African American Studies Nina Simone
by
La Marr Jurelle Bruce
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0012

Introduction

One of the preeminent protest musicians of America’s civil rights movement, Nina Simone (b. 1933–d. 2003) was a trailblazing singer, songwriter, and pianist who raised her contralto voice to sing truth to power and chant down injustice. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, on 21 February 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone was the sixth of eight children of a Methodist minister mother and a handyman father. As a child in church, she showed prodigious talent at the piano and soon captured the attention of a local piano teacher, a white woman who trained her in classical pianism. Simone would briefly study at Julliard before applying for conservatory training at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. When she was denied admission to Curtis, Simone emphatically believed that racial prejudice was the culprit. Unenrolled and in search of steady income, she began playing the piano and singing at a nightclub in Atlantic City in 1954. Simone eventually amassed a fan base, attracted the notice of record executives, and subsequently began her career as recording artist. Hailed as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone also performed a virtuosic and genre-defying repertoire of blues, jazz, gospel, rock, folk, show-tunes, pop, and classical music inflected with her unmistakable contralto and accompanied by her exquisite piano playing. In particular, Simone is known for her iconic protest anthems, like “Four Women,” “Young, Gifted and Black,” and “Mississippi Goddam,” as well as her iconoclastic covers, such as “I Loves You, Porgy,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and “I Put a Spell on You.” In 1961, Simone married New York police detective Andrew Stroud, with whom she endured a sexually and physically abusive ten-year marriage. (Their only child, Simone née Lisa Celeste Stroud, was born in 1961.) Meanwhile, Nina Simone would befriend civil rights movement artist-activists including Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin, joining an influential cohort that mobilized their talents and celebrity for black liberation. While widely beloved for her protest music and bodacious activism, Simone would also earn a reputation for erratic and volatile behavior (likely related to the bipolar disorder for which she was medicated beginning in the 1960s). Disillusioned with America’s racist regimes, Simone migrated to Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, and eventually France, where she passed away from breast cancer on 21 April 2003. She influenced generations of musicians, including John Lennon, Gil-Scott Heron, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Jeff Buckley, and Lauryn Hill, among countless others. Musicians, fans, journalists, activists, and academics have generated a colossal corpus of material about her biography, creativity, politics, affiliations, and legacy.

Selected Recordings

Simone recorded an immense volume of studio and live material. The number of studio albums, live albums, and EPs she created—combined with greatest hits albums compiled by various record companies—exceeds one hundred. What follows are a few notable recordings featuring her most iconic tracks. Little Girl Blue (Simone 1958) is Simone’s first album and is essential for understanding her early sound and image. Nina Simone in Concert (Simone 1964), recorded at the famed Carnegie Hall, is among the most iconic of Simone’s dozens of concert albums. I Put a Spell on You (Simone 1965a) and Wild Is the Wind (Simone 1965b) both showcase Simone’s extraordinary interpretive skill and generic range. Nina Simone Sings the Blues (Simone 1967) has Simone covering blues classics and also features original lyrics penned by Langston Hughes and Abbey Lincoln, among others. Black Gold (Simone 1970) includes Simone’s iconic rendition of “Young, Gifted and Black” and received a Grammy nomination for best Female R&B Vocal Performance. A Single Woman (Simone 1993) is Simone’s final studio album—critical listening for those who want to understand the full arc and sweep of her career. Essential Nina Simone (Simone 2011) is a double-disc greatest hits album that includes twenty-nine of Simone’s most prominent tracks.

  • Simone, Nina. Little Girl Blue. LP. New York: Bethlehem Records, 1958.

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    This is Simone’s debut album. Included is her definitive cover of the Gershwin standard, “I Loves You Porgy,” which was a top 20 Billboard single in 1959. Also featured is her cover of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” which would generate renewed interest in Simone when used in a Chanel commercial in 1987. Other notable tracks on the album include “Feeling Good” and “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”

  • Simone, Nina. Nina Simone in Concert. LP. Chicago: Philips Records, 1964.

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    Recorded in 1964 at Carnegie Hall, this live album includes Simone’s bodacious protest anthem, “Mississippi Goddam,” and her simmering cover of Brecht and Weill’s “Pirate Jenny.”

  • Simone, Nina. I Put a Spell on You. LP. Chicago: Philips Records, 1965a.

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    Simone’s seventh studio album is a pop-oriented collection that features her trademark rendition of “I Put a Spell on You.” This tune was so iconic and so reflective of her mesmeric power over audiences that she would christen her autobiography the same.

  • Simone, Nina. Wild Is the Wind. LP. Chicago: Philips Records, 1965b.

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    This studio album contains Simone’s dreamy cover of the Irish traditional “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” It also features “Four Women,” Simone’s pithy original exploration of the embodiment and experience of four black women.

  • Simone, Nina. Nina Simone Sings the Blues. LP. New York: RCA, 1967.

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    For all of Simone’s radical genre-crossing, this album is devoted to the genre of the blues (though inflected with Simone’s singular interpretive prowess). It features Simone’s trademark “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” as well as “Blacklash Blues” (lyrics by Langston Hughes) and “Blues for Mama” (lyrics by Abbey Lincoln).

  • Simone, Nina. Black Gold. LP. New York: RCA, 1970.

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    This 1970 LP contains an iconic live version of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” recorded at the New York Philharmonic Hall. (A standalone studio single had been released in 1969.) The entire album, rather than any particular song, was nominated for the 1971 Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.

  • Simone, Nina. A Single Woman. CD. New York: Elektra, 1993.

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    This is Simone’s final studio album. Originally released in 1993 on the heels of her autobiography, the album was re-issued in 2008 as an expanded edition with seven bonus tracks. It has a somber tone, and feels like a meditation on mortality and eternity. Standout tracks include a remake of Barbra Streisand’s “Papa Can You Hear Me?” and the wistful, wanderlusty original recording, “Lonesome Cities.”

  • Simone, Nina. The Essential Nina Simone. CD. New York: RCA Legacy, 2011.

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    This greatest hits compilation contains twenty-nine of Simone’s most revered and resonant recordings, including “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” “I Loves You Porgy,” “I Put a Spell on You,” “Mississippi Goddam,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and “Ain’t Got No. . .I Got Life.”

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