The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering

Tim Flight - September 16, 2019

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Vladimir Sokoloff and pianist Ruth Butterfield-Winter in front of the Curtis Institute of Music, July 1984. Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Boardwalk, Atlantic City, in the 1950s. Pinterest

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina in the 1950s. Biography

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!

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina in the 1970s. Westbury Arts

26. In 1958, she married a beatnik poet

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Original vinyl pressing of Nina’s first hit, ‘I Loves You, Porgy’. Way Back Attack

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Little Girl Blue’, Nina’s first LP. Jazz Messengers

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Amazing Nina Simone’, Nina’s first recording for Coptix Records. CD and LP

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina and Andy Stroud in a hotel, 1960s. Daily Telegraph

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’.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina performs at the Carnegie Hall for the second time in 1964. Pinterest

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Medgar Evans, pictured here in 1958, whose assassination in 1963 inspired ‘Mississippi Goddam’. Biography

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina depicted on a Civil Rights mural in Baltimore. Artsology

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
One of the Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965, with Martin Luther King leading the way. New Republic

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Malcolm X in the 1960s. Ethics

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nation of Islam counter-demonstration at an NAACP rally in Harlem, 1961, advocating the creation of an all-black state. Boston Review

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’.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina in 1968. The Guardian

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Lorraine Hansberry, a friend and mentor to Nina. PSMag

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
‘Wild is the Wind’, Nina’s 1966 album featuring ‘Four Women’. Discogs

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina at Fillmore East, Greenwich Village, May 1970. Morrison Hotel Gallery

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Protest march against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC, November 1965. New Yorker

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina and Andy Stroud, late 1960s. Flickr

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow, civil rights activist, Prime Minister of Barbados, and Nina’s lover, pictured with Eric Williams. Hansib

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina attends a birthday party in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1974. Guernica

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina and Lisa, late 1960s or early 1970s. Irish Mirror

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Johann Sebastian Bach, Nina’s favourite composer, depicted by E. G. Haussmann in 1748. Times of Israel

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina, c.1997. Blogspot

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.

 

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina, pictured here in the late 1960s, was a famously-heavy smoker. Project Revolver

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina performing in her adopted homeland, France, in May 1982. Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
An 8-foot high statue of Nina at the Plaza named after her in Tryon, NC. Blogspot

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Films such as this 2015 documentary are ensuring a new generation are exposed to Nina’s music. IMDB

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.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Chandler, Adam. “What Happened to Nina Simone?”. The Atlantic, June 27, 2015.

Cohodas, Nadine. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Keepnews, Peter. “Nina Simone, 70, Soulful Diva and Voice of Civil Rights, Dies”. The New York Times, April 22, 2003.

Light, Alan. What Happened, Miss Simone? A Biography. New York: Random House, 2016.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone Turned the Movement into Music”. The New Yorker, August 3, 2014.

Simone, Nina, and Stephen Cleary. I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone. London: Penguin, 2003.

Advertisement