Born in Tryon, North Carolina on 21 February 1933, Nina (real name Eunice Kathleen Waymon) attended the New York Juilliard Music School and began recording in the late 50s, singing jazzy ballads.
Her early career was a typical tale of music-biz exploitation and copyright theft which would not be redressed until she regained her rights in a 1990s court ruling.
Eunice never wanted to be a singer – she wanted to be the first black classical concert pianist. On her first professional engagement in 1954 at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, she sat at the piano playing classical pieces until closing time without once opening her mouth.
At the end of the evening the owner told her, “Tomorrow night you’re a singer or you’re out of a job!”. She returned the following night to announce that she would sing, but that henceforth she was to be known as Nina Simone.
By 1957 she had made such an impression that she was performing at Carnegie Hall. “I’m where you always wanted me to be, but I’m not playing Bach,” she wrote to her parents.
Her debut album, Little Girl Blue, was released the following year. It included her first hit, I Loves You Porgy. It also included My Baby Just Cares For Me, which would eventually chart 30 years later in 1987 when it was used in a Chanel television advertisement.
Yet from the outset she also used songs like Mississippi Goddam and Old Jim Crow to express her outrage at the indignities being handed out daily to African-Americans.
By the mid-60s she was singing with a distinctive soul tinge as on Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – which The Animals later recorded successfully – and I Put A Spell On You.
Culled from studio and live recordings from 1964 to 1965, Wild Is The Wind (1966) took the listener on a staggering journey through styles and emotions over 11 hitherto unreleased tracks.
The tour-de-force title track, clocking in at nearly seven minutes, was a wonderfully indulgent love song that stands amongst Simon’es finest works.
In 1967 she moved to RCA where she enjoyed her most commercially successful period with pop hits such as Ain’t Got No/I Got Life (her first British hit single success) and a cover of The Bee Gees‘ To Love Somebody. She also penned To Be Young, Gifted and Black but by the end of the decade she had quit America and relocated to France
She claimed her relocation was to get away from “record company pirates”, racism and tax problems, and rejected the notion of ever returning to live in America, claiming that “you get racism crossing the street, it’s in the very fabric of American society”.
But there were other demons too, particularly a volatile temperament that proved both professionally and personally problematic for her.
Over the next two decades she moved restlessly around the world, living in Barbados, Liberia, Egypt, Turkey, Holland and Switzerland before settling for the last decade of her life in the south of France.
Her later years were characterised by Jekyll and Hyde mood swings, depending on whether or not she had taken her medication. She once shot a French neighbour’s son with a rifle because his rowdiness disturbed her, and her last manager, Raymond Gonzalez, revealed that she pulled a blade on him when they first met.
Nina Simone passed away in 2003.