An iconic, utterly individual singer and pianist, Nina Simone epitomized struggle across her long career — the wider struggle for Civil Rights, her personal struggle for respect and equilibrium. Simone, born in 1933, was raised in small-town North Carolina by minister parents, starting on the piano at age 3 and first playing publicly in church. She began classical studies with a concert career in mind, eventually attending the Juilliard School for a summer to prepare for an audition to the Curtis School; her application was denied, something she attributed to racial prejudice. Simone began playing a jazzy mix of blues and Broadway tunes at an Atlantic City nightclub to pay for private lessons with Vladimir Sokoloff from Curtis; she only took up singing to satisfy the proprietor, building on an early affinity for Billie Holiday to develop her own, singular style. In 1958, she recorded Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” which became a hit on the Billboard chart and led to her debut album, Little Girl Blue. She became an attraction in New York City and beyond, with more LPs following — including a number of live albums that showcased the dark, vibrato-laced voice, soulful piano accompaniment and high-wire tension that imbued her performance personality. Her song “Mississippi Goddam,” a fervent response to murders of young African-Americans in the racist South, became a Civil Rights anthem in the mid–’60s; identified strongly with the movement, she recorded other songs that became standards of the era, covering “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” and co-writing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” She said: “I stopped singing love songs and started singing protest songs because protest songs were needed. You can be a politician through music.”
“I stopped singing love songs and started singing protest songs because protest songs were needed. You can be a politician through music.”
A New York Times review of a 1992 concert at Carnegie Hall put it this way: “Whether she was singing love songs or protest songs, Ms. Simone performed as though her soul was living out each injustice and heartache.” In her autobiography published that year, I Put a Spell on You, Simone said of attempts to define her vocalism: “If I had to be called something, it should have been a folk singer.” As a pianist, she mixed gospel cadences learned in church with intimations of Bachian counterpoint; she also melded a spontaneity gleaned from jazz with the funkiness of vintage rhythm-and-blues. Along with penning such potent originals as “Do I Move You?” and “Four Women,” she made the songs “Wild Is the Wind,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Lilac Wine,” “Ain’t Got No,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “I Put a Spell on You” feel like her own. Her repertoire also ranged from the songbooks of Duke Ellington, Kurt Weill and Bob Dylan to such folk numbers as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” With a keen ear for material, she would even cover songs by the likes of the Beatles, Bee Gees, Randy Newman and Jacques Brel. In later years, Simone’s singing could be marred by mannerism, and she suffered from mental imbalances that led to much famously volatile behavior before she died in 2003. Yet her greatest performances and the socio-political investment in her art are indelible and influential across generations.