Nina Simone (February 21, 1933 - April 23, 2003)
Soulful Diva and Voice of Civil Rights Movement
It's never easy to lose a friend. Nina Simone and I never met but she
was a potent force in my life nonetheless. We share the same birthday (though not the year)
but far more important was her impact on me when I heard her live at the Keith Albee
Theater in Huntington, West Virginia in early 1965. She played her own piano and
sang as she played accompanied by a bassist.
Until that day the Civil Rights Movement was news reports and
pictures in Look and Life magazines. As potent as these photographs were, they in no way
prepared me for the music of Nina Simone.
Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, she began singing
in her church choir when she was very young and had taught herself piano and organ by
age seven. In 1950 she attended Julliard on partial scholarship but could not earn enough
accompanying and teaching piano to stay in school. In 1954 she worked at a bar and grill
in Atlantic City, New Jersey where she took the stage name Nina Simone "so her mama wouldn't know where
she was performing."
In 1959 she had her only top-twenty hit, her version of George
Gershwin's I Love's You Porgy, which earned her a gold record.
Her recordings are categorized as jazz though her repertory
includes spirituals, folk songs, blues, European art songs and American popular songs. Her
"raging black protest songs moved her off the supper club circuit and into political
rallies and soul concerts" to quote The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll.
In the late 60s she became popular in England. Through all of this
she kept her music as close to classical as possible.
By 1970 her music fell out of fashion in the United States;
she divorced her manager/husband and beset by financial woes, left the country. She
lived for a while in Liberia, then Barbados before settling in France. She was living near
Marseille when she died.
Her diction was bell-clear as was her message. The menace of
Kurt Weill's Pirate Jenny was chilling, while in the love song That's All I
Want from You her voice is sweet and pure. Mississippi Goddam was her angry
response to the murder of civil rights advocate Medgar Evers. As she sang the song she
paused and explained "this is the title tune of a Broadway musical that has yet to be written."
So why did a black woman who delivered a message of such great
strength, anger and determination resonate so strongly for me? I was in my early
twenties and was wrestling with my own issues that clearly would put me in a minority,
discriminated against and sometimes hated. Her voice, more than any other articulated my
feelings in all of their mute complexity. She sang of pain, hurt and anger but also
her determination to survive and express her truth, which included her natural sensuality.
Her music encouraged me to acknowledge and accept my own nature and that has made all the
All seven of her early albums have been re-issued
in a four CD set with a sixty-five page booklet. Her album Baltimore, recorded in
Brussels in 1978 is also on CD, but I can't bear to part with the fold-out LP sleeve with
an incredibly beautiful portrait of Nina Simone looking peaceful and relaxed.
From her early song Four Women, which paints a subtle
and stinging picture of the suffering and strength of African-American women, to the later
Young, Gifted and Black (co-written with Weldon Irvine, Jr. and recorded by Aretha
Franklin), this creative woman spoke her truth with power and clarity.
Simone appears on Broadway in the musical Aida.
Thanks to Peter Keepnews' New York Times obituary of April 24, 2003 for some of the facts.
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