It was the early 1960s, and the nation was in turmoil. The Civil Rights Movement was rearing its head, and Nina Simone was angry. She wanted violence and made a call to arms. But her husband – her manager – told her to forget the guns and put her rage into her music. And that’s exactly what she did.
Simone never meant to become the voice of a movement – of a nation. No, she just wanted to be the first Black female classical pianist in America. That was her goal. In fact, she didn’t even intend to be a singer. That happened by accident. But once she started performing and writing songs about what needed to be sung about, well, there was no turning back after that. This is the story of Nina Simone, a legendary artist who had the guts to sing about issues that others simply didn’t.
It took Simone an hour to write the song Mississippi Goddam, which was her response to the September 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young Black girls were killed, and a fifth was blinded. Simone said that her song was “like throwing ten bullets back at them,” [the bombers].
The song was boycotted in some southern states, and at a Carolina radio station, promotional copies were smashed. Simone later recalled that Mississippi Goddam was her “first Civil Rights song” and that it came to her “in a rush of fury, hatred and determination.” After that particular song, she found herself on a path where protest songs became a part of her concerts – at the expense of her career.
Simone sang Mississippi Goddam in concert at Carnegie Hall in March 1964. She boldly called out, “You’re all gonna die,” to a mostly white audience. It was the song of the moment, and when she performed it outside Montgomery, Alabama, in March of 1965, where 3,000 or so marchers made their way along the 54-mile route from Selma, there was no looking back.
When she was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr., she stuck her hand out and warned him: “I’m NOT nonviolent!” King gently replied, “Not to worry, sister.” She had a rage in her. She wanted to burn down cities. According to Simone herself, if she didn’t channel it into her music, she probably would have been dead.
Nina Simone had a tendency to be aggressive, and her explosiveness was well known. During concerts, she would quickly call out anyone she noticed talking. She would either stop the show, hurl a few insults, or just walk off the stage. Perhaps it was because her performances were raw, real, and confidingly intimate. She needed to connect with her audience.
Even during her best years, Simone didn’t release many records, but still, people flocked to her live shows. As the ‘60s progressed, the feelings she was candidly expressing – the pain, the anger – made her seem either emotionally disturbed or the most honest Black woman in America. Both were true.
She was born Eunice Waymon in 1933, the sixth of eight children in a small Black community in Tryon, North Carolina. Despite the Great Depression, the Waymons built themselves a good home. Simone’s earliest memories were of her mother, a Methodist preacher, singing hymns.
When Simone was barely three years old, she climbed onto the church organ and played God Be with You Till We Meet Again. The little girl’s talent was as clear as day, and, luckily for her, she was encouraged and taught to excel in music. Simone started playing for her mother’s church sermons before her feet could even reach the pedals.
By the time she was five, the woman whose home her mother cleaned offered to pay for Simone’s lessons with a local piano teacher, a woman named Muriel Mazzanovich. Simone called her Miz Mazzy, and later on, “my white momma.” Mazzanovich instilled in the little pianist a love of Bach and inspired her to become a famous classical pianist.
Simone recalled that her racial anger first developed when she was 11 years old. She gave a recital at the local library and witnessed her own parents being removed from their front-row seats in order to make room for a white couple.
Even at the young age of 11, Simone was bold and brave. Despite her proper classical training, she nevertheless stood up and announced to the audience that if people wanted to hear her play, then they had better let her parents sit back down in the front row.
Some were shocked, and there were awkward laughs, but her parents indeed returned to their seats. The next day, Simone recalled feeling “as if I had been flayed, and every slight, real or imagined, cut me raw. But the skin grew back a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more Black.”
When she was already a successful performer, Simone wrote in her diary, “I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise.”.
Being told that her lips were too full and that her nose was too big, she turned to music as her salvation – her identity. She practiced the piano for seven to eight hours a day, at the expense of social life. She made her way to Juilliard. When she was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she was convinced that it was due to racial bias. It turned into unending bitterness.
It was a turning point in Simone’s life because she realized she needed to work and earn money. In the summer of 1954, while she was still known as Eunice Waymon, she took a job playing cocktail piano in Atlantic City. The owner of the bar told her that if she wanted to keep her job, she would have to sing, too.
With a paycheck of $90 – more money than she ever heard of before, as she said – she took the job. But she didn’t want her family, especially her mother, to know that she was playing “the devil’s music.” So, she decided to use a stage name. Thus, Nina Simone was born.
“Nina” came from “niña,” which meant “little” and was a nickname given to her by her boyfriend, Chico. As for “Simone,” it was taken from the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she saw in the 1951 movie Casque D’or. Having never sung before, it was all very new to her.
But she hit the ground running and sang from her heart and her gut. She created a mixture of jazz, blues, and classical music when she performed at the bar, gaining a small but loyal fan base. With a stage name and a newfound talent for singing, Simone started making a name for herself.
In 1961, after a brief marriage to a white beatnik named Don Ross, she married Andrew Stroud, a tough police detective from Harlem whom she first chalked up to be a “light-skinned man,” “well built,” and “very sure of himself.” The next year, she gave birth to her daughter, Lisa Celeste.
Stroud then left his job to manage Simone’s career. Stroud may have been a good businessman – enhancing his wife’s career and enabling them to buy a large house in Mount Vernon, complete with a gardener and a maid – but he wasn’t a good husband.
Simone may have been fierce and strong in her music, but she was weak to her husband’s power. She professed her love for him, despite being at the receiving end of his frequent beatings. As she recalled in the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? during one party, a fan handed her a note, which she put in her pocket.
Stroud saw this and got enraged. He took his wife outside to beat her senseless. She then escaped him for two weeks, finding refuge in her friend’s home. When she returned home, Stroud claimed he didn’t remember beating her to such an extent.
The full picture of Simone’s mental illness only became public after her death in 2003. Two of her friends, Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan, recalled the singer’s career in a biography titled Nina Simone: Break Down & Let It All Out in 2004.
Other biographies (Nina Simone and Princess Noire) have filled in all the terrible details of her depression, violence, and uncertain diagnoses, including bipolar disorder, which seems to be the best explanation for her behavior. Excerpts from Simone’s personal diaries and letters from the 1960s have been added to the still developing posthumous tale of Simone’s life.
Her diary entries reveal just how much of a hell Simone was living in, with her regular beatings from Stroud. (The marriage eventually dissolved in 1970, well into the period of Simone’s activism.) But it would take a while until she received any helpful medication.
Understanding the turmoil she was in during the ‘60s makes her strength and work all the more remarkable. As she started to find her true self, Simone started to dress differently. Out were the beehive hairdos; in were bright African gowns and braided African hairstyles. It was then that she started being called the High Priestess of Soul.
As she turned towards political music and protest songs, her career started to flounder. Venues were afraid to book her. The title High Priestess of Soul was really no more than just a record company’s PR tactic (Aretha Franklin has crowned the Queen of Soul around the same time).
But not all of Simone’s songs were about civil rights. Stroud was, after all, always there to keep her from going deep into that hole. In concert, she started pulling back a bit. When she performed Mississippi Goddam, she sang “We’re all gonna die, and die like flies” instead of the threatening “You’re all gonna die.”
The song aptly named Feeling Good is the ultimate feel-good tune. It was written to express a particular kind of euphoria – the kind that comes with freedom from oppression. It was originally written by British songwriters Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for a stage musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint.
In Simone’s 1965 version, she and her arranger Hal Mooney brought in a big band, and she unleashed her rebel spirit. Released in the uproar of the Civil Rights protests, Simone’s Feeling Good became a manifestation of the movement’s burning desire for freedom.
By the late ‘60s, Simone was afraid that she was falling behind the times, so she expanded her selection to include Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, and even the Bee Gees. One of her biggest hits of the era was Ain’t Got No – I Got Life, from the musical Hair. It became a classic freedom song.
Another popular hit of hers was the intense love song I Put a Spell on You, in which she describes the debilitating needs of love (“Because you’re mine!”). However, it was the Civil-Rights songs that she called “the important ones.”
After King was shot on April 4, 1968, Simone was profoundly shaken, and her hopes of what could be accomplished in the country only grew bleaker. The following summer, at an outdoor concert in Harlem, she went for broke.
To a Black audience, she read words from a sheet of paper, moving across the stage, asking questions like, “Are you ready, Black people? Are you ready to do what is necessary?” The crowd mildly cheered. Then she asked them, “Are you ready to kill, if necessary?” The cheers grew louder.
To put this in perspective, it had been five years since the Harlem riot of 1964, and New York had barely escaped the losses of both 1967 and 1968. And here was Simone, asking the crowd if they’re “ready to smash white things” and “to burn buildings.”
“Are you ready to build Black things?” Although she tried, she failed to incite a riot that day in 1969. The crowd received Simone, with noisy support, as part of a performance. People clapped, cheered, and then went on their way. Simone’s daughter noted that after her shows, people went home, and everyone went back to their lives. But her mother was left in a state of turmoil and had to go home to that lonely, isolating place.
Simone made one of her more moving performances on Sesame Street, of all places. She sat on the set’s apartment steps, wearing an African gown, lip-synching to her own recording to four Black children, who raised their arms in victory by the end of the song.
By the end of the ‘60s, both her career and marriage were on the rocks. The new genre of pop-rock didn’t suit her, and the jazz and folk scene was radically shrinking. Although the collapse of her marriage was partly a liberation, she was now without a manager to handle her finances and schedule.
Stroud managed her behavior as well. Ironically, he was the one who kept her calm before she went onstage (by forbidding alcohol, for example). He would also get her offstage quickly when her calm crashed. She has now left to manager herself in a world with no rules and seemingly void of purpose.
She wrote in her diary: “Andy was gone, and the movement had walked out on me too… leaving me like a seduced schoolgirl, lost.” The Black leaders who “walked out” on her were all in their graves (Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, King, Fred Hampton), or in jail (Huey Newton, Bobby Seale), or in Africa (Stokely Carmichael).
Simone eventually left the country in 1974 to travel to Liberia with her then 12-year-old daughter. They stayed there for two years and hardly even came close to a piano or microphone. She headed for Switzerland to put her daughter in school there.
Eventually, she moved to France by herself. It was only the need for money that made her perform again in the U.S. She took pride in receiving an honorary doctorate from Amherst in 1977, insisting on being called “Doctor Nina Simone.” As for her concerts, they were becoming increasingly more disastrous. Now when she performed Mississippi Goddam, she sang, “the whole damn world’s made me lose my rest.”
For the rest of her life, until her death in 2003, Simone’s tale grew more and more miserable. There were times when she was found wandering naked in a hotel corridor with a knife. She was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late ‘80s.
In 1985, she fired a gun at a record company executive – a man she accused of stealing royalties. As she put it, she “tried to kill him” but “missed.” Her life was a confusing rollercoaster ride of major ups and downs. In 1987, a year after being sent to the hospital in a straitjacket, her upbeat 1959 single My Baby Just Cares for Me was chosen by Chanel for its international campaign.
In 1995, when she was living in France, she set her house on fire. She also shot and injured her neighbor’s son with an air gun because his laughter disturbed her concentration. She was then sentenced to eight months in jail, but it was suspended pending a psychiatric evaluation and treatment.
Singer-songwriter Janis Ian, a friend of Simone’s, related two incidents that showed just how volatile Simone was getting. One incident involved Simone forcing a shoe store cashier, at gunpoint, to take back a pair of sandals that she had already worn.
Another incident involved her demanding a royalty payment from Ian in exchange for recording one of Ian’s songs. When Ian refused, Simone ripped a pay telephone out of the wall. According to one biographer, Simone started medication in the mid-‘60s.
After her death, it was confirmed that she was taking the anti-psychotic Trilafon, which her friends and caretakers sometimes secretly mixed into her food when she refused to follow her treatment plan. The public was out of the loop regarding her treatment plan until Break Down and Let It All Out was published in 2004, a year after her death.
Even in her final years, Simone toured often. She was now seen as a relic of the Civil Rights era. By then, she was already suffering from breast cancer. Once she grew too sick to perform, she chose never to return to what she called “the United Snakes of America.”
Simone passed away in France on April 23, 2003, at the age of 70. Her ashes were then scattered in several African countries. The most fixed image of her near the end of her life is as an aged older woman, reacting to enthusiastic cheers that greeted her with a raised, closed-fisted “Black Power” salute.
Simone was left in the dark about who had actually sponsored a concert of hers in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1961. Little did she know that the CIA provided the funds through the American Society of African Culture – a front organization. The truth didn’t become public knowledge until 1967, and up to her death in 2003, she never knew about it.
Knowing what we know now about Nina Simone and her hatred for the country that let her down in so many ways, if she had known about being used as a tactic by the government to push Western propaganda, she would have been absolutely livid.
34 years after Simone released the song Young, Gifted and Black in 1969, Jay Z reused the title for one of his songs. Simone said she disliked the rap she knew, partly because it tended to displace so much anger onto women.
As for jazz, Simone’s name and influence on the genre were largely excluded from the history books for a long time. But it was Simone’s diversity and range that slowly widened the very definition of jazz singing. Barack Obama listed her version of Sinnerman as one of his 10 favorite songs of all time.
In her later years, Simone’s favorite performer was Michael Jackson. She even brought cassettes of his albums with her wherever she went. She recalled meeting him on a plane when he was still a little boy, telling him, “Don’t let them change you. You’re Black, and you’re beautiful.”
She later anguished over his failure to believe what she had told him that day. The facial surgeries, the lightening of his skin – doing what the culture had told him – wanting to be white instead. One time, she appeared onstage with Jackson, among a huge cast of performers, for Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday in Johannesburg in 1998. She was 65 at the time, and photographs show her standing between Mandela and Jackson.
Simone received four Grammy Award nominations, two during her lifetime and two posthumously. Simone received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000 for I Loves You, Porgy. In 1968, she got her first nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for (You’ll) Go to Hell.
The award, however, went to Respect by Aretha Franklin. Simone got her second nomination in 1971 for her Black Gold album. She, again, lost to Franklin for Don’t Play That Song (You Lied). Franklin won again two years later for her cover of Simone’s Young, Gifted, and Black in the same category.
She also received two honorary degrees in both music and humanities, from Amherst College and Malcolm X College, respectively. She was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Two days before her death, she learned she was being awarded an honorary degree by the Curtis Institute of Music – the very school that had rejected her application at the beginning of her career. In 2019, the Library of Congress selected Mississippi Goddam for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Now, let’s look at some of Simone’s most remarkable songs…
Her 1965 single became an iconic cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ original. When she released the song, she was halfway through her marriage to Stroud, so it naturally had some personal meaning. But the sentiment of I Put a Spell on You also evokes her relationship with her audiences over the years.
The single came out just as she was starting to find her true artistic self. She wrote in her autobiography: “It’s like I was hypnotizing an entire audience to feel a certain way… This was how I got my reputation as a live performer because I went out from the mid-‘60s onward determined to get every audience to enjoy my concerts the way I wanted them to, and if they resisted at first, I had all the tricks to bewitch them with.”
Another single from 1965 was Simone’s cover of Billie Holliday’s dark original about lynching. In 1965, three important marches took place between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. They were in protest of laws that prevented Black people from voting. The third march ended in a concert organized by Harry Belafonte, and Simone performed.
Unlike Holliday, who sang the song in fear, Simone wasn’t held back, as she had already put her career (and life) on the line with Mississippi Goddam. Over somber piano, Simone recounts the horror of bodies lynched and hanging from the trees like fruit.
Sinnerman is one of Simone’s most recognizable recordings and has been repurposed by artists from David Lynch to Kanye West. All renditions stayed true to the song’s punk-ness. Simone learned of the song as a child from her mother, who sang it in church revival meetings to help sinners confess their transgressions.
Sinnerman was sampled by Kanye West for the Talib Kweli song Get By, by Timbaland for the song Oh Timbaland, and by Felix da Housecat for Verve Record’s Verve Remixed. It goes to show just how much her music, and this song, in particular, transcends time and genre.
Simone’s first album, Little Girl Blue, was simply a run-through of the songs she had been singing in clubs in her early years. She had a track list and compiled them into a debut album. But one song became a Billboard Top 20 hit in 1959 and essentially established her career in New York: I Loves You Porgy.
She popularized the song that was originally part of a 1935 folk opera called Porgy and Bess. Even on paper, the song is emotional, but Simone gave it an even more serious, private rendition.
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood remains a marker of Nina Simone’s identity (despite the lyrics being written by Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott, and Sol Marcus). After years of what she called “inferior” show tunes and “musically ignorant” popular audiences, Simone was all too familiar with the theme of lonely remorse.
Though Mississippi Goddam led Simone to refocus her life on civil rights and the Black revolution, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood continued to reflect her personal past and future struggles, including her bipolar disorder and depression that went undiagnosed and self-medicated for years.
The lyrics to Be My Husband are actually attributed to Andrew Stroud, her abusive husband, and manager. The title seems a little mysterious. Is it a proposal, a bargain, a command? Is she asking him to marry her, or for him to act as a husband is supposed to act?
The year Simone recorded the song, death came knocking on two doors: of her closest friend, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X. In the wake of her mourning, Be My Husband seems to be all those things – a proposition, a bargain, as well as a command.
Lorraine Hansberry, who was the first Black woman to have her material produced on Broadway (A Raisin in the Sun), was also a friend and mentor to Simone. When Hansberry died in 1965, at age 34, Simone was devastated.
With its simple and direct message of racial pride and its forceful melody, the single became a Top 10 R&B hit. It was also Simone’s biggest crossover success since I Loves You, Porgy. Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, and Solange all covered the song. CORE named it the “Black National Anthem.” Simone also performed the song on Sesame Street.