Innovative Fusion of Styles
Simone began recording her music in the late 1950s under the Bethlehem label, releasing her first full album in 1957, which featured “Plain Gold Ring” and the title track “Little Girl Blue.” It also included her one and only Top 20 pop hit with her version of “I Loves You Porgy” from the George and Ira Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess. Under different labels, Simone released a bevy of albums from the late ’50s throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, including records like The Amazing Nina Simone(1959), Nina Simone Sings Ellington! (1962), Wild Is the Wind (1966) and Silk and Soul (1967). She also made cover songs of popular music, eventually putting her own spin on such songs as Bob Dylan‘s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and the Beatles‘ “Here Comes the Sun.” And she showed her sensual side with tracks like “Take Care of Business” on 1965’s I Put a Spell on You and “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” on 1967’s Nina Simone Sings the Blues.
In many ways, Simone’s music defied standard definitions. Her classical training showed through, no matter what genre of song she played, and she drew from a well of sources that included gospel, pop and folk. She was often called the “High Priestess of Soul,” but she hated that nickname. She didn’t like the label of “jazz singer,” either. “If I had to be called something, it should have been a folk singer because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing,” she later wrote in her autobiography.
Prominent Civil Rights Singer
By the mid-1960s, Simone became known as the voice of the Civil Rights Movement. She wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young African-American girls. She also penned “Four Women,” chronicling the complex histories of a quartet of African-American female figures, and “Young, Gifted and Black,” borrowing the title of a play by Hansberry, which became a popular anthem. After the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Simone’s bassist Greg Taylor penned “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” which was performed by the singer and her band at the Westbury Music Festival.
During the ’60s, Simone had prominent hits in England as well with “I Put a Spell on You,” “Ain’t Got No-I Got Life/Do What You Gotta Do” and “To Love Somebody,” with the latter penned by Barry and Robin Gibb and originally performed by their group the Bee Gees.
Struggles and Career Renaissance
As the 1960s drew to a close, Simone tired of the American music scene and the country’s deeply divided racial politics. Having been neighbors with Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz in Mount Vernon, New York, she later lived in several different countries, including Liberia, Switzerland, England and Barbados before eventually settling down in the South of France. For years, Simone also struggled with severe mental health issues and her finances, and clashed with managers, record labels and the Internal Revenue Service.
Death and Legacy
In 1999, Simone performed at the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin, Ireland. She was joined on stage by her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly for a few songs. Lisa, from Simone’s second marriage to manager Andrew Stroud, followed in her mother’s footsteps. Among an array of performance accomplishments, she has appeared on Broadway in Aida, using the stage name “Simone.”
In her final years, reports indicated that Nina Simone was battling breast cancer. She died at the age of 70 on April 21, 2003, at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, France.
While she may be gone, Simone left a lasting impression on the world of music, art and activism. She sang to share her truth, and her work still resonates with great emotion and power. Simone has inspired an array of performers, including Aretha Franklin, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Lauryn Hill and Meshell Ndegeocello. Her deep, distinctive voice continues to be a popular choice for television and film soundtracks.
Two documentaries on the musician’s life were released in 2015: The Amazing Nina Simone, directed by Jeff L. Lieberman and backed by Re-Emerging Films, and What Happened, Miss Simone?, from Netflix. The latter project was directed by Liz Garbus and offered commentary from daughter Lisa and ex-husband Stroud, among others. In addition to glorious musicianship, the project detailed troubling aspects of Simone’s life, including the abuse she endured from her ex-husband and in turn the abuse daughter Lisa endured from her mother. What Happened, Miss Simone? later received an Oscar nomination for best documentary. In a turn of controversial casting, Simone was also depicted by actress Zoe Saldana in the 2016 biopic Nina.