Legendary jazz vocalist, songwriter, and civil rights activist Nina Simone has influenced dozens of celebrated artists with her unique and formidable abilities. Simone’s distinctive voice influenced many of today’s artists, including Aretha Franklin, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, and many others. After a long and fruitful career, Simone would pass away in France on this day at the age of 70.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in the small town of Tyron in North Carolina, Simone was a musical prodigy: At age 4, she began piano lessons and singing in her church’s choir. With six other siblings, times were hard in her household, but a generous music teacher gave her special assistance. Winning a scholarship, Simone would head to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music in the art of classical piano.
With money becoming scarce, Simone dropped out of Juilliard and traveled south to Philadelphia to restart her academic career. When she was rejected by a vaunted music program there, which she claims was racially motivated, she turned her back on classical music and began playing jazz standards.
Eventually, she would start singing along and amassed a following of admirers, such as writers Langston Hughes and James Baldwin in the 1950s. It was then she took the stage name Nina Simone, and her popularity grew.
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was taking shape and it coincided heavily with the arc of Simone’s career at that point. Growing tired of doing pop music tunes, Simone and then-husband/manager Andrew Stroud shifted her sound to a more radical, message-based path. Simone had never been shy about her African-American roots in song, but in the mid- to- late-’60s, it was apparent she was ready to rise to a new challenge.
Her 1964 album, “Nina Simone In Concert,” featured the stirring “Mississippi Goddamn,” a song she wrote in response to the savage murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombings.
Watch Simone perform “Mississippi Goddamn” here:
On the same record, Simone touched upon the racist Jim Crow laws with the song “Old Jim Crow.” The songs catapulted her as a strong voice and fixture of the movement although she preached a far more fiery and violent message in contrast to Martin Luther King’s non-violent practices.
In the 1970s, Simone would embark on a journey that had her traipsing through several countries before settling in France. After returning to America from Barbados, Simone received a warrant for her arrest over unpaid taxes. She refused to pay the government in protest of the Vietnam War. Sensing that she would be detained, Simone lived abroad in Liberia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
Simone recorded heavily between 1974 and 1993 and maintained a busy touring schedule throughout Europe. She would record her final album, “A Single Woman,” in 1993.
Watch Simone perform “A Single Woman” here:
Simone struggled with her health and finances in her final years, but was performing recently as 1999 alongside her daughter, Lisa Stroud (pictured), who sings and acts under the stage name Simone.
Simone passed away in her home from still-unknown causes, although it was rumored to be cancer-related.
Watch Simone perform “The Other Woman” here:
Simone’s stirring and resonant vocals have yet to be re-enacted in current times, which is a testament to just how special her talents were. Although many of her songs possibly would not cut through the cookie-cutter din of today’s market, vocalists and musicians of high repute owe Simone a great deal of gratitude. A powerful woman with an even more powerful voice and message, Nina Simone lives on through song and spirit.
Rest In Powerful Peace, Nina Simone!