“The High Priestess of Soul” shook audiences up, spoke truth to power, befriended Malcolm X, Elton John and David Bowie, and left an unmatched legacy
Nina Simone once said, “I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed – I just want them to go to pieces.”
She got her wish, several thousand times over, during her long musical career. Simone may posthumously get her wish again, as she is among those being considered for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for 2018 (Ed. note – Simone was inducted in 2018). Having inspired generations of activists and musicians—Elton John named a piano after her!—I would say it’s about time she was voted in.
Often referred to as “the high priestess of soul,” Simone (1933-2003) was an African-American musician who refused to confine herself to a specific genre. Her music alternated between blues, classical, jazz, soul, R & B, pop, and world music. In her performances and recordings, she broke the status quo, letting her classical piano training shine through the melody of each song. Although many of her records did not reach the top of the charts, her bold, improvised performances were so compelling that fans would attend her shows in droves—and leave “in pieces.”
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Simone was a key figure in the civil rights movement, which used her recording of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” as an unofficial anthem. Her renditions of “Four Women” and “My Way” also inspired the women’s movement. Despite being crowned “the high priestess of soul,” she preferred to be addressed as “Doctor Nina Simone,” as she was awarded honorary degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Malcolm X College.
“We encountered many people who were after our hides…and I was excited by it though, because I felt more alive then than I feel now, because I was needed. And I could sing something to help my people. And that became the mainstay of my life.” – Nina Simone
In 2015, Netflix broadcast the Liz Garbus-directed documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which focuses on the highs and lows of Simone’s career and boasts interviews with Nina, her family, and fellow civil rights activists. The film was nominated for an Academy Award and director Garbus won a Primetime Emmy Award.
Simone once said, “I always thought that I was shaking people up. But now I wanna go at it more, and I wanna go at it more deliberately, and I wanna go at it coldly. I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed – I just want them to go to pieces.”
She was born Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina to descendants of slaves. Her father, John, was a handyman who moonlighted as a preacher, and her mother Kate was a Methodist minister who worked as a housekeeper for a white family in Tryon. According to Eunice’s brother, Carol Waymon, their father “could sing and dance. In fact, he and mother started out as a dance duo.”
Eunice began playing the piano at age 3, often climbing onto the piano bench at church and performing gospel songs for the adoring churchgoers. When she was 11, she was scheduled to give a piano recital at her local library. To her dismay, she watched as her parents were told to move to the back row to make room for a white couple in the front row. Eunice would not stand for this social injustice. She told the organizer of the recital that she would not play a note until her parents were moved back to the front row. Perhaps surprised by the girl’s persistence, the organizers moved her parents back to the front row to watch their daughter perform her piece. This incident left a harsh impact on her. In later years, Simone would recount in her memoirs, “the skin grew back a little tougher, a little less innocent, a little more black.”
Because her parents were once entertainers, Eunice’s musical gift was encouraged and she often played at the services where her mother preached. Eventually, her mother’s employer offered to pay for piano lessons, and her music teacher organized a local fund for her education, which she gratefully accepted. Her lessons with teacher Muriel Mazzanovich opened up a new world for her. Inspired by Bach, Chopin, and Beethoven, Simone dreamed of becoming America’s first black female concert pianist.
When Eunice graduated high school, bearing the title of valedictorian, she enrolled in a summer program at Juilliard, studying under German pianist Carl Friedberg. With her heart set on attending the Curtis Institute of Music in Pennsylvania, she became a pupil of pianist Vladimir Sokoloff, an instructor at the Curtis Institute. It was during this time that her family relocated to Philadelphia to be closer to her college. Her parents and siblings were sure that her acceptance to the Curtis Institute was “in the bag.” A few months later, despite Eunice’s outstanding audition, her application to the school was denied. Her brother Carol recalled, “The reason she was not admitted was because she was black. And most of all because she was a young black woman.”
Though her dreams were shattered (or so she thought), Eunice began to give piano lessons to earn money. She was surprised to learn that one of her students was being paid more than she was for playing the piano at nightclubs in Atlantic City. In 1954, Eunice traveled to the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, hoping to be employed as a pianist. The owner of the bar was eager to hire her, provided that she would incorporate singing into her act. Although Eunice had never sung before, she accepted the job, presenting herself to the public as Nina Simone. Niña, meaning little in Spanish, and Simone, after the French actress Simone Signoret. Her brother, Sam Waymon, recalled, “She changed her name. She became Nina Simone because she didn’t want her mom to know that she was playing and singing what my mother then called ‘devil’s music’.”
Once Simone became established in Atlantic City, she began to perform the works of Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rogers in cabarets around New York and Philadelphia. In 1958, Simone was approached by Syd Nathan, owner of King Records, who signed her to his jazz label, Bethlehem. That same year, she released her debut album, Little Girl Blue, on the Bethlehem label. Her version of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” became a hit, launching her career in the United States. Although she didn’t stay with Bethlehem for long, she was adamant about choosing her own material, which Nathan reluctantly agreed to.
In 1960, after a short marriage to a man named Don Ross, Simone married police detective Andy Stroud, with whom she would have one daughter, Lisa. Although Stroud was physically and psychologically abusive toward his wife and daughter, he quit his job to become Simone’s manager.
On April 12, 1963, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and jailed along with protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone played a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. Two months after the incident, she performed “Brown Baby” to a packed stadium at a black college outside Birmingham. The mistreatment of Martin Luther King Jr. left a harsh impact on Simone. Here she was singing jazz and blues numbers to overwhelmingly white audiences at concert halls while innocent people, her people, were being jailed for protesting for the right to be treated as citizens of this country. Simone handled this social injustice by protesting her way – through song. Because she realized her record label (Colpix by then) would not allow her to record politically-themed songs, she moved to the Dutch Philips label.
“Old Jim Crow, you know it’s true. When you hurt my brother, you hurt me too. Old Jim Crow don’t you know, it’s all over now. Old Jim Crow, I thought I had you beat. Now I see you walkin’ and talkin’ up and down my street. Old Jim Crow don’t you know, it’s all over now.” – Nina Simone, ‘Old Jim Crow’
Freed from the genre confinements of Colpix, Simone performed “Old Jim Crow” and “Images” to a mostly white audience at the Village Gate in New York that same year. Village Gate owner Art D’Lugoff proclaimed, “It was almost always electric, exciting. You never knew what she would do….she had the most unusual vocal arrangements, the musical arrangements. I don’t think anyone in the world could get people as excited as she did.” She debuted a provocative new song, “Four Women,” for a white audience in Holland. It was clear from the lyrics (“My father was rich and white, he forced my mother late one night”) was about rape. Stroud feared if she performed the songs, her records would be banned or, worse, she would be blacklisted. Indeed, “Four Women” was banned from the playlists of many radio stations.
Nina Performs ‘Four Women’ Live at the Harlem Festival, 1969.
By this time, Simone had befriended key civil rights advocates, like playwright Lorraine Hansberry, novelist James Baldwin and poet Langston Hughes. About Hansberry, Simone said, “We never talked about men or clothes. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution. Real girl’s talk.”
“Miss Simone says something very significant in her song ‘Mississippi Goddam’. She says ‘This country…’ she says ‘This country is built on lies.’” – Stokely Carmichael – What Happened, Miss Simone?
In 1964, the Nina Simone in Concert album was released, and it included a new song of hers entitled “Mississippi Goddam.” The song was a response to the 1963 assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and the 16th street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little black girls in Birmingham. Although activist Stokely Carmichael referred to her as “the voice of the movement,” the song hurt Simone’s career. Radio stations banned it from being played, and the station managers would deliberately break her record in half before returning it to the record company.
That same year, Simone responded to the controversy by releasing the track “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Though the song did not make the charts, it was recorded by the British group The Animals and became a hit in the U.S. and Europe in 1965.
On March 25, 1965, the fourth night of the Selma to Montgomery March, Martin Luther King Jr. asked singer Harry Belafonte to get performers together for “The Stars for Freedom Rally.” The performers played to an audience of 25,000 people and included Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., James Baldwin, and Anthony Perkins, to name a few. The makeshift stage, a political statement in itself, was built on a stack of empty coffins.
That night, Simone met Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time. It is well documented that she had openly admitted to him that she was “not non-violent,” evidently because she saw what was happening to King with his non-violent protests.
‘I’m looking at ‘3 faces of Eve’ – think it’s significant in a psychological study of myself’ – Nina Simone (excerpt from her diary)
In 1967, Simone suffered a breakdown before she was to take the stage as the opening act for Bill Cosby. “On the last night [of the tour], she became erratic,” said Stroud. “She had a can of shoe polish, she was putting it in her hair, and she began talking gibberish. She was totally out of it – incoherent.”
This would be the first of many psychological episodes in Simone’s life. In later years, she would shoot her neighbor in the leg, claiming that he “made too much noise,” and she would eventually set her house on fire. It was this sort of behavior that led her to end up in a straitjacket. Her illness would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray in Memphis. Having lost her friends Malcolm X (assassinated) and Lorraine Hansberry (cancer) three years earlier, Simone lost whatever hope she had. Her brother Carol recalled, “Sexism was still very much prevalent in everything and racism was still rampant and still present. It is today. She (Nina) looked at herself then, I suppose, through the eyes of a woman her age, and said she doesn’t want it, no time for it, and the hell with it. She dropped out. Literally.”
By the late 1960s, Simone took to wearing African gowns and high-braided hairstyles. She was afraid her music would be considered outdated so she began singing Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein and Bee Gees songs at her shows. The rage and resentment that she had, combined with her bipolar disorder, often caused her to have an explosive temper. At shows, she would sometimes out single audience members if they were talking and insult them. At worst, she would get up and leave the stage.
When questioned as to why she no longer penned songs about civil rights, Simone said, “All my friends had either left the movement or were killed. And so I was lost. And I was bitter. Very bitter. Paranoid. I imagined someone was out to get me, and out to kill me. Every minute of my life. Indeed the FBI did have a paper on me.”
In 1970, Simone and composer/ playwright Weldon Irvine turned Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished play into a civil rights song. The end result was the track “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” This song quickly became a civil rights anthem. By the early 1970s, Simone had divorced Stroud. Although she played a few shows with Miles Davis, she wasn’t what you would call a “hot commodity” among her white audience members. She was very much aware of her decline in popularity, and, as it to confront that fact, released her album It Is Finished in 1974.
“He’s got more sense than anybody I’ve ever known. It’s not human. David ain’t from here.” –Nina Simone (on David Bowie)
That year, after attending one of David Bowie’s concerts in New York, she ran into him at The Hippopotamus Club, and they soon formed a friendship. According to an article by BBC journalist Fraser McAlpine, “Bowie started what would become a month of nightly calls and visits with the words ‘The first thing I want you to know is that you’re not crazy. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re crazy, because where you’re coming from, there are very few of us out there’.” With Bowie’s encouragement, Simone began to play the piano again.
By the 1980s, things began to turn around for her. She became a frequent performer at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. Her version of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” was used in a Chanel perfume commercial, prompting the song to reach number four on the UK charts. With the new resurgence of her music, Simone released A Single Woman in 1993 (produced by Michael Alago), which proved to be her final album. She also published an autobiography, I Put A Spell On You, in 1992.
During the last decade of her life, Simone sold more than a million records, and gained ownership of more than 50 of her master recordings. However, as she entered the new millennium, Simone was suffering from breast cancer and was too sick to perform. In 2003, at the age of seventy, she died at her home in the South of France.
Simone was the one to have the last laugh. Days before she died, she received an honorary degree from The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia – the same school that rejected her when she was 18.