WICN Artist of the Month, October 2021: Nina Simone
Written by Doug Hall on October 1, 2021
If ever there were a jazz singer whose musical career could not be separated from the legacy of their own political and social positions, it would be Nina Simone. From early on in her performances and recordings, her establishment and approach as a Black female and individual artist, particularly during the late ‘50s and ‘60s, would meet head on with the hard realities of racism, sexism and general discrimination in her professional and personal life. With controversial original selections of recordings, from “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and an Alabama church bombing that killed several black children, to reinterpreting Billie Holiday’s delivery of “Strange Fruit” and then the harsh condemnation in “Backlash Blues,” Simone expressed, in direct language and emotion, the outrage and pent-up anger of Black Americans. She was repeatedly on the front line of these issues in America, at the height of the voter and civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Also breaking with conventional norms at a time when the music industry was not accepting of artists making political or social statements on their record labels, which might impact sales, Simone paid dearly for her stance and position. Regardless, she remained an emboldened Black artist, issuing direct statements and speaking out with confrontational lyrics, songs, and performances about inequality, discrimination, and civil rights. In particular, during the 1960s, Simone pointed fingers directly, in musical expression and political position, at the hypocrisy of the federal government and American society. Simone sounded out her feelings in song, particularly regarding the United States complicity with the Jim Crow South’s “separate but equal” laws and ever-present police brutality and vigilante violence toward civil rights protestors and defiant Black leadership. Outside of her singing career, she remains an iconic figure in individualism and activism.
Early in her life, growing up in a fully segregated North Carolina in the 1930s, Eunice Kathleen Waymon (her birth name) would come to the attention of her mother’s employers, through playing piano at her mother’s church. With an arrangement to study piano with pianist Muriel Mazzanovich, Waymon would be tutored in the classics, focusing on Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Schubert. She would recall specifically the first personal incident of segregation in her church, when asked to perform a recital. “At my first recital in my family church, my parents were seated in the back – I said ‘why are my parents all the way in the back?’, I refused to play – so they moved them upfront – I recoiled at the horror of such a thing.”
Learning quickly and advancing to complicated classical compositions on piano while still just in her teens, she would also graduate at the top of her high school class, receiving a grant to study at the Julliard School of Music in New York City during the summer of 1950. With Julliard as preparation for her next step in becoming a classical pianist, Waymon applied for enrollment in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but was denied admission despite her exceptional ability and established qualifications. She would later reflect upon this denial of acceptance not as a mysterious rejection, but rather more directly a result of her race.
As perseverance would be her signature strength throughout her career, Waymon, then still in her early twenties, would make her own decision to pursue her art and expression in music by whatever means. In the 1950s, after being refused enrollment in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Waymon would find work playing piano and singing, making her own improvised arrangements, with no other band members, at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The musician wages income was used primarily to fund private piano lessons. It was during this period that she would adopt the name Nina Simone, knowing that her mother would not approve of her “playing the Devil’s music” and thereby remaining disguised by her stage name. Simone would recall how she valued this period as “learning on the job,” reading the audience in a bar scene format, and mixing in a combination of jazz, blues, and classical music.
In 1958, still playing small clubs, Simone found early success with a unique voicing and emotional rendering of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy.” Having a major top twenty Billboard hit helped jumpstart her career, and Simone acknowledged being influenced by Billie Holiday’s version, though many reviewers felt her take was the most sensitive phrasing and interpretation. Christopher Laws of Culturedarm states, “her voice is disengaged and distant, plaintive but pure, and tremulous on the word ‘vine’ (referring to the lyric’s medley including “Strawberry Woman”). She brings out an aspect of the songwriting, ‘just off de vine’ homophonous with ‘just off the vine’, establishing from the onset a discrepancy between hopes and ideals and a bitter reality.”
Simone’s “I Loves You, Porgy” would also introduce her debut album, Little Girl Blue, in February 1959. She would become dissatisfied with the lack of promotion and artistic support from the record label Bethlehem Records, particularly when her legal rights to this album, with significant sales generated by “I Loves You Porgy,” were sold for $3000. Later figures estimate her royalty rights for this debut release alone would have been more than a million dollars.
There would be several seminal performances in Simone’s career that established her remarkable individual and distinct style of singing. Her 1960 debut performance at the Newport Jazz Festival brought early critical attention to her artistry and unconventional singing style. In the 2015 documentary “What Happened, Ms. Simone?” George Wein, the late founder, director, and producer of the Newport Jazz Festival, relayed his response to hearing Simone’s performance that night: “I was impressed; she mixed in folk music with jazz. Her voice was completely different from anyone else – it was a women’s voice but it had the depth of a baritone – that depth in the darkness carried the insight that was in Nina’s soul.”
During this period, she had just signed with record label Coldpix, which released her set of blues and folk tunes as Nina Simone at Newport. Through the early 1960s Simone would release a string of studio and live albums with Coldpix, to increasing sales and popularity. Included in this period is the standout recording, Nina Simone at Town Hall, which AllMusic’s Scott Yarnow reviewed with praise: “One of Nina Simone’s finest recordings…features unique singer/pianist performing classic versions of ‘Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,’ ‘The Other Woman,’ and ‘Wild Is the Wind”…Simone carves out her own special niche, meshing together her classical piano technique with folk singing, civil rights protest lyrics and jazz.”
Performing regularly at nightclubs in Greenwich Village, New York City, during the early 60s, with a performance captured on Nina at the Village Gate (1962), Simone would mix with a politically and socially active crowd of performers, musicians, poets, writers and rising civil rights leaders. Musically, she would also meet a lifelong friend and collaborator, jazz guitarist Al Schackman. Schackman, having his own jazz band performing in Greenwich Village, invited Simone to sit in one night for a session and he felt he’d finally found an artistic soulmate. “I had never felt such freedom in knowing that someone knew exactly where I was going, and she knew that I knew exactly where she was going…it was like telepathy…I think we saw in each other’s playing, a reflection of the way we approached music, which was to tell a story beyond the notes and with color.” (Alan Light, “What Happened Miss Simone?”, Cannongate Books, 2016).
The early 1960s would mark a significant and dynamic direction in Simone’s professional and personal life. She would marry Andrew Stroud in 1961, a former police detective, who in several years would become her manager. Their relationship would remain contentious both personally and professionally, with escalating confrontation including both emotional and physical abuse, reported in detail by Simone in her daily diary.
A debut performance at Carnegie Hall, New York City, in 1963, arranged by her husband acting with ever-increasing management and control of her life, would be bittersweet, as Simone had wanted to be the first black female pianist to perform a classical concert at the landmark venue. Her performance did however begin an axis on which her career was to turn, as stated by Carnegie Hall archives, “toward the passionate protest music and political anger for which she became known.”
Simone’s developing involvement in the civil rights movement was also to become a commitment throughout her life from then on. Her compositions and performances would include civil rights messages and outright statements of indignation and a call for action, even if violent. She had met and shared support and friendship with intellectuals of the movement including poet Langston Hughes, social-racial novelist and playwright James Baldwin, and other key figures in political activism, such as Stokely Carmichael. Changing record labels again, from Coldpix to the Dutch Philips Records, was also a move towards a record label that would allow her the freedom of protest in her songwriting. “Mississippi Goddam,” written in response to the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medger Evers and the bombing of a Black Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young Black girls, was, in her own words, “my first civil rights song.” In an interview, she expressed that the song came to her “in a rush of fury, hatred, and determination.” Promotional copies were smashed by Carolina radio stations and returned to Philips Records (source: Wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_Simone) and other southern radio stations and politicians took similar actions and made verbal attacks against Simone both professionally and personally. Her longtime musical partner and friend, Al Schackman, reflected on the impact of the release thusly: “It was revolutionary – DJs refused to play and boxes of 45s were sent back from radio stations – cracked in two.”
In the Liz Garbus’ 2015 documentary, “What Happened, Ms. Simone?,” in an excerpt from a taped interview, Simone articulates her need for emotional release and acknowledging, in her singing voice, the outrage she felt about racism in all forms. “What I was interested in conveying was an emotional message – which means using everything you got inside you sometimes and still barely make a note, or if you have to strain to sing, you sing – and sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes coffee and cream.”
As Simone’s direction in messaging, compositions and performances increased in political content and activism, her record sales slowed. She was directly involving herself with the actions of the civil rights movement in song and presence, at meetings, gatherings, and protests including the Selma to Montgomery marches held in 1965. The music market was not finding a profitable outlet for Simone’s change in style and content, but she continued to write songs that reflected the hypocrisy of inequality and racism in the United States.
With a recording contract at RCA Victor, she would sing, “Backlash Blues,” with lyrics written by her close friend, Harlem Renaissance leader, and poet Langston Hughes, released on her first RCA album, Nina Simone Sings the Blues. Again, stridently pointing a finger at the suppression of Black Americans under tyranny and control by America’s White class establishment. In her most direct lyrics, the anger and accusations are true to her fearless and emboldened nature:
So, Mr. Backlash, Backlash
Who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
Send my son to Vietnam
You give me second class schools
Do you think that all colored people
Are just second-class fools?
Other releases under RCA Victor would follow with political and social content including Silk & Soul (1967) and ‘Nuff Said!’ (1968) which contained live recordings from the Westbury Music Fair, three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Performing “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” in his memory, Simone stated that the time for nonviolence and protest was past, and action, even violent, was now justified and necessary to obtain equal civil rights in the United States. When she performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, her messaging, as captured in the 2021 documentary Summer of Soul, is ferocious and inciting, calling out the audience to take action.
Simone’s last major civil rights-directed release of this period was “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which was her song and ode to Black American youth, performed at many Black colleges and universities. It marked a turning point in her belief that this generation needed to explore and learn about their past, however painful, and not accept the current version of history taught in U.S. schools.
As stated by her husband and then-manager, Andrew Stroud, becoming a legend in the civil rights’ activist movement with her political message and focus, “killed her recording and performance career.” In 1970, Simone would leave the U.S. ostensibly to protest the Vietnam War, but with dwindling record sales and income, she was also facing significant legal issues mounting in unpaid taxes. Her travels to escape arrest in the U.S. for tax violation would take her to Barbados, Liberia, and Switzerland, where she would play for musician’s wages at $200 to $300 a night.
Returning briefly to NYC in 1974, suicidal and with severe depression, she would manage the last recording with RCA, It Is Finished. Returning to live abroad, according to accounts by other musicians and friends, she “stayed everywhere and nowhere.”
In the 1980s, Simone found regular performance work at the famous London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, where she released a recording of these gigs in 1984 called Live at Ronnie Scott’s. With a loyal following in Europe, Simone successfully covered some of her most famous songs, which as reviewed by AllMusic critic Scott Yanow, “still sound quite fresh and relevant.”
Returning to France, Simone had a regular act at the Paris nightclub Aux Trois Mailletz. Signs of her declining health became evident on stage as well as drunkenness, at times scolding the audience, and yet by critics’ reviews, she still had some brilliant moments. But she was broke, and a few friends, including her musical soulmate, jazz guitarist Al Schackman, stepped in and intervened. As related in the 1975 documentary, What Happened, Ms. Simone?, her longtime Dutch friend Gerritt de Bruin said, “her living situation was worse than horrible, we had to move her out, and did.”
In 1988, through these existing friendships, including Schackman and manager Ray Gonzales, Simone afforded to finally settle in an apartment in the Netherlands, moving out of a cabaret hand-to-mouth existence in the Paris’ nightclub scene.
Her last major financial success oddly came from her 1958 song, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” which was used in a commercial for Chanel No.5 perfume in Europe. Rereleased as a single, it “stormed to number 4 on the UK’s NME singles chart, giving Simone a brief surge in popularity in the UK and elsewhere.” (source: Wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_Simone)
At this same time, Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In 1993, she moved back to France, with medical intervention, and support emotionally and financially from a few close and loyal friends. Her final recording would be Single Woman (1993). Suffering from breast cancer, Simone passed away on April 21, 2003.
As an iconic figure in jazz who straddled music as both an interpretive vehicle for her voice and as a pianist, while also being socially and politically an activist, Simone is unique in category, style, and influence. In addition, her artistry cannot be separated from her motivations, actions, and commitment to racial equality. In her own words, the intent is clear: “I chose to reflect the times I live in. That is my duty, at this crucial time when every day is an act of survival. I can’t be an artist and not reflect the times – showing the anger and rage with words – wanting to shake people up so bad that when they leave my performance, they are in pieces.”