Louise Levy looks at Nina Simone, on what would have been her 90th Birthday

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone came from a family filled with music. She was the sixth of eight children, and though her mother rarely showed any affection, she encouraged classical piano. By the time Nina had turned six, she had become the regular church pianist in Tryon.  

Simone was soon studying classical music and developed a lifelong love of Johann Sebastian Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert. At her first recital, when she was 10, her parents moved from their seats to make way for a white family. She refused to perform until her parents could return to their seats. After that, ‘nothing was easy anymore’ said Simone in her 1991 memoir, I Put a Spell on You. 

She earned a scholarship for a one-year program at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, but was denied entry to the Curtis Institute of Music. She was deeply disappointed and blamed the injustice of being black. 

She worked as a music teacher, and also worked in bars where she had to accompany her own singing. Fearing that her mother would disapprove, she adopted Nina (a nickname from a former boyfriend) and Simone (after the French actress Simone Signoret). Simone released her debut jazz album, Little Girl Blue, in 1958. It was a hit, and she moved to New York with her own vision of playing classical music. 

In New York, she met James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and Miriam Makeba. They became her political mentors. She married New York detective Andy Stroud, who became her manager, and in 1962 they had a daughter. But their life together was turmoil. She was professional with her work but was known for her temper and outbursts of aggression. She enjoyed her greatest creative streak, recording a string of albums from Philips and RCA.  

In 1963, Nina achieved her dream of performing at the Carnegie Hall, New York. Also in that year, she wrote Mississippi Goddam in response to the bombing of the Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. From then on, Nina started writing more Civil Rights protest songs. 

One of Nina’s best-known songs, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, is a tribute to her friend Lorraine Hansberry, an African American playwright. Nina credited Hansberry with encouraging her to act on the injustices she felt and get involved in the Civil Rights movement. She wrote the song, Four Women, which confronted issues around body image and four stereotypes of black women. 

In 1970, she and Stroud divorced. Simone left the United States and drifted for more than 20 years, eventually settling in France.  

Ironically, the Curtis Institute of Music, which had rejected Simone back in 1950, named her an honorary doctor in 2003, two days before she died from cancer at her home in Carry-le-Rouet
in France. 

She left a profound mark on American Black music. In 2018, Simone was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone cited her achievements stating that ‘the euphoria pulsing through her voice spoke for itself’. She brought out the rage in her civil rights protest songs (Mississippi Goddam, Four Women), her pride in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and her joie-de-vivre in her rendition of Ain’t Got No, I Got Life

Check Jazz After Hours for Isobel Archer’s special on Nina Simone.

This article originally appeared in the 2MBS Fine Music Magazine, February Edition