We will have a tribute to the legendary jazz artist/ civil rights activist Dr. Nina Simone throughout the month of March.Nina Simone, birth name Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was born February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina. Daughter of Mary Kate Waymon and John D. Waymon, an ordained Methodist minister, Simone was the sixth of eight children. The house was always filled with music, Nina recalled, and she learned to play the piano early in her childhood. Her mother took a job as a maid for extra money. The family Mary Kate worked for, saw that young Nina had special musical talent and sponsored classical piano lessons for her.
In her last year of high school, Nina attended Juilliard in New York, hoping for acceptance to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was rejected. Nina Simone believed that she was good enough for the program, but was rejected because of the color of her skin. This was one of many disappointments she would encounter and attribute to racism.
Nina defied easy classification. It was her alto voice, with its rich timbre and her distinctive interpretation of standards, blues and jazz compositions that propelled her prominence in music. Nina hated being pigeonholed as a jazz singer. "To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that's not what I play," Nina Simone said in one interview. "I play black classical music." With a deep and husky voice that growled and whispered and a musical repertoire that combined spiritual, jazz and protest songs, Nina Simone, dubbed the “High Priestess of Soul,” is known as one of the most gifted singers, composers and pianists of her time, recording close to sixty albums during her musical career
In 1954, she began playing piano at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, where she took the name Nina Simone to avoid her mother's religious disapproval of her playing in a bar. She attracted the younger audiences, who were fascinated by her diverse musical repertoire and eclectic singing style. Performing in nightclubs throughout Philadelphia and New York, Nina’s moody vocals and unique style of delivery seduced audiences everywhere.
Nina recorded her first tracks, including "Plain Gold Ring" and "Don't Smoke in Bed." She gained momentum in 1959, with her recording of "I Loves You Porgy," from the opera "Porgy & Bess." It sold well, and her recording career began. For her next album she signed with Colpix and released "The Amazing Nina Simone” netting increased critical acclaim.
Simone”s marriage to Don Ross in 1958 was brief; she divorced him the next year. She married Andy Stroud in 1961 -- a former police detective who became her manager and business partner -- and they had a daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud -- known today as “Simone;” a music artist in her own right.
In the 1960s, Nina Simone became an integral part of the civil rights movement and later embraced the black power movement. Nina wrote "Mississippi Goddam" after the bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama killed four little girls.
Other Nina Simone songs were adopted by the civil rights movement as anthems including, "Backlash Blues," "Old Jim Crow," "Four Women" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black." The latter was composed in honor of her friend Lorraine Hansberry and became an anthem for the growing black power movement.
A straightforward, no-holes-barred artist in the world music landscape, Nina’s voice became the heart and voice of her generation of people. But Nina's ever-increasing bitterness over America's racism eventually led to her decision to leave the United States. She moved to Europe in 1978 and built her international career slowly, achieving small successes.
In 1985, Nina Simone returned to the United States to record and perform, choosing to de-emphasize her political views and focus on the music. Her career reignited when Chanel used her 1958 recording of "My Baby Just Cares for Me," in its British commercial, becoming an immediate hit in Europe.
Though she was a gifted songwriter, Simone also recorded the songs of a diverse genre of artists, such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and the Bee Gees, using her vocal style to make them her own. Perhaps one of her most popular renditions was her version of "Here Comes the Sun,” by the Beatles.
In 1991, Nina Simone returned to Europe for good; first to the Netherlands, then to the South of France, publishing her biography, I Put a Spell on You.
Her last public performance was July 2002, in Poland. She died April 21, 2003, in Carry-le-Rouet, France, survived by her daughter -- Simone Kelly -- two grandsons and a granddaughter. Two days before her death, Nina was thrilled to learn that The Curtis Institute -- the school that formerly denied her acceptance -- had awarded her an honorary diploma.
Nina Simone’s legacy lives on. Her songs continue to be the bastion of jazz and blues stations around the world, providing many singers and groups with material for hits of their own, and inspiring generations of talent, from Aretha Franklin to India Arie to newcomer Norah Jones. Considered one of the last divas of jazz, and one of the finest songwriters and musicians of her day, Nina Simone, a woman whose artistic, civic and civil rights contributions left an indelible mark on mankind and set a standard for musicians the world over.
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It's good to talk.