The Unforgettable Nina Simone Art
Nina Simone was definitely among the most remarkable artists of the last century, a true icon of what American music is all about. Het music is Art of the finest kind. Nina was a great musical storyteller who has always used her phenomenal talent for boosting empowerment, liberation, love, and passion.
Her artistic body of works is so hypnotic, seductive, amazing, and magnificent that Nina was known as the “High Priestess of Soul”. Many listeners would lose track of space and time to get totally absorbed in her artistic work. A great example of Nina’s way of playing can be seen in this 1976 Video of her Montreux Jazz Festival Performance:
Nina Simone was born in 1933, on February 1, as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in the small town of Tryon, North Carolina. Her talent for music became evident already at an early age when she began to play the piano at age three without any training, and her parents, a preacher and a minister themselves, stimulated her to play piano in the church of her mother. Nina did not sing but displayed her remarkable talent for playing practically anything by ear,
It wasn’t long before Nina (then still Eunice) started to study classical music taught by Muriel Mazzanovich, an English woman, who lived in Tryon, and who inspired her to love the works of Chopin, Johann Sebastian Bach, Brahms, Schubert, and Beethoven. After graduating from high school, the local community raised funds to let young Eunice study at Julliard at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in Manhattan, New York City, where she studied music. Later on, Nina applied to the prestigious and world-renown Philadelphia Curtis Institute of Music in Pennsylvania.
Her admission at Curtis was, however, denied so Eunice’s hopes for a shining career as a classical pianist and a pioneer of African American music were in shambles. To the very end, Nina Simone claimed that brutal racism was the only reason for the school not to let her in, but whereas her dreams were unfulfilled, young Eunice started out on a pathway that led to her unbelievable and worldwide career as singer and pianist Nina Simone.
To make a living, she began to teach music to other local students and one day in 1954, while trying to make ends meet, Eunice auditioned to perform at a New Jersey bar (the Atlantic City Midtown Bar and Grill on Pacific Ave). It wasn’t long before many people wanted to hear this new singer-pianist who knew all the works of famous artists like Cole Porter, Gershwin, or Richard Rodgers and who also transformed popular every-day melodies into a one-of-a-kind synthesis of classical music, jazz, and blues. Her deep and rich vocal tones in combination with her great piano playing soon attracted numerous music lovers all along the eastern seaboard and before long, Eunice became known as Nina Simone, “Nina” standing for “little one” in the Spanish language and “Simone” for French actress and movie star Simone Signoret.
When she was 24, Nina signed a contract with the jazz label Bethlehem Records. In 1957, at a 13-hour mammoth recording session in New York City, she performed the song “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, a song previously put on record by Count Basie, Woody Herman, and Nate King Cole, and when in the ’80s that song appeared in a Chanel perfume commercial all across Europe, it became one of Nina’s greatest hits ever.
Nina’s didn’t stay with Bethlehem Records long and in after she had moved to New York in 1959, a recording deal was struck with Colpix Records (part of Columbia Pictures) and that same year, her debut album was released, titled “The Amazing Nina Simone”, When Nina performed in 1959 at the mid-Manhattan Town Hall on September 12, Colpix recorded her show including the song “You Can Have Him” which was previously recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, one of the show’s highlights.
In 1960, Nina was invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival where she was accompanied by drummer Bobby Hamilton, bassist Chris White, and Al Schackman, the wonderful guitarist who became Nina Simon’s longest-running colleague. The Newport performance was Colpix records and the subsequent 1961 release of the blues song “Trouble In Mind” resulted in Nina’s third hit in the charts.
During Nina’s five-year stay with Colpix, she recorded nine wonderful albums that included world-famous tracks like her version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”, the classic Bessie Smith blues song, the soulfully sung “Cotton Eyed Joe” and the civil rights song “Brown Baby” by Oscar Brown Jr. Check out also this article: A Tribute To Nina Simone.
The recordings for Colpix portrayed Nina as nightclub singer but after she moved to Mercury Records (a division of the Dutch Philips Corporation), she wanted to expand her audience and following on a global scale. Nina’s first album for Mercury Records came out in 1964 and was titled “In Concert”. The album is a clear statement of Nina’s stand for justice and freedom for all, establishing her reputation as an inspirational leader and pioneer in the American Civil Rights Movement. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” (written by Nina) was across the American South banned from radio stations but Nina wasn’t affected by a response like that as she continued on her path towards liberty and justice for all. Following Mercury recordings were groundbreaking such as the 1965 songs “Four Women” and “Strange Fruit” through which Nina continued to stay at the forefront of just a few performers who were ready to use music and art as the proper vehicle for change and social commentary and justice.
Nina was affected and deeply touched by the murder of Medgar Evers and the Alabama church bombing. When she became close friends with Lorraine Hansberry, a well-known playwright, and together, they often spoke about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and while Nina was seriously moved by the conversations with her friend Hansberry, it were the Medgar Evers and the four Birmingham girls killings that acted for her as a catalysts for Nina’s career transformation.
Nina Simone was clearly an artist that could not be classified easily and there were many different sides to her. Among Nina’s most amazing and successful recordings were “I Put A Spell On You” and the soulful “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”. After Nina signed a recording deal with RCA in 1967, she released her famous album titled “Nina Sings The Blues” that included “Do I Move You?” and the sensually “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl”. On this album, Nina was accompanied by a stellar cast of session musicians from New York City.
Nina stayed with RCA for seven years in which she produced some of her most remarkable recordings including two Broadway musical “Hair” songs that were combined into one famous international hit “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life which was a smash hit all over Europe. In her RCA years, Nina also recorded songs written by other big names like Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”, the Gibb brothers’“To Love Somebody”, and Tina Turner’s “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter”, and her classic song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”, written in memory of Lorraine Hansberry, Nina’s beloved friend.
After leaving RCA records, Nina lived a good deal abroad in Liberia, England, Barbados, Belgium, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and France during the 70s and early 80s. In 1978 though, Nina was convinced by American jazz veteran and virtuoso Creed Taylor to record an album for Creed’s CTI label, the first time since she had left RCA records. This was Nina’s first album after six years. The album was recorded in a Belgian studio while the background vocals and strings were cut and added in New York City. The music had a typical CTI recordings sort of “clean” sound that later on, Nina said she hated, but a lot of her admirers strongly disagree. The results of an 18- piece string section, conducted by David Mathews who is famous for his arrangement works on recordings of James Brown, were no less than spectacular.
From then on, Nina made just a few albums including “Fodder On My Wings” (1982), “Nina’s Back”, “Live And Kickin” (1985), and “Live At Vine Street” (1987). Only her full-length album for Elektra records “A Single Woman” including the same-titled song, is actually really noteworthy. More of above-mentioned Creed Taylor’s specific sound can be heard at some Donna Summer hit recordings.
In 1993, and after two marriages, Nina settled in southern France in a village named Carry-le-Rout, not far from Aix-en-Provence. All through the 1990s, she continued to tour but she had become much like “the single woman” she had been singing about on her last recordings. Nina rarely traveled alone but those who got to know her better could maybe understand the pain of the solitary soul behind the misunderstood artist. By her life’s end, Nina Simone celebrated an unprecedented glorious degree of respect and recognition. Nina Simone died in 2003, on April 21, and let’s be grateful to this phenomenal artist for leaving us with an incredible treasure of music that spans more than four decades.