Although known as the "High Priestess of Soul," renowned vocalist and pianist Nina Simone covered a dizzying array of musical styles: soul, jazz, pop, blues, gospel and folk, to name a few. The enigmatic songstress imbued her achingly fragile ballads on love and loss with the same honesty and soulfulness as her politically-charged protest songs about racial injustice. After experiencing a comeback in the mid-1980s, Simone's elegant and eloquent body of work continues to inspire.
Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in Tryon, North Carolina, the sixth of seven children. At age four, she started to play the piano. Although her family couldn't support her musical education, the young pianist's teacher set up a fund for her to attend the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York.
In 1954, Waymon took a job playing piano in an Atlantic City nightclub. The owner asked her to incorporate singing into the show, a request that prompted the gifted performer to redirect her studies in classical music to a career in show business.
In the late 1950s, Waymon, who had by that time changed her name to Nina ("little one") Simone (from the French actress Simone Signoret), recorded her first tracks on the Bethlehem label. Her cover of George Gershwin's I Loves You Porgy was a Top 20 hit and, surprisingly, the only Top 40 entry of her career.
In the early 1960s, Simone recorded a staggering nine albums on the Candix label. By doing so, she showcased her eclectic talent, touching on everything from Israeli folk music to spirituals to movie theme songs. She released seven more albums with the Philips label during the mid-1960s.
This prolific period marked a high point in her career, encompassing the artist's classic covers of Jacques Brel's Ne Me Quitte Pas and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' I Put a Spell on You, as well as her own influential material, notably Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, which was later covered by British rock group the Animals.
Many of Simone's compositions addressed the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement with searing protest songs. In particular, the tracks Mississippi Goddam, which was inspired by the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, Old Jim Crow and Four Women gave an unflinching look at race relations in the United States during the 1960s.
At the end of that decade and into the next, Simone continued her steady creative output. In 1971, her single Young, Gifted and Black was famously covered by Aretha Franklin. The rest of the 1970s were less fruitful, however, as Simone divorced her husband and manager, and encountered financial troubles. In 1974, fed up with show business and racial tensions, she left the United States for Barbados. Moving to Liberia, Switzerland, and The Netherlands, the songstress finally settled in the south of France.
In 1978, after a four-year hiatus from recording, Simone released Baltimore. Nearly a decade later, the artist experienced a renaissance of sorts when My Baby Just Cares for Me, a track from her debut album, gained popularity once more and the aptly titled Nina's Back! was released.
In 1991, Simone published her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, which was translated into several languages. Two years later, her album A Single Woman marked the artist's return to a major American label.
In 1992, Simone paid her only visit to the Festival, sharing the bill with Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra on opening night. Her comeback was then well underway, and she was once again in demand, appearing at international festivals and featured on several movie soundtracks.
Performing well into her 70s, with a memorable concert at Carnegie Hall in 2001, Simone passed away at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, France, on April 21, 2003. As she had wished, her ashes were scattered in several African countries.