Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known by her stage name Nina Simone , was a singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist widely associated with jazz music. Simone aspired to become a classical pianist while working in a broad range of styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop.
Born the sixth child of a preacher’s family in North Carolina, Simone aspired to be a concert pianist. Her musical path changed direction after she was denied a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, despite a well-received audition. Simone was later told by someone working at Curtis that she was rejected because she was black. When she began playing in a small club in Philadelphia to fund her continuing musical education and become a classical pianist she was required to sing as well. She was approached for a recording by Bethlehem Records, and her rendering of “I Loves You Porgy” was a hit in the United States in 1958. Over the length of her career Simone recorded more than 40 albums, mostly between 1958—when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue—and 1974.
Her musical style arose from a fusion of gospel and pop songs with classical music, in particular with influences from her first inspiration, Johann Sebastian Bach, and accompanied with her expressive jazz-like singing in her characteristic contralto. She injected as much of her classical background into her music as possible to give it more depth and quality, as she felt that pop music was inferior to classical. Her intuitive grasp on the audience–performer relationship was gained from a unique background of playing piano accompaniment for church revivals and sermons regularly from the early age of six years old.
After 20 years of performing, she became involved in the civil rights movement and the direction of her life shifted once again. Simone’s music was highly influential in the fight for equal rights in the US. In later years, she lived abroad, finally settling in France in 1992.
LEGACY & INFLUENCE:
Musicians who have cited Simone as important for their own musical upbringing include Antony and the Johnsons, Nick Cave, Van Morrison, Christina Aguilera, Elkie Brooks, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Kanye West, Lena Horne, Bono, John Legend, Elizabeth Fraser, Cat Stevens, Anna Calvi, Peter Gabriel, Maynard James Keenan, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Mary J. Blige, Michael Gira, Angela McCluskey, Lauryn Hill, Patrice Babatunde, Alicia Keys, Ian MacKaye, Kerry Brothers, Jr. “Krucial”, Amanda Palmer, Steve Adey and Jeff Buckley.
John Lennon cited Simone’s version of “I Put a Spell on You” as a source of inspiration for the Beatles song “Michelle”.
Musicians who have covered her work (or her specific renditions of songs) include Black Rock Coalition Orchestra, J.Viewz, Carola, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Manson, Donny Hathaway, David Bowie, Elkie Brooks, Roberta Flack, Jeff Buckley, Kimbra, The Animals, Nick Cave, Shivaree (band), Ambrosia Parsley, Muse, Cat Power, Katie Melua, Timbaland, Feist, Shara Worden, Common, Lil Wayne, Michael Bublé, and Meshell Ndegeocello. Simone’s music has been featured in soundtracks of various motion pictures and video games, including but not limited to, The Big Lebowski (1998), Point of No Return (AKA The Assassin, 1993),”La Femme Nikita” (film) Notting Hill (1999), Any Given Sunday (1999), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Six Feet Under (2001), The Dancer Upstairs (film) (2002), Before Sunset (2004), Cellular (2004), Inland Empire (2006), Miami Vice (2006), Sex and the City (2008), The World Unseen (2008), Revolutionary Road (2008), Watchmen (2009), The Saboteur (2009), Repo Men (2010). Frequently her music is used in remixes, commercials, and TV series including “Feelin’ Good” featured prominently in the Season Four Promo of Six Feet Under, 2004.
On Human Kindness Day 1974 in Washington, D.C., more than 10,000 people paid tribute to Simone.
Simone received two honorary degrees in music and humanities, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College. She preferred to be called “Dr. Nina Simone” after these honors were bestowed upon her.
Only two days before her death, Simone was awarded an honorary degree by the Curtis Institute, the music school that had refused to admit her as a student at the beginning of her career.
Simone was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
In 2010, Tryon, North Carolina erected a statue in her honor along Trade Street.
The documentary Nina Simone: La Legende (The Legend) was made in the 1990s by French filmmakers, based on her autobiography I Put A Spell On You. It features live footage from different periods of her career, interviews with friends and family, various interviews with Simone then living in the Netherlands, and while on a trip to her birthplace. A portion of footage from The Legend was taken from an earlier 26-minute biographical documentary by Peter Rodis, released in 1969 and entitled simply, Nina.
Her filmed 1976 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival is available on video courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment and is screened annually in New York City at an event called “The Rise and Fall of Nina Simone: Montreux, 1976” which is curated by Tom Blunt.
Plans for a Simone biographical film were released at the end of 2005, to be based on Simone’s autobiography I Put A Spell On You (1992) and to focus on her relationship in later life with her assistant, Clifton Henderson, who died in 2006; Simone’s daughter, Simone Kelly, has since refuted the existence of a romantic relationship between Simone and Henderson on account of his sexuality. Screenwriter Cynthia Mort (Will & Grace, Roseanne and The Brave One) is working on the screenplay, and Zoe Saldana has been chosen to star in the lead role. The casting unleashed international controversy on account of Saldana’s “dissimilar” appearance to Simone and the implication that Henderson was more than just her assistant, and in fact, her romantic partner.
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