I’ll never forget the first time Nina Simone pierced my heart. I was in my early twenties, dancing to Feeling Good in my jazz class. I heard plenty of her songs before that day—her voice was unmistakable. Yet this was the first moment I connected with her, body and soul.
I began to wonder: Who is the woman behind this emotionally commanding voice? A voice like that doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes from a place very deep inside.
It’s funny, because I was just recommending a Nina Simone documentary to my dad the other day, and he said: “I didn’t realize you knew about her.”
I suppose I’m full of surprises in my adult years. When you’re younger, your parents know you better. In a natural way they lose touch with your interests and tastes as they develop into something more notable, versus the music and films you used to torture your parents with as an angsty teenager.
It was in my young adult years that I started grasping music in a different way. For me, jazz music really got in there—Nina Simone has been with me ever since. I’ll be the first to admit it…shamefully, I didn’t know Nina’s brilliant fingers were on the piano keys in her songs. I only knew her voice.
Has there ever been a voice quite like hers? With complete confidence, I would say no. Sad and seductive, Nina had a way of getting to us. And, she still does. Because she was so much more than the haunting voice and magical piano fingers. She was a badass woman.
This is the first blog in my new series, Badass Women in History, which I mentioned starting—oh, about six months ago. It was the ideal series for me to take on, being that I always write about strong female characters in my historical fiction novels.
Besides the usual life taking priority over blogging, I struggled with figuring out the right woman to kick off this series. After watching a documentary last week, I knew. There was no other way—this series had to start with Nina Simone.
Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me, yeah
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me, ooh
And I’m feeling good
Who is The High Priestess of Soul?
Because of her incredible piano skills, people often classify Nina as a jazz singer. In truth, her music defied genres. When Rolling Stone named Nina one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, Mary J. Blige (side note, I met her randomly when I worked in retail ages ago) said this: “Nina could sing anything, period.”
If you truly explore Nina’s musical legacy—and venture beyond her more popular hits—you’ll understand how her nickname “The High Priestess of Soul” was born. Everything she sang (R&B, gospel, blues, folk, jazz, show tunes) exuded soul.
Personally, I can’t think of anyone with more soul than Nina Simone.
Simone Never Dreamed of Being a Singer
If Nina had things her way, she would have been the first black female classical pianist. She was a prodigy, one that worked tirelessly from a young age to perfect her craft, beginning with playing the piano at church where her mother was a minister.
Throughout her youth and into her young adult years, Simone often felt isolated from others. Most of her time was spent practicing piano and she did not have much of a social life.
With the support of her family, community, and teachers, she was able to move on from poverty in Jim Crow South to continue her classical training in New York City. But, just like at home, Nina would never quite fit in.
Did you know that the human voice is the only pure instrument? That it has notes no other instrument has? It’s like being between the keys of a piano. That’s like me. I live in between this. I live in both worlds, the black and white world.” – Nina Simone
A twist of fate happened in Philadelphia in 1950, when she was turned down by the Curtis Institute. Nina always believed she was denied admission because of the color of her skin. She would never fulfill her childhood dream of playing at Carnegie Hall as a pianist named Eunice. Eventually, in 1963, she would make her solo appearance in Carnegie as Nina Simone.
To put food on the table, she took a summer gig at a bar in Atlantic City. She played piano in a smoky bar, sitting beneath a dripping air conditioner. The bar’s owner told her she had to sing too or she was out of a job. Nina said she wasn’t a singer, she was a piano player. Since she had to pay bills one way or another, she chose to sing.
And, we’ll just go ahead and insert the usual cliché because there is no other way to say it…the rest was history.
Becoming a Black Power Icon
Nina fell in love with a man, who later became her abusive husband, father of their child, and manager. As her singing career thrived, her home life crumbled. Then in 1964, Simone released Mississippi Goddam, which was banned.
It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” – Nina Simone
Her life pivoted once again as she stepped into her most important life role—not the first black female classical pianist or a famous singer—as a black power icon. She lashed out, using her voice as a weapon during the Civil Rights Movement. Nina’s performances always encouraged action, be it violence or rioting.
As she became the voice of the Civil Rights Movement, her fame suffered elsewhere. No longer was she a dazzling star in the eyes of record labels and TV producers. She was a liability.
Simone was driven by the turbulent times and a childhood memory she would never forget. She still remembered the time she refused to play the piano because her parents were required to sit in the back of a church. She carried that pain with her and stood up for the pain of others, who like her and her family, spent their lives struggling because of their race.
Soon her faith in the Civil Rights Movement was completely shattered with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
A Destructive Spiral and a Comeback
While there were many public outbursts and internal struggles for Nina during these years, her condition worsened by the end of the sixties. She gave up on the United States and moved to Africa.
Her daughter, Lisa, lived with her in Liberia for two years. However she could not deal with her mother’s fits of rage and abuse, and she moved back in with her father in the States. Depression and disillusions sent Nina down a destructive spiral that many of us can never understand. She abandoned music, ran out of money, and became increasingly unstable.
I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.” – Nina Simone
But…Nina was a fighter.
The people who loved her and believed in her helped Simone get back on her feet. She found a way back to her music and performed well into her later years. In 2002, almost exactly one year before her death, she performed one last time at Carnegie Hall.
17 Intriguing Facts About Nina Simone
- Her real name was Eunice Waymon.
- “Nina” was a nickname from a boyfriend. French actress Simone Signoret was the inspiration behind “Simone.”
- She was one of eight children.
- She began playing the piano at the age of three in a church.
- She studied classical piano at Juilliard.
- Simone once stopped mid-show and told an audience member to sit down.
- She was sometimes called “The Civil Rights Diva.”
- One of her neighbors and friends was Malcolm X’s wife.
- She lived in Liberia for two years.
- She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
- Just days before her death, the Curtis Institute of Music (the same school that denied her admission) awarded Simone the Honorary Doctor in Music and Humanities degree.
- She died at the age of 70 in France of natural causes.
- At Nina’s request, her ashes were scattered across several African countries.
- Simone is the eighth most-sampled jazz artist of all-time.
- She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
- She produced 40 original albums in her lifetime.
- None of her songs became a number one hit.
Nerding Out with Nina
This is the Netflix documentary I watched recently. I highly recommend it. Nina’s daughter was an executive producer, so it’s a revealing and factual portrayal. Throughout the film fantastic songs and performances are sprinkled around several intense moments, and you will enjoy yourself immensely.
This is a film from 2016 that I heard about before the release, then never heard anything again. That’s because it tanked. Zoe Saldana played Nina…obviously a tough role, no matter how brilliant the actress is. As often happens in biopics, facts and stories were twisted for the sake of entertainment. Out of curiosity, I may attempt to watch it now that I’ve seen the documentary.
This is an autobiography by Nina Simone and Stephen Cleary. It’s on my to-read list. There are plenty of books out there about Simone. I Put a Spell on You is obviously a must-read for any diehard fan who wants to learn more about Nina’s life story from the very woman who lived through it.
Okay, this is a no-brainer. If you really want to know Nina, pay close attention to her music. I can listen to her all day, and I certainly have over the years. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite song. If I had to, My Man’s Gone Now would be it.
Hope you enjoyed this small tribute to a very badass woman in history. Tell me: what’s your favorite Nina Simone song?