Nina Simone is one of the most important figures in 20th century music. From humble origins, she found great fame in the 1960s with her mixture of original compositions and interpretations of standard tunes. Despite her fame and being one of the most gifted pianists in the history of popular music, Simone never scored a Billboard Number One hit. Sound strange? Nina’s life was just as extraordinary. In this article, we’ll discover what made the great lady tick, her important role in the Civil Rights movement, and the controversies that dogged her private life. Fasten your seatbelts.
40. She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, and later adopted the stage name ‘Nina Simone’
The name ‘Nina Simone’ is a stage name. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, her real name did not hold the same intrigue. She began performing jazz and blues live at an Atlantic City bar around 1954. Eunice worried her deeply-religious mother would object to her daughter playing what the press called ‘the Devil’s Music’ in so dingy and sinful a setting. To prevent her finding out, she took on a new public identity. Eunice chose ‘Nina’ because a Spanish-speaking boyfriend nicknamed her niña (‘girl’), and ‘Simone’ in homage to the French movie star, Simone Signoret.
39. Nina grew up very poor in North Carolina during the Great Depression
Nina (as we’ll call her throughout, to avoid confusion) came into this world in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933. She grew up with seven siblings in the 650 square feet, three-roomed house photographed above. Her mother, Kate Waymon, was a Methodist minister. Her father, John Devan Waymon, was a handyman who owned a dry-cleaning business. Nina looked back on her childhood fondly, but the family was very poor. In 1933, North Carolina’s agricultural and manufacturing economy was especially hard-hit by the Great Depression, which meant that the Waymon family had to learn to live extremely frugally.
38. She spent her childhood in the Jim Crow-era South
The young Nina not only had to deal with terrible poverty, but the horrors of the Jim Crow Laws. These enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. The Jim Crow Laws made it clear that whites and blacks had to be separated because of the inferiority and wickedness of black people, and in North Carolina even libraries had segregated areas for readers. Books couldn’t pass from black people to white people or vice versa, and even the North Carolina State Militia was segregated. Growing up with Jim Crow, Nina’s fury at such injustice later blossomed into Civil Rights activism.
37. She began playing the organ then she was just two and a half
Nina’s home was poor, but musical. Her pious parents had a keen appreciation of music, and the tiny, overcrowded family home was full of religious songs. Aged just two and a half, the intrepid Nina learned not only to climb up onto the organ stool at St Luke Church, where her mother preached, but taught herself to play the instrument. One day she even surprised her mother by playing her favourite hymn, ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again’. ‘We knew she was a genius by the time she was just three’, recalled her brother Carrol.
36. Her mother was a minister, and so her early performances were at Methodist Churches
Like Carrol, Nina’s parents soon realised that they had a musical prodigy on their hands. They exempted her from household chores to protect her little fingers, but incredibly her less-fortunate siblings didn’t begrudge her the special treatment. When Mary Kate Waymon began travelling to Methodist churches in surrounding counties to preach, she took her four-year-old daughter with her to provide musical accompaniment. Dressed in her smartest clothes, Nina was so small that she could hardly reach the organ’s pedals, but still blew congregations away with her precocious displays of talent.
35. She was taught by an inspirational piano teacher, who raised funds for Nina to attend a private boarding school for black girls
Aged just five, Nina’s ability so impressed Mrs. Miller, whose house Kate Waymon cleaned for extra cash, that she paid for a year’s piano lessons with an Englishwoman called Muriel Mazzanovich, affectionately known as Miss Mazzy. Nina flourished and developed a lifelong love of composers such as Bach, and she did so well that Miller and another kindly local, Esther Moore, continued to pay for the lessons for years. Miss Mazzy, in turn, helped to secure donations to the ‘Eunice Waymon Fund’ to pay for Nina to go to a good, private school where her talent could be further nurtured.
34. Aged just 11, Nina refused to perform a recital when her parents were moved to the back of the venue because of their race
Miss Mazzy also taught Nina the etiquette of a concert pianist and arranged for her to perform piano recitals in public. One of these recitals was crucial in the development of Nina’s social consciousness. In 1944, 11-year-old Nina was due to play at the Lanier Library to an all-white crowd, but had insisted that her parents attend. Kate and John sat at the front, but just as Nina was ready to begin, she saw her parents being hustled to the back. Incredibly, Nina refused to play until her parents were returned to their seats. The shocked host obliged.
33. At school, Nina was so smart that she skipped two grades
Thanks to the generosity of Tryon locals such as Mrs. Miller, Nina went to Allen High School for Girls, an elite private boarding establishment for black girls in Asheville, North Carolina, between 1945 and 1950. But her musical talent was too great even for Allen when she arrived, and the school let her get private tuition off-campus with a friend of Miss Mazzy. She loved her new school, with its brand new textbooks and beautiful surroundings, and became president of numerous societies. Nina also shone academically, skipping two grades and graduating as her class’s valedictorian in 1950.
32. After leaving school in Asheville, Nina dreamed of becoming the first African-American concert pianist
After her glittering high school career came to an end, Nina had one thing on her mind: to become a professional concert pianist. She had everything needed to achieve this dream – natural musical talent, real passion for the great composers, classical training, and an extraordinary work ethic – and believed that she would become the first African-American concert pianist in America in so doing. Unknown to Nina, however, there were in fact several black women performing classical piano at the time, which goes to show how much information technology has improved in the last 70 years!
31. In 1950, 17-year-old Nina studied with the great pianist, Carl Friedburg, at Juilliard School in New York City
Miss Mazzy managed to secure Nina a scholarship to the celebrated Juilliard School of Music after leaving Allen for the summer of 1950. Aged just 17, Nina lived in New York away from her family and friends in a shared house in Harlem. Her main teacher was Carl Friedburg, a former student of the famous Clara Schumann, who had performed with the Vienna Philharmonic amongst others. Nina found herself moving between two very different worlds that summer: the mostly-white world of Juilliard, and the all-black borough of Harlem, but found herself more at home at the former.
30. But she soon suffered a blow when her application to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected
After her summer scholarship ended, Nina decided to apply to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. It guaranteed one-to-one tuition and gave full scholarships to every student, but perhaps even more importantly her mother and two younger siblings moved to Philadelphia in late 1950. Nina stayed in New York to prepare for her audition in April 1951, and moved in with her family soon afterwards. But within days came the crushing news that she had been rejected. For the rest of her life, Nina believed that this was motivated by racism. Curtis awarded her an honorary degree in 2003.
29. She took further lessons, and worked as a photographer’s assistant, while waiting for her big break
Although the suspicions of racism at least stopped Nina thinking her rejection had come because she wasn’t good enough, they also stopped her working hard to apply again the following year, which had been her original plan. Deflated, she declared herself ‘a stranger to the piano’, and took a job as a photographer’s assistant. But luckily her brother, Carrol, encouraged her not to give up, and she took lessons with Vladimir Sokoloff, a teacher from Curtis, in preparation for reapplying. Nina gave up her job, and paid for Sokoloff’s lessons by working as an accompanist at a local vocal studio.
28. Nina began performing (and singing) at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City to pay for her lessons, and soon had a loyal following
As well as giving piano lessons herself at $2.50 an hour, Nina also began giving paid performances in public, and realised that better money could be earned through these gigs. Nina wound up getting a nightly slot at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City in June 1954, and even though she (rightly) saw it as beneath her great talents as a classical pianist, the experience proved the turning point of her career. The bar’s owner threatened to sack her if she didn’t sing, and despite her reluctance her distinctive voice and musical virtuosity soon drew loyal crowds.
27. Nina’s performances and recordings also attracted the attention of a music label
Nina proved so popular at the Midtown that she was in demand all over the East Coast. A recording of one of her shows at a club called New Hope in Philadelphia fell into the hands of Sid Nathan, who owned the jazz label Bethlehem Records, and in 1957 Nina recorded a few songs with him. Nathan offered her a record deal, but Nina refused to be told what to play and record, which led to some fiery arguments. The notoriously stubborn Nina ultimately overcame Nathan’s resistance, and her subsequent career proved her absolutely correct!
In 1956, Nina met Don Ross, a Beatnik poet who worked as a fairground barker in Atlantic City. Ross lived the lifestyle of a drifter, but he was irresistible to a lonely Nina: ‘he was at the bar [the Midtown] every night, and I was lonely and drinking milk’, she explained. The Waymon family did not like him and saw him as a leech, but nonetheless Nina and Ross married in 1958. Perhaps her family were right all along, however, as Nina swiftly regretted the marriage and they separated after less than a year, legally divorcing in 1960.
25. Also in 1958, Nina released her first single and scored her only top-20 hit
After ironing out her differences with Sid Nathan – or, more accurately, browbeating him into submission – Nina’s cover version of I Loves You, Porgy, from George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, was sent to local radio stations. Nina used her classical training to improve the song, and really made it her own. It was so popular that DJs would play it several times in a row but, incredibly, Nina had to fight Nathan tooth-and-nail to convince him to release it as a single. When finally released, it reached the Billboard Top 20 chart in 1959, making Nina a star almost overnight.
24. Her first album, Little Girl Blue, was a success, but she made next to nothing from it
I Loves You, Porgy, was included on Nina’s first album, Little Girl Blue, which also came out in 1958. The single when finally released made the album a real success, and it included 11 tracks in total, with only one an original composition by Nina. Sadly, like countless other African-Americans in the music industry in the mid-20th century, Nina was paid the flat amount of $3, 000 for her work, rather than receiving royalties. Although it seemed a fortune at the time, it is estimated that the crooked deal brokered by Nathan eventually cost Nina $1 million in lost royalties.
23. Despite signing a contract with Coptix Records, Nina saw her commercial success as the means to fund her classical training
After the success of Little Girl Blue, Nina signed a record deal with Coptix Records, a much bigger label than Bethlehem. Unlike Bethlehem, Coptix would actually promote her music without Nina having to shout at them, and most importantly handed over all creative control to the artist. But despite achieving a level of success that few musicians ever do, Nina still saw herself as a concert pianist releasing popular music to make ends meet and, more importantly, to pay for her private lessons, and was utterly indifferent to her fame and success away from classical recitals.
22. She married a New York cop, Andy Stroud, in 1961, but he was appallingly abusive
A year after formally divorcing Don Ross, Nina married Andy Stroud, a New York cop. He helped her to deal with the inconveniences of fame and later became her manager, and in 1962 they had a daughter together, but this wasn’t the whole story. Stroud was a cruel and violent man, and his treatment of Nina is truly horrifying. To give but one example, after seeing her pocket a note from a fan at a disco, Nina wrote in her diary, ‘[Stroud] beat me all the way home… placed a gun to my head, tied me up and raped me’.
21. In 1963, Nina achieved her dream of performing at the Carnegie Hall, New York
One good thing that Stroud did for Nina was to get her booked to play at the famous Carnegie Hall, New York. This was a lifelong dream come true for Nina: the Carnegie was a famous venue for classical music, and no less than the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky conducted at its opening night in May 1891. Nina was extremely nervous before she played on April, 12, 1963, but her performance won rave reviews and saw a live album released. Best of all for Nina, both Miss Mazzy and her parents were in the crowd to see her perform.
20. Her 1964 anti-racism anthem, Mississippi Goddam, was extremely controversial
Nina’s social conscience, developed during her youth in the Jim Crow south, exploded into action in 1964. That year she wrote Mississippi Goddam in response to the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers in the state, and the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. ‘All I want is equality/ for my sister my brother my people and me’, Nina raged in the song. Mississippi Goddam was very popular at her concerts, but was immediately banned in several Southern states, and radio stations nationwide returned promotional copies they’d been sent broken in half.
19. From this point on, Nina started writing more and more Civil Rights protest songs
Mississippi Goddam marked a turn in the lyrical direction of Nina’s career. Realising she had a platform as a famous musician, she used her influence for good, and tried to secure her fellow African-Americans the same basic rights as everyone else. She realised that in so doing she was taking a big risk with her career, but as ever Nina did what she thought was right, and wouldn’t be dissuaded. For example, Backlash Blues, from 1967, with lyrics written by the poet Langston Hughes, hit out at the white racist reaction to the Civil Rights movement.
18. She performed at numerous Civil Rights protests, including the Selma to Montgomery Marches of 1965
When it came to Civil Rights, Nina didn’t just talk the talk, she walked the walk. In 1965, the three Selma to Montgomery Marches were held in protest at the murder of a peaceful protestor by Alabama state troopers and African-Americans being prevented from voting. On March, 25, Nina performed for the marchers at the City of St Jude, risking her own safety not just in turning up but by performing incendiary tracks such as Mississippi Goddam. Along with other prominent African-Americans such as Sammy Davis Jr, Nina played on a stage made out of empty coffin crates.
17. Her neighbour in Mount Vernon, New York, was none other than Malcolm X’s wife
Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X wanted a separate all-black state and saw all white people as evil. He later renounced these views when he left the Nation of Islam and promoted racial integration, but in February 1965 his former organisation murdered him in Manhattan. Despite popular myth, Malcolm did not live next door to Nina in New York, but his wife, Betty Shabazz, did. Nina heard Malcolm speak in Harlem, and approved of some of his ideas, but never met him. ‘Even now I wish I had known the man’, reflected Nina in later life.
16. Sickened by the appalling racism in 1960s America, she once advocated racial separatism
When she heard about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, Nina’s immediate reaction was understandably vitriolic: ‘I had it in mind to go out and kill someone. I tried to make a zip gun’, she remembered. In the event, Nina wrote Mississippi Goddam, but for some time she advocated separatism: ‘Much as I liked the idea of the world being as one and wanted it to be true, the more I looked around, the more I learned… the less I thought it would ever happen… but I didn’t believe that there was any basic difference between the races’.
15. Though she disagreed with his methods, Nina performed a song written by a member of her band, Why? (The King of Love is Dead), in tribute to Martin Luther King
After her performance at the Selma to Montgomery March, Nina met Martin Luther King onstage. Their exchange highlighted the fundamental difference between the pair’s outlook on the Civil Rights movement: ‘I’m not nonviolent!’, she greeted the doctor, referring to King’s policy of peaceful protest and resistance. She admired King, nonetheless, and when he was tragically murdered in 1968, Nina’s bassist, Gene Taylor, immediately composed Why? (The King of Love is Dead) in tribute. Three days later, Nina performed the moving track at the Westbury Music Festival, Long Island, perfectly capturing the nation’s widespread horror at King’s death.
14. Nina credited her friend Lorraine Hansberry with inspiring her to political activism
One of Nina’s best-known songs, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, is a tribute to her friend Lorraine Hansberry, an African-American playwright who died of pancreatic cancer at the tragically young age of 34 in 1965. Nina credited Hansberry with encouraging her to act on the bitter injustices she felt and get involved in the Civil Rights movement. Hansberry berated Nina for not taking a more public stand against events in the South, and Nina realised that she needed to get involved. ‘We never talked about men or clothes, always about Marx, Lenin and the Revolution. Girly things’, quipped Nina.
13. The 1966 song, Four Women, was a feminist anthem way ahead of its time
It wasn’t just Civil Rights in general that Nina’s music commented upon. In 1966, she wrote the song, Four Women, which explored the plight of African-American women specifically. The song confronted issues around body image, and the prevailing assumption that real beauty was only found in Caucasian women, and that any deviation from this ‘norm’ was inferior. It also confronted four stereotypes of black women, and highlighted how society absurdly determined their personalities and behaviour based entirely on their physical appearance. It seems that only now is the world catching up with Nina’s views, over fifty years later.
12. Nina’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement harmed her career
With all her protest songs, involvement in Civil Rights protest, and an attempt to incite a riot in Harlem in 1969 (‘Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings, are you ready? Are you ready to build black things?’) concert promoters and venues started seeing Nina as a dangerous person to book for shows. She was also positively loathed by the far right and much of the South, and so when the Civil Rights movement ended with its leaders dying, incarcerated, and (according to Nina) selling out, and the liberals’ focus switched to Vietnam, Nina was left high-and-dry.
11. She refused to pay her taxes in protest at the Vietnam War
‘You raise my taxes, freeze my wages/ and send my son to Vietnam’ raged Nina in Backlash Blues. Like many left-leaning Americans in the 1960s, Nina was dead against American involvement in the Vietnam War, which inspired widespread protests both in music and on the streets. The draft system targeted the lower classes and ethnic minorities, quite apart from the horrors of war itself, and so it is not hard to see why Nina was so critical of the conflict. In protest, she refused to pay any taxes to fund what she saw as a racist and immoral conflict.
10. In 1970, she finally escaped her abusive husband, and fled to Barbados
1970 was a big year for Nina. Her career was irreparably harmed by her Civil Rights involvement and she felt disenfranchised with the US after the movement’s end. Wholesale change was needed. With the end of the Civil Rights movement, Nina felt she had no purpose as a musician, and so no longer needed to put up with the physical and mental abuse of her monstrous husband, who was also her manager and looked after her bookings, finances, and publicity. Leaving her wedding ring on her pillow, she fled to Barbados.
9. In Barbados, Nina had a love affair with Errol Barrow, the prime minister
Taking her daughter, Lisa, with her, Nina spent a period of time in Barbados, initially on vacation, but then returned a few years later and started an affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow. Barrow is a much-revered national hero in Barbados, and during his term as the island’s first Prime Minister he achieved independence from Britain, introduced free education, improved healthcare, and oversaw a period of economic growth. He was also a passionate advocate of civil rights, and so it is no surprise that the two hit it off. Lisa remembers Barrow as her favourite of Nina’s boyfriends.
8. With an arrest warrant issued for her arrest over unpaid taxes, Nina could not return to the US
One of the reasons that Nina returned to live in Barbados after her initial vacation ended was because the US government issued an arrest warrant for her over the unpaid taxes. Nina’s refusal to pay taxes had been a political protest, and she hadn’t softened her stance on Vietnam. Instead, she left the US for good (periodically returning to play shows in later life), and after her affair with Errol Barrow ended Nina lived in Liberia for three years, then various places in Europe before settling near Aix-en-Provence in the South of France in 1993.
7. Her relationship with her only daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud, was strained and, at times, abusive
The tumult of Nina’s life started to show in her private life after she left the US. Although her daughter, Lisa, eventually joined her in Liberia, Nina was so cruel to her that she was soon on a plane back to New York to live with her father, aged just 14. ‘She [Nina] went from being my comfort to the monster in my life’, Lisa reflected in a 2015 interview. ‘My mother was angry with the world and often the only person around to blame was me’. Their relationship was so bad that Nina left Lisa out of her will.
6. Despite never fulfilling her dream of becoming a concert pianist, Nina’s original songs were heavily influenced by classical composers
Although she is primarily known as a jazz pianist and singer, classical music aficionados can tell from many songs that Nina was classically trained. Many of her reinterpretations add flourishes more commonly seen in the fugues of her favourite composer, Johan Sebastian Bach. Her original compositions are even more telling of Nina’s background and desire to be a classical pianist, and no matter how famous she became she always saw herself as a classical pianist playing popular music out of necessity. ‘Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music,’ she once explained.
5. She battled with a nasty pill-addiction during the height of her fame
As well as her own exacting standards, Nina’s punishing touring schedule – forced upon her by Andy Stroud, you’ll be unsurprised to hear – proved a heavy toll on her wellbeing. Anyone who has seen Nina perform with characteristic swagger will be shocked to hear that she often suffered from nerves before shows, which were made much worse by fatigue and the fear of not living up to her own standards, and so Nina became addicted to prescription pills during her 1960s heyday. She also became dependent on alcohol, though strenuously denied that she was ever an alcoholic.
4. Nina was famously belligerent, stubborn, and artistically-tempered
At concerts, Nina not only had high standards for herself but expected her audience to behave in a manner she deemed acceptable. After growing up playing classical recitals, Nina refused to tolerate anyone talking or not showing adequate attention at her shows, and would often stop playing to berate them or give them one of her trademark thousand-yard stares. Off-stage, too, Nina was uncompromising. She once fired buckshot over a neighbour’s garden to make their teenage kids quieten down. Nina’s mental illnesses, which only came to light after her death, explain her more violent episodes.
3. Nina suffered from mental illness, and wasn’t diagnosed until the 1980s
Like many other talented people, Nina suffered from bipolar disorder. This explains much of her erratic behaviour onstage and her treatment of Lisa, but sadly she was not diagnosed until the mid-1980s. She also likely had PTSD from her abusive second marriage. Nina lived for years with these conditions, completely un-medicated and untreated, and it was only after her death in 2003 that they came to light. Her fits of anger were misogynistically ascribed to her being a ‘diva’ during her life, but it is sad to note that many of Nina’s symptoms still define what makes a diva today.
2. In 2003, Nina died peacefully in her sleep after losing a battle with breast cancer
Nina’s career plummeted to the point that she once again played at bars and cafes (this time in Paris) for low sums of money. However, her career was reinvigorated in the 1980s after she received mental health treatment and began performing at bigger venues. Her role in the Civil Rights movement also won the great respect it deserved and her back catalogue was reassessed and finally won critical acclaim. In the late 1990s, however, Nina was struck down with breast cancer, and after a battle lasting a few years she died two months after her 70th birthday in 2003.
1. Her posthumous reputation is stronger than ever
Nina’s ashes were scattered in several African countries, but as is often the case with celebrity deaths, this ending was a beginning. For Nina is now more popular than ever, with all manner of musicians paying homage to her music and the more controversial episodes in her life being re-examined. Numerous biographies have been written about her and her amazing story has recently been immortalised in film. In 2015, two documentaries were released about Nina’s life, What Happened, Miss Simone? and The Amazing Nina Simone, and the following year a biopic entitled Nina starring Zoe Saldana was also released.
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