Nina Simone: Artist, Activist

Doug Daye is back with a great post during Black History Month: a profile of Nina Simone. Do enjoy!

Doug Daye

When I was a teenager, I remember going to a Black History program that was put on at Abilene Christian University, in my hometown of Abilene, TX. The song “Feeling Good” started to play during a brief intermission and I instantly fell in love with the song. It was so poetic and the singer’s voice was so haunting. I looked at my program to see if the song and artist was listed and I found that it was Nina Simone. I did not know much about her at the time, but later I learned more about her life. She was a well-respected musician and singer who put out prolific blues ballads like “I Put A Spell On You” and songs for liberation during the civil rights era such as “Four Women” and “Young Gifted and Black.” With her sultry voice and her powerful storytelling, Nina Simone was a jazz icon whose legacy is still honored to this day.

Early Life and Education

Young Eunice Kathleen Waymon (from ncarts.org)

Born in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21st, 1933, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was a gifted prodigy. She started playing piano by ear at the age of three! Her parents, recognizing her talent, provided opportunities for her to play piano in church where her mother preached. She went on to study classical music with an English woman by the name of Muriel Mazzanovich where she developed a love for classical artists such as Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, and others. After Waymon graduated as valedictorian from high school, her community raised the funds for her to attend Julliard in New York City before she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. However, she was denied admission to the institute because of her skin color. This and other events growing up in the Jim Crow south inspired her to speak out against racial discrimination.

Music Career

While teaching music to local students, Waymon auditioned at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she soon gained recognition. To hide the fact she was singing in bars from her mother, she changed her name to Nina Simone. She was later signed to King Records after being recognized after a performance in New Hope, Pennsylvania. During a recording session in 1956 she sang “My Baby Just Cares For Me” which had been covered by other jazz artists such as Nat King Cole. This song launched Nina’s career and it was later used in a commercial for Chanel perfume in the 1980s. She went on to move to New York City where she was signed to Copix Records and gave various live performances. She was a featured artist at the famous Newport Jazz Festival and had other great successes.

My Baby Just Cares for Me album cover (from discogs.com)

Nina Simone also used her songs to speak out against racial injustice. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was banned in the South but she did not let it deter her. Violent events during the Civil Rights Movement inspired her to use her music to condemn racism. By putting out songs like “Strange Fruit” and “Four Women,” Nina took risks by using her voice as a platform for liberation at a time when many artists were reluctant to do so.

Nina Simone by Jack Robinson (from photos.com by Getty Images)

With a long rewarding career behind her, Nina Simone passed away in April 2003. Many artists paid tribute to her including Patti Labelle and Ossie Davis, who attended her memorial service, and Elton John who sent flowers.

Nina Simone’s Childhood Home Tour

With funding efforts from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the World Monuments Fund, and Preservation North Carolina, Nina Simone’s childhood home has been saved from demolition. This was done as the beginning of an ongoing effort to preserve Nina Simone’s early life and legacy for future generations. The National Trust website features a virtual tour of her home where viewers can get a glimpse of her humble beginnings.

View the virtual tour and learn more about funding efforts here:

https://savingplaces.org/stories/take-a-virtual-tour-of-nina-simones-childhood-home#.X_9jwWjYoWU

https://savingplaces.org/press-center/media-resources/nina-simone-childhood-home-permanently-protected#.X_9ewmjYoWU

Learn more about Nina Simone here: