Nina Simone: Still Speaking To Us Today

Nina Simone is a legendary singer because she had a voice of such intensity and emotion it seemed touched by genius. Today, singers as diverse as Erykah Badu, Cassandra Wilson and Alicia Keys are among many who have listened and learnt to what Time magazine described as, “a swinging, soulful and infectious blend” of jazz, blues, classical, folk and pop. 

Her voice seemed to answer a need deep in within the soul of humanity. It gave her a universality that few singers possess. Known as the High Priestess of Soul in the turbulent 1960s, her appeal extended from British rock groups like the Animals, who had hits with her versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” to the heart of black America where she was dubbed “the singer of the black revolution” by H Rap Brown, a temporary member of the Black Panthers, during the Civil Rights struggle. 

Born Eunice Waymon, the sixth child of a Methodist preacher mother and an invalid father on 21st February 1933, she was given piano lessons from the age of three and it soon became clear she had perfect pitch and a prodigious musical talent. At six she was the regular pianist in her church and singing with her sisters in her mother’s church choir. 

Raised in Tryon, North Carolina, she was a dedicated student who assiduously tried to fulfil her mother’s dream of becoming the first ever black concert pianist, getting up at 4am to practise for four hours before High School and playing piano in the school glee club, school orchestra and in church every Sunday. In June 1950 she graduated Valedictorian and won a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where she prepared for a scholarship to enter the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

She took the examination a year later and it came as a shock to learn she had been rejected, and an even greater shock to discover it had been because of the colour of her skin, “I knew prejudice existed,” she said later, “But I never thought it could have such a direct effect on my future.” Throwing herself into her studies with greater determination, she took a job as an accompanist at a singing school to pay for her lessons and upkeep. Playing mostly pop music of the day for aspiring young singers, during her eight hours a day, five days a week job she memorised over 700 songs.

When she learned that she could earn twice as much playing piano in bars, she changed her name to Nina (a Hispanic boyfriend’s endearment) and Simone (after the French actress Simone Signoret) to deflect her mother’s disapproval. She began working in the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City which led to work in Philadelphia and New York where she attracted the attention of Bethlehem records. In 1958 her first album, Jazz in an Exclusive Side Street Club (later known as Little Girl Blue) was released and a single from it, “I Loves You Porgy,” became a national hit in the summer of 1959, selling over a million copies. Another track from the album, “My Baby Just Cares For Me”  was a sleeper until it was used in a TV advert for Chanel No. 5 perfume, which prompted its release as a single by Charly Records in the UK in 1985, entering the Singles Chart on October 31, and peaking at number 5. It became one of Simone’s biggest hits in 29 years and made the top 10 in several European charts, peaking at number one in the Dutch Top 40. The song continued to enjoy its second life into the 1990s when it was featured on the movie soundtracks of the 1992 film Peter’s Friends, the 1994 film Shallow Grave, and the 1996 film Stealing Beauty.

Simone’s career took off when she signed with Colpix Records and with the release of Nina Simone at Town Hall she went from a New York name to a national star. By her own admission she achieved it through a relentless round of touring with little time for personal reflection, driven by the simple philosophy of riding out her success to make as much money as possible to enable her to return to full time classical studies.

In September 1962 she gave birth to a daughter and during her first break from music in almost ten years, she had the opportunity to pause and radically reassess her life. “I started to pay closer attention to what was happening in my country, especially to the advances my own people were making with the civil rights movement,” she said in her autobiography I Put A Spell On You. “Like anyone with half a brain I had followed the development of the civil rights movement…but I didn’t make the jump to thinking I had a part to play in what was happening.”

While she had befriended members of the black intelligentsia such as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes on moving to New York, she credits her friend Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the play Raisin in the Sun, with making her politically aware. In 1962 she was introduced to Stokely Carmichael, who later coined the phrase “Black Power,” and she began making political comments onstage, although not at this point of her career in song. But events were moving fast. 

The murder of  Medgar Evers, a secretary for the NAACP, in June 1963 and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday 15th September resulting in the deaths of four young girls propelled her into “the struggle for black justice, freedom and equality.” On hearing the news of the bombing she channeled her feelings of “fury, hatred and determination” into the song “Mississippi Goddam,” which she composed that same day. It was her first protest song.

When she first performed it at the Village Gate in New York City, it brought the house down. It was subsequently released as a single, and from that point on there was no going back ─ “For the next seven years I was driven by civil rights and the hope of a black revolution…my music was dedicated to a purpose more important than classical music’s pursuit of excellence; it was dedicated to the fight for freedom and the historical destiny of my people.”

Simone began attending Malcolm X’s rallies, and got to know his wife Betty Shabazz, but his assassination in 1965 only aggravated a rising sense of disillusionment among black Americans, many of whom, including Simone, began turning to the more militant agendas of the Black Panthers and the radically altered SNCC led by Stokely Carmichael.

On the 1966 album Wild Is the Wind (Phillips) she recorded the politically orientated “Four Women.” Later the same year she switched to the RCA label in a deal negotiated by her husband Andy Stroud, whom she had married in 1961 and acted as her manager. 

Her first album for her new label was Nina Simone Sings the Blues, recorded in December 1966 and January 1967 at a time when she was involved in a national tour with comedian Bill Cosby, “As 1966 drew to a close the mood in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, LA ─ all the big cities I played in ─ became more militant and less forgiving,” she said.

With little time for preparation for her album (the Crosby tour continued until February 1967), she later told drummer Arthur Taylor, “I never [record] cold….weeks in advance I take the songs we have agreed on and I have the final say about the arrangements; then it’s taken to the arranger who orchestrates it. The only thing close to cold I ever did was an album called Nina Simone Sings the Blues. We got the best musicians we knew and we chose the songs, but we didn’t do the arranging until we were actually recording.”

Recorded with a small group, including the famous session musicians Eric Gale on guitar and Bernard Purdie on drums, the result is congenial and at times powerful, including a revisitation of “The House of the Rising Sun,” her hit from the 1962 album Nina Simone at Town Hall (Colpix), memorable versions of “My Man’s Gone Now”  from Porgy and Bess and “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl” plus the uncompromising political statement “Backlash Blues” which sets to music a poem by Langston Hughes. The influential jazz magazine Downbeat gave the album a four star rating, saying, “[You] will find this set splendid in every way.”

Later in the year, in June, she recorded Silk & Soul which includes the Burt Bacharach hit “The Look of Love” from the James Bond movie Casino Royale that’s in stark contrast to the “strong moral and religious” tone of “Go To Hell.” “Turning Point” tells of a little girl made aware for the first time ─ by her mother ─ of race. The lyric is childlike and Simone treats it simply and without affectation to make the songwriter’s point. On the key track of the album, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” the lyrics probe straight to the heart of the civil rights struggle. With race riots that year in Tampa, Cincinnati, Buffalo (where fourteen rioters were killed by the police), Cleveland, Newark and Detroit (where 36 rioters were killed), the song resonated with millions of black Americans. The Downbeat reviewer cautiously refrained from mentioning this song, however, giving the album a three star rating.

In February 1968, she played Carnegie Hall before taking time-out to prepare for her next album. Six weeks later she drove to Westbury, Long Island, where it was going to be recorded live, and to her horror found people in the street watching the TV images in storefronts of the scenes that followed the murder of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King,   in a motel in Memphis. It was 4th April 1968.  Nuff Said! was recorded three days later with violence erupting in more than 100 cities in outrage at King’s assassination.

“My Westbury concert went ahead as scheduled on the 7th, the Day of Mourning,” said Simone in her autobiography. “I performed ‘Why? The King of Love Is Dead,’ a song in memory of Martin, from the first time that night.” Written by Gene Taylor, Simone’s bassist, it sums up the mood of bitterness and despair that had descended on the nation. Also on the live album is a reprise of the hit that put her on the road to stardom in “I Loves You Porgy,” a live version of “Backlash Blues,” two songs by the BeeGees ─ “In the Morning” and “Please Read Me” ─ a minor hit in “Do What You Gotta Do” and a major hit in “Ain’t Got No…I Got Life”  from the musical Hair. With so many strong performances, the album was nominated for an Emmy.

On 6 June 1968 America was again rocked, this time by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, whose contribution to the Civil Rights movement is now seen as his greatest legacy. Two months later Hubert H. Humphrey won the nomination at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago amid scenes of such shocking police brutality that the event became a watershed in the political and cultural life of America.

The following month Simone went into the studio and recorded a solo album that surprised even her most devoted fans. In an introspective collection of songs about reincarnation, death, loneliness and love, Nina Simone and Piano! is for many the highspot of her recorded career and an album that the singer herself said she wanted to be remembered for. It includes some classic Simone such as “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” that has inspired versions of the song from a wide range of singers from Marianne Faithful to Beck to the  Norwegian jazz vocalist Solveig Slettahjell. 

Also included is a powerful performance of “Compensation,” using the words of the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, that’s in sharp contrast to her version of “Everybody’s Gone to the Moon.” This mixture of the accessible ─ for the majority white mainstream at least ─ and her politically inspired musical choices is a thread that can be traced through all her albums during this period, a powerful duality that arose despite the fact — as she explained in her autobiography – “My record company was uneasy about my politics and took every opportunity to tell me so.”

In the highly charged political and racial atmosphere of the time, it seems remarkable that Simone was nevertheless given, however reluctantly, such artistic license by a major record label sensitive to majority (white) opinion. Yet even given the inevitable artistic trade-offs that she had to make, there is no lessening emotional impact when she turns to pop tunes. It is as if her whole musical psyche had been fuelled by her passionate support of the Civil Rights struggle. Consequently, her RCA albums of the period provide a powerful soundtrack to the social and cultural upheaval then convulsing America. When, for example, she came to record To Love Somebody, her next album, in March and April 1969, it was at a time when the Chicago Eight were indicted by a Grand Jury on charges related to violent protests that had taken place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

While the title track made the United Kingdom Top 10, the Pete Seeger tune “Turn, Turn, Turn” (made famous by the Byrds) and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing” were songs that in the climate of the times could mean one thing to one part of her audience and another thing to another. On the other hand, “Revolution (Parts 1 and 2)” is clearly more unequivocal in its lyric and emotional intent that must have made the white RCA executives a little queasy. But to their credit “Revolution” was passed for release, despite being carefully framed and rationalised by the liner note writer who said it, “has all the message of a folk song, all the soulful emotion of an R&B hit record, yet ventures from standard musical patterns, using jazz as a stepping stone to a mind-exploding progressive rock ending.”

In October 1969, Simone recorded what would turn out to be her final “protest” album, Black Gold. With versions of “Black Is The Color of My True Love’s Hair,” another song that would become forever associated with her, and a rousing “Ain’t Got No…I Got Life” the album was another strong work, but it the inclusion of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” marks her last uncompromising political statement on record for RCA. The title came from a play of the same name written by her friend Lorraine Hansberry, who had died at the age of thirty-four from cancer. The song became something of an anthem of the Civil Rights movement after one group declared it the national song of black people in America. It was later recorded by Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway.

By 1970, Simone was becoming disenchanted with the Civil Rights activism. “It died after 10 years,” she told Q Magazine in 1991, “So many of the figureheads were either dead, in jail or had gone abroad and those that were left, it was if the movement wasn’t fashionable anymore. They just gave up and got respectable. I felt as if my people had just rolled over and played dead and I hated them for it. I was more than let down, I was the most disappointed person in the world and regretted the 10 years of my life I’d given them.”

Her bitterness exploded in a concert in Newark in 1970. In front of an all-black audience she savaged the failings of political leaders of all races, “That was the beginning of my withdrawal from political performance,” she said later. But Simone had three more albums left in her for RCA. Here Comes The Sun from 1971 presents Nina Simone as an accomplished popular singer able to reveal new truths and deeper dimensions in what was essentially an album of covers ─ the title track by the Beatles, “Just Like A Woman” by Bob Dylan, “O-O-H Child” by the Five Stairsteps, “Mr. Bojangles” by Jerry Jeff Walker, the Barry Mann─Cynthia Weil composition “New World Coming,”  “Angel of the Morning” by Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts and “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, with only the spiritual  “How Long Must I Wander” as a reminder of her roots.

Emergency Ward was part recorded at the same session as Here Comes the Sun and part recorded at a concert in November that year with the Bethany Baptist Junior Choir of South Jamaica in Fort Dix. The live concert produced an electrifying version of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” which reportedly delighted the former Beatle, to which she added the David Nelson poem “Today is a Killer.” Her final album for RCA was recorded in 1974, prophetically titled It Is Finished as she prepared to withdraw from the music business. 

The unambiguous cover art shows Simone depicted in a long red and black print dress and a floppy hat in surroundings suggesting Africa and tracks like “Dambala” and “Obeah Woman” together with the rhythmic approach on pieces such as “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter” that emulates an African percussion choir, suggest her heart no longer lay in the United States but in the Dark Continent.  With the spiritual “Com by H’Yere Good Lord” ─ also with African style accompaniment ─ the wheel seemed to have turned full cycle, with a piano introduction that  could have come straight out of a book of piano etudes from her childhood. The sense of closure on her RCA period is made all the more apparent with a version of “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” a blues that appeared on her debut album for the label and provides the bookends to the most creative period of her whole career.

 In 1970  she left her second husband Andy Stroud, and had unsuccessfully attempted to manage herself with help of her brother Sam Waymon.  Several affairs followed, including one with the Barbados politician (and later Prime Minister) Earl Barrow. But despite being guest of honour at the annual Human Kindness Day celebration on 11 May 1974 in Washington D.C. where over 100,000 people turned up to see Mohammed Ali present her with a citation, she was bitterly disillusioned with the record industry. 

Despite the  huge success of her albums in the 1960s and early 1970s, she was perplexed to find herself in serious financial trouble and was being pursued by the IRS for back taxes.  Disgusted, she moved to Liberia at the suggestion of Miriam Makeba. “I ended up in Africa in 1974, where for nearly five years I made no music at all,” she told Q Magazine. “I wanted nothing more to do with it because it seemed to have brought me heartache yet it had taken my whole life. From the age of four I had been stuck in a room all day long by myself and what I’d missed all my life was a life.”

However, she had not entirely given up on the music business. She needed money. Following a 1977 appearance at London’s Drury Lane theatre, record producer Creed Taylor approached her with an offer to make an album for his highly successful CTI label. By now she was living in Paris, and in 1978 she went into recording studios in Belgium. “During the recording sessions, Nina and I stayed at the Brussels’ Hilton,” recalled Taylor. “In order to reach the studio, we had to cross the Waterloo Bridge. I reminded Nina that this was the famous bridge where Napoleon ‘met his Waterloo.’ I felt an omen about the bridge that would bring us good luck at the recording sessions.”

Baltimore conjures images of steamy city nights, rebellious, independent kids and Paris. Playing and singing over low-key funk rhythms, Simone had lost nothing of her ability to wring unexpected meaning out of a pop song, exemplified by the title track written by Randy Newman. “The Family,” “Rich Girl” and her poignant vocals on “My Father” made every word sound autobiographical, even though many of the tracks were written by pop artists such as Judy Collins and Daryl Hall.

In her autobiography, Simone wrote that from her first memory of her mother singing everything that happened to her as a child seemed to involve music. This influence shows up on her affecting performance of “If You Pray Right.” Yet after completing the album, she expressed her dissatisfaction about it on numerous occasions, “Although I didn’t particularly enjoy recording it, I knew it would push my career along,” she announces dismissively in her autobiography I Put A Spell On You. This disaffection was probably because she had no say in the arrangements, selection of songs or the cover picture. 

The critics, however, were very positive, and the album played a key role in getting her career back on track after her political stance in the 1960s had, as The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll points out, “alienated her white audience.” But as Gil Scott Heron once said, she was black before it was fashionable to be black, and her songs of protest had by now taken on a triumphant life of their own. On their debut album in 1970, The Last Poets declared, “I am the wish that makes Nina Simone wish she knew how to be free.” Later the same year, students in Mississippi played her music before setting fire to a Confederate flag. In August 1971, Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” was played at the funeral of George Jackson, a member of the Black Panthers who had been murdered by a prison guard. 

Notwithstanding her two marriages, Simone’s own romantic exploits were legendary, once attempting to seduce Louis Farrakhan to stop him preaching at her. Did all this surface in her songs as well? Probably. The moving grandeur of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” from Nina Simone and Piano! a measure of how hypnotic she could be, or the quietly moving “I Love You Porgy” from ‘Nuff Said were surely shaped by life’s experiences.

Today Nina Simone’s legacy is a body of recordings that number among the most powerful, moving music ever recorded, fuelled by a mixture of love, hate, pride and passion shaped by powerful, epoch making events during an extraordinary period of American history. A remarkable singer and pianist, the lyric content of her songs was given powerful resonance  by the dramatic events unfolding around her. But while they may be of their time, they are timeless since today it seems as if the racial divide  remains the yawing chasm in American society it always has been. Whether the protest movement was a source of inspiration to her or an outlet for her frustration, or both, does not matter. In art it is not the means used to achieve an end but the end that it achieves that matters. The universality of her artistry  has meant she has been claimed in equal measure by jazz, R&B and folk fans and in 2018 she was was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of fame. Also in 2018, Simone’s birthplace and childhood home in Tryon, N.C., was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Preservation. Fewer than 100 locations in the US have received this designation.


I Put a Spell On You by Nina Simone with Stephen Cleary (Da Capo Press, 2003)

Notes And Tones by Arthur Taylor (Quartet, 1983)

The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Fireside, 1995)

The Guardian, 22nd April 2003, pp 23.

The Independent, 10th November 1999, pp 10

The Guardian G2, 6th August 2001, pp 4

Q Magazine, November 1991, pp 35

Time, 21 February 1969, pp 14

Downbeat, 8 February 1968, pp 29

Downbeat, 11January 1968, pp 16 (interview)

Downbeat, 5 October 1967, pp 34

Liner Notes Nina Simone To Love Somebody RCA/BMG 82876 596232

Liner Notes Nina Simone Silk & Soul RCA/BMG82876 596202

Discographical Details:

Creed Taylor quote: