February 21, 1933 – Birth of Black Activist and Entertainer Nina Simone

Eunice Kathleen Waymon, known as Nina Simone, was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and activist who recorded over forty live and studio albums. She had a unique musical style that combined classical training with an interest in a broad range of musical genres, including jazz, folk, broadway, pop, and spiritual. Although she died in 2003, her influence is still felt by such contemporary artists as Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill, Mos Def, and Mary J. Blige. Many of her songs continue to be featured in movie soundtracks.

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After training at Julliard, she took a job as an accompanist in a piano bar in Atlantic City to help support her family. Afraid her mother would not approve if she knew, she changed her name to Nina, for “little one” and “Simone” from the French actress Simone Signoret.

Her first album, “Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club” (also known as “Little Girl Blue”) was released in 1958 and was a huge success. It included the only top 40 hit of her career – her version of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” from the popular musical “Porgy and Bess.”

Al Schackman was Simone’s musical director, collaborator, and musical companion for most of her career. In an article in Crawdaddy! (June 5, 2009) by Denise Sullivan (author of Nina Simone: Rock’s Unlikely Rebel), Sullivan tells how the two started working with one another. It was 1957, and both Schackman and Simone had jazz gigs in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Some people who heard each of them suggested they play together.

Al Schackman

Al Schackman

Schackman went to see her, and says:

“She looked at me for a second and didn’t say anything, didn’t even tell me what she was going to play and just started her introduction to ‘Little Girl Blue.’ Her introduction was a Bach piece called ‘Good King Wenceslas’—they play it at Christmas. I knew what key she was in and I felt where she was going. So she started on a fugue, a counterpoint, and she got to the first section of it and I came in with a third part. She looked up at me and that was it. She went into her song and we had a three-part invention going and she suddenly comes in with this beautiful little love ballad that was amazing—it blew me away. I’ve never heard anybody be able to isolate music and then sing something totally different on top of it. That was our meeting and we just blew each other away. Afterward she said, ‘I would like you to come for tea… 2 o’clock on Sunday afternoon,’ and gave me the directions to her house. She turned to leave, then turned around and said, ‘And bring your guitar.'”

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In the 1960’s Simone got involved with the black radical movement. The songs she wrote at this time reflected her anger and frustration with the status of blacks in American society. “Mississippi Goddam” was her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black children. Simone told author LaShonda Katrice Barnett in the book, I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft:

“When I heard about the bombing of the church in which the four little black girls were killed in Alabama, I shut myself up in a room and that song happened. Medgar Evers had been recently slain in Mississippi. At first I tried to make myself a gun… then Andy, my husband at the time, said to me… ‘Nina, you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do.'”

The song was released as a single, being boycotted in certain southern states.

From then on, a civil rights message was routinely included in Simone’s recording repertoire; it had already become a part of her live performances. She also collaborated with friends Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry to give financial support to the movement, took part in marches, and spoke and performed at civil rights rallies. Simone resisted the sobriquet of “high priestess of soul” because she saw it as a categorization rooted in racism. She brought to the stage African rhythms as well as style—hairdos, jewelry, fabrics—alongside the politics of liberation.

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As time went on, Simone became more and more alienated from America, its politics, and its audiences. “America will sell her soul for money,” she told Barnett. In the 1970s, she divorced her husband, and started traveling. She moved to Barbados; Liberia; Europe, and eventually France until her death from breast cancer in 2003.

She told Barnett:

“Now that I am older, I realize I can’t change the world, but I still believe that if anyone can, it is the artist. It is always through art that society changes—not politics or even education. Art and music especially speaks to people more than government and education. Why do you think great nations have patronage for their artists?”

But she thought rap was just another way to sell blacks; she said, “Slavery has never been abolished from this country’s way of thinking.”

One of her last wishes for “a young black American leader [to] come along and lead his people out of darkness. That would inspire me.”

The selection below is from the musical Hair, and was recorded on this video live in London in 1968.

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