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Who is Nina Simone?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2014
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Often dubbed the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone often refused to allow her music to be stereotyped, although if pressed, Simone would often identify her style as Black Classical music. Here is some background on the life and career of Eunice Waymon, who made a lasting impression under the name of Nine Simone.

Born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon on 21 February 1933, Nina Simone spent her early years in Tryon, North Carolina as one of eight children. From an early age, Eunice demonstrated musical ability, especially with the piano. At a young age, she began to play for church and later competed in local contests to great success. One of her loves was classical music. By the time she was ten years old, Simone was ready for her first classical recital. The event also marked her first stand against racial bigotry. During her performance, her parents were moved from the front row to the back, in order to make room for white patrons. Simone refused to continue with the recital until her parents were restored to their original seats.

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After graduation, Waymon moved to Atlantic City and began to play in local bars. In order to protect her parents from knowing that their little girl was honing her vocal and instrumental talents in an environment considered to be unacceptable, she created the stage persona of Nina Simone. Nina was actually a term of endearment bestowed upon Waymon by a boyfriend, and Simone was selected as homage to the popular French actress Simone Signoret. By 1954, Simone had established a solid act that included jazz, classical, and blues selections.

The recording world was ready for Nine Simone by the late 1950’s. With a small but loyal fan base, Simone attracted the attention of record producers, who arranged for her to record enough material for an album. A single, “I Loves You Porgy,” was released in 1958 and made the American Top 40. Shortly afterward, Simone’s first album was released on the Bethlehem Records label. Titled Little Girl Blue after one of the cuts on the album, the LP sold well. Unfortunately, Simone had sold her rights to the recordings, so all she ever received for the work was flat pay of $3000 US dollars (USD). The album went on to generate over a million dollars USD in revenue.

Still, the buzz about Nina Simone was sufficient to land her a more lucrative recording contract with the larger Colpix Records. In return for signing on, Simone received full creative control and rights to her work. Between 1959 and 1964, Nina Simone recorded a number of popular albums on Colpix, which greatly enhanced her reputation as both a jazz singer and a jazz musician. The quality of her work attracted a number of young fans across the country, including a young Janis Joplin, who would later cover Simone’s "Little Girl Blue" in 1969.

After leaving Colpix in 1964, Nina Simone became more active in the Civil Rights Movement, adding her voice to many others calling for full integration of society in the United States. While continuing to record, Simone also began to sing at rallies and other events that featured a wide range of activists. Her music also became a means of reaching out to others about the ills of segregation, utilizing such contemporary events as the Jim Crow laws and the Birmingham church bombing as subject matter.

In later years, Nina Simone continued to inspire young musicians and social activists alike. While her recording career after 1974 slowed down a great deal, she continued to release new material until 1993. Her music enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the 1980s, leading to the re-release of her works from the 1950s and 1960s. After retiring from performing in the early 1990s, Nina Simone began to write her autobiography, which was released in 1997.

Around the time of publication of her biography, Nina Simone was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next few years, she engaged in treatments, but ultimately the disease brought about her death. Nina Simone passed away on 21 April 2003, while sleeping in her home. Hundreds of admirers attended her funeral service, a fitting tribute to a performer who had given so much during her lifetime.

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