississippi Goddam” in response to Medgar Evers’s assassination and the Birmingham church bombing. She also wrote “Why (The King of Love Is Dead)” upon the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
During the 1960s, she moved away from the U.S. because she disagreed with the racial politics of the time. She lived in several countries including Liberia, Switzerland, England and Barbados, and eventually the South of France. She covered popular songs of the times including Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” In 1978, she recorded the album “Baltimore” which achieved limited success. She continued to perform actively during the 1980s and 1990s with songs such as “A Single Woman” and “My Baby Just Cares For Me” (which was used for a Chanel perfume ad in the UK and became a top 10 hit there).
She returned to the United States intermittently for some performances and her concerts were always well received. During this time, she also wrote her autobiography called “I Put a Spell on You” which was published in 1992. Simone was known to be hot headed and once tried to shoot a record company executive who accused her of stealing royalties. She did have financial troubles and also had warrants issued by IRS for tax evasion. She once even shot and wounded her neighbor’s son because he disturbed her while she was working. Simone died in 2003 after battling with breast cancer for several years. She is honored as one of the greatest performers of her time, and also received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000. She has also been inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.