Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, February 21, 1935, in Tyron, NC; daughter of Mary Kate (a minister) and John Divine (a performer, dry cleaner, barber, and truck driver) Waymon; married Don Ross, 1958 (divorced, 1959); married Andrew Stroud, 1961 (divorced c. 1970); children: (second marriage) Lisa Celeste. Education: Studied piano with Muriel Massinovitch, Joyce Carrol, Dr. Carl Friedburg, and Vladimir Sokhaloff; attended Juilliard School of Music, 1950-51. Addresses: Record company-- Elektra Entertainment, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
For more than three decades Nina Simone's remarkable career has been fueled by an unswerving resolve to do things her own way. Noted for her soul-stirring voice and eclectic musical meanderings, Simone's music has often been overshadowed by her controversial politics and dedication to the black power movement of the 1960s. Combining elements of classical, jazz, African folk, blues, gospel, and pop, her music has been exceptionally difficult to categorize and attempts to label her a "jazz singer" have met with Simone's angry accusations of racial pigeon-holing. Though her caustic demeanor and outspoken opinions have left many critics divided, the temperamental diva has always possessed an uncanny ability to connect with her audience.
Critics who have followed Simone's career for the last 30 years offer testimony of her erratic talents. John S. Wilson of the New York Times stated in 1960 that Simone "defies easy classification." He found pop, jazz, folk, and theater music in her work, but added that she has a singular talent for slipping in and out of these classifications, and making her music unique. "[By] the time she has finished turning a song this way and that way, poking experimentally into unexpected crannies she finds in it, or suddenly leaping on it and whaling the daylights out of it, the song has lost most of its original coloration and has become, one might say, Simonized."
Five years later, Wilson elaborated on Simone's methodology. He noted "her ability to appear to be playing piano and singing in a very casual manner even within what is obviously a carefully constructed format.... She sits at the piano, idly fingering the keys, humming, murmuring, talking and singing a lyric that gradually shapes into a melody that ... she molds and builds with great deliberation and skill." Though in 1978, Wilson found Simone a somewhat more spontaneous presence. He said of her performance of the song "Everything Must Change," "[It] grew in the classic Simone manner from a mumble and a quaver through an intense, breathy declaration, swelling to a shout that burst into gospel excitement that swept the audience into the performance."
Wilson articulated the overlap of Simone's personality and musical method. Of a 1979 performance he opined in the New York Times, "Miss Simone is still, as she always has been, an angry woman." Sometimes that anger could be harnessed to produce a stunning performance, Wilson explained, but in this particular case, "her anger was focused on personal annoyances and, instead of stimulating her performance, it tended to stifle it." This is, of course, the entertainer's burden, one which Simone actively publicized and made no effort to hide.
Indeed, sometimes her powerful sense of self-worth and privilege worked very much to her advantage. As Don Shewey described in the Village Voice in 1983, "She's not a pop singer, she's a diva, a hopeless eccentric ... who has so thoroughly co-mingled her odd talent and brooding temperament that she has turned herself into a force of nature, an exotic creature spied so infrequently that every appearance is legendary." That same year, New York Times music critic Stephen Holden called Simone "obstreperous and brilliant," venturing, "Rooted in extreme emotional ambivalence, her performances have the aura of sacramental rites, in which a priestess and her flock work to establish a mystical communion."
Over the years critics have praised Simone's innate ability to interpret the work of others. Among her most moving pieces have been songs previously recorded by more mainstream artists. Holden reported, "Repeatedly, Miss Simone took familiar material and recharged it with her ferocious pianism and radically personal interpretations." She turned the ubiquitous "My Way" into "an outspoken feminist anthem," and Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" into "an autobiographical epic that recounts the death of her father and its emotional aftermath with an astonishing candor." Don Shewey elaborated that when Simone sings "My Way," "she means every word of it just as much as when she slams the piano on 'Pirate Jenny,' stares down white America with serene implacability, and hisses 'That'll learn ya!'"
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tyron, North Carolina, Simone displayed an astonishing musical aptitude at a very early age. In her 1991 autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, the roots of her anger and frustration are evident as Simone details growing up amid an atmosphere of racism, poverty, and oppression. The Depression-era South provided little encouragement for the young prodigy who, by the age of five, understood Bach to be technically perfect. "When you play Bach's music," she explained, "you have to understand that he's a mathematician and all the notes you play add up to something--they make sense. They always add up to climaxes, like ocean waves getting bigger and bigger until after a while when so many waves have gathered you have a great storm."
For many years Simone aspired to be the first black classical pianist. In the early 1950s she attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music on a one-year scholarship, but was later denied a scholarship to another academy she had hoped to attend. Philadelphia's Curtis School of Music informed her that she was not talented enough to attend, but Simone has always viewed the rejection as a clear-cut case of racism. It is a snub that has haunted her through the years. In a 1985 statement, the Minnesota Daily quoted her recollection of the incident. "I never thought about being black 'til I went up for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute," Simone revealed. "I was too good not to get it, but they turned me down ... I couldn't get over it (then), I haven't got over it now."
Disillusioned, Simone set aside her dreams of a classical career and began to shape her own unique sound in the bars and nightclubs of Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Because her devoutly religious mother considered pop music "sinful," Eunice Waymon changed her name to Nina Simone in an effort to spare her any embarrassment. Combining a rebellious blend of music and emotion, and using classical piano as her main instrumentation, she built upon that foundation. Drawing from a wide range of musical styles, the songstress began to weave intricate patterns of vocal overlay into her pieces. Simone described her earliest performances of the late 1950s, recalling, "I knew hundreds of popular songs and dozens of classical pieces, so what I did was combine them: I arrived prepared with classical pieces, hymns and gospel songs and improvised on those, occasionally slipping in a part from a popular tune."
During the 1960s, the socially conscious musician turned her attention to the civil rights movement, loudly denouncing the treatment of blacks in the U.S. Her untiring devotion to the Black Panthers won the admiration of fellow advocates, including Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry. As her music became angrier, acquiring a sharper, more jagged edge, critics struggled to understand the artist as well as her art.
In 1974 John Rockwell maintained in the New York Times, "Miss Simone's unwillingness to compromise, artistically, financially or personally, can be seen as heroic--as the firm refusal of an artist, a woman and a black, to bow to forces she feels are threatening her." Some felt personally affronted and expressed anger and resentment. Disappointed by a particular performance in 1971, Mike Jahn lamented in the New York Times, "It is easy for Nina Simone to be a magnificent artist. She has been many times. It is just as easy for her to be proud and dignified, in keeping both with the level of her artistry, and with the richness of the culture of which she is so justly proud. Why she chose not to do so is unfathomable and sad." Such controversy has kept a spotlight on Simone throughout her career.
Though music critics have tended to underplay its significance, Simone highlights the importance of politics in her musical career. She attributes her activism particularly to her friendship with Lorraine Hansberry, the author of the 1958 play Raisin in the Sun. The infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four school-age girls, inspired Simone's hit "Mississippi Goddamn," as well as a more entrenched commitment to the civil rights struggle. 'Nuff Said! was recorded two days after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and includes a live set specifically inspired by his death. As far as Simone was concerned, the civil rights movement gave her music something that had been missing until that point--relevance.
The turbulence of the 1960s visited Simone's personal life as a series of setbacks and tragedies took their toll. She was divorcing her second husband, Andrew Stroud, a New York City police detective, when her father, from whom she'd been estranged, passed away after a lingering illness. At about the same time, the I.R.S charged her with non-payment of taxes. Bitter and alienated, Simone began a nomadic life of self-imposed exile. Following her divorce from Stroud she moved to Barbados. In 1974, on the advice of friend Miriam Makeba, she settled in Liberia where she spent two years discovering an unprecedented sense of home and belonging as well as a profound spirituality. Years of subsequent wanderings took her to Switzerland, the U.K., and the south of France, which she now calls home.
A new generation of fans were exposed to Simone's work when Chanel used one of her old songs in a 1987 ad campaign. "My Baby Just Cares for Me," a reworked standard from her first album, became a mega-hit in Europe. Six years later she displayed her acting abilities in Point of No Return, a 1993 spy thriller to which Simone was also the main musical contributor.
After nearly 20 years without a major recording, Simone signed with Elektra Records in 1993 and released A Single Woman, produced by Andre Fischer, Grammy-winning producer of Natalie Cole's Unforgettable. Although some expressed reservations, most critics welcomed the recalcitrant diva back with open arms. The disc featured a 48-piece string section and offered three cuts inspired by Frank Sinatra, two re-recordings of songs dating from the 1960s, and one Simone original, the persuasive "Marry Me." Musician' s Kristine McKenna called the album "a classy piece of work" and noted, "It's on 'Just Say I Love Him' that Simone casts her spell most completely. The phrasing, inflection and timbre of her voice absolutely impeccable, she winds her way through its haunting melody like a purring cat."
The kudos and new-found popularity have not in any way mellowed Simone's fiery passion or temperament. She maintains a baffling ambivalence toward her fans, caring little for others' expectations, conforming to no one's standards but her own. Through a long and controversial career she has been intensely dedicated to the pursuit of artistic and political freedom. But to many critics she remains a puzzle. Commenting on the enigmatic musician in Pulse!, Norman Weinstein mused, "Who knows what psychological rites of passage Simone passes through in order to work her magic? And who knows what trials she believes her audience must endure in order to be moved by the spirit infusing her music? One thing is certain. She'll put you under her spell with her vision of the heart's gospel truth."
by Diane Moroff
Nina Simone's Career
Accompanied church choir on piano as a child; accompanist at Arlene Smith Studio, Philadelphia, mid-1950s; formed accompanist business; performer at Midtown Bar and Grill, Atlantic City, NJ, 1954; performed at various clubs in Philadelphia, 1956; began performing at supper clubs in New York City and upstate New York; signed with Bethlehem Records, 1957; released Little Girl Blue, 1958; signed with Columbia Pictures Records (Colpix), 1959, and released The Amazing Nina Simone; performed at New York City Town Hall, 1959; traveled to Nigeria with American Society of African Culture, 1961; signed with Philips Records, 1963, and RCA Records, 1966; made Carnegie Hall Debut, New York City, 1965; played frequently at the Village Gate, New York City; toured widely throughout Europe and the U.S. Author (with Stephen Cleary) of autobiography I Put a Spell on You, Pantheon, 1991. Appeared in film Point of No Return, 1993.
- Selective Works
- Little Girl Blue Bethlehem, 1958, resissued, 1993.
- Nina Simone and Her Friends Bethlehem, 1958.
- The Amazing Nina Simone Colpix, 1959.
- Nina Simone at Town Hall Colpix, 1959.
- Live at the Village Gate Colpix, 1960.
- Nina Sings Ellington Colpix, 1962.
- 'Nuff Said! RCA, 1968.
- Baltimore CTI, 1978.
- Fodder in Her Wings Carrere, 1982.
- Let It Be Me Verve, 1987.
- Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood Mercury, 1989.
- Live Zeta, 1990.
- Nina Simone Bella Musica, 1990.
- The Best of Nina Simone Sound, 1991.
- The Blues Novus, 1991.
- Songs of the Poets: Dylan, Harrison and Simone Edsel (U.K), 1992.
- Nina Simone Royal Collection, 1992.
- Best of Capitol, 1993.
- Broadway-Blues-Ballads reissued, Verve, 1993.
- Something to Live For Drive, 1993.
- A Single Woman Elektra, 1993.
- High Priestess of Soul Polydor.
- I Put a Spell on You Polydor.
- Let It All Out Polydor.
- Pastel Blues Polydor.
- Wild Is the Wind Polydor.
- Simone, Nina, with Stephen Cleary, I Put a Spell on You, Pantheon Books, 1991.
- Periodicals Billboard, May 29, 1993.
- Blues & Soul, March 30, 1993.
- Coda, October/November 1987.
- Details, September 1993.
- Emerge, August 1992.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 30, 1993.
- Melody Maker, July 9, 1988.
- Minnesota Daily (University of MN; Minneapolis), April 15, 1993.
- Musician, November 1993.
- New York Times, October 22, 1960; January 16, 1965; May 11, 1971; October 12, 1971; July 1, 1974; December 12, 1978; February 24, 1979; June 6, 1983; March 11, 1985; August 8, 1993.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, April 21, 1993.
- Playboy, September 1993.
- Pulse!, November 1993.
- Request, September 1993.
- Rolling Stone, November 11, 1993.
- Village Voice, December 18, 1970; June 21, 1983.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from an RCA Records press file, 1968, and an Elektra Entertainment artist biography, 1993.