Remembering Miss Simone Who Sang 'High Priestess Of Soul'

Remembering Miss Simone Who Sang 'High Priestess Of Soul'

Nina was not just a jazz singer. She wasn't even a singer to begin with.

LylaUpdated: Thursday, February 15, 2024, 01:54 PM IST
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Would there ever be someone like her again? Certainly not. Nina Simone. (Original Name - Eunice Waymon) It is impossible to have never heard of her if you are into western music. Born into a poor Christian black family in North Carolina, Eunice secretly played jazz (what her parents would address as ‘Devil’s music’) in bars, taking the name 'Nina' (what her lover back then would call her) to hide her identity, inspired by her favorite French actress 'Simone' Signoret and then she happened to rule the musical world for the next five decades! Sounds like a movie right? 

Nina was not just a jazz singer.

In fact, she wasn't even a singer to begin with. She started playing the piano at the age of four and when she started performing in a bar at the age of sixteen, the owners of the bar told her that she was expected not only to play the piano but also to sing the songs she played and she would not get paid unless that happened! Nina, who became a singer by an accident, became the most influential and popular voice of the 20th century. 

Here's how she started her musical journey

Her voice sounded as if it was being from somewhere simultaneously deep within and beyond the singer. Her whiskey soaked vibrato, with a slight rasp at the end of the words and of course the sense of  commanding the attention of the audiences was incredible. At the age of twelve, Nina played her first piano concerto in a church. Though her mother was a preacher in the church, her parents were asked to take the seats in the back row. (obviously for being black.) Nina stood her ground - refusing to play until her parents were returned to the front row. No wonder that she continued to work as a civil rights activist until the end of her life. She shook white people with her songs like 'Mississippi Goddam' or 'Mr. Backlash' and then there were times when she actively worked shoulder to shoulder with leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Struggling with racism

Nina was denied the scholarship at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia because of her color. But Nina, being her true self- stubborn, somewhat serious and diplomatic from a young age, used her music as a weapon and revolutionized the Civil Rights Movement with her songs. Her song ‘To be young, gifted and black’ is known as 'The song of protest and healing'. After being rejected by Curtis University, Nina continued to take private piano lessons from a professor at the same university (Vladimir Sakoloff) but never tried to get into the university again.

Nina's love life and marraige

On the contrary, she created her own unique style by combining blues, jazz and classical music at an early age and continued to sing in the bars and clubs and earned her own honest and quality audience. Nina, who got married for the first time in 1958, became very popular within a year of her marriage. Her rendition of George Gershwin's I LOVES YOU PORGY hit the US Billboard Top 20 and in 1959 her debut album Little Girl Blue was bought by Bethlehem Records. But within a year, Nina realized that she had made a huge mistake by getting married and soon divorced her first husband Don Ross. In 1961, Nina got married again to Andrew Stroud, a police officer, and this turned out to be another big mistake in Nina's life. Andrew later became not only Nina's husband but also her manager and started to torture Nina mentally and physically both. Nina expected things to change after they both had a daughter (Lisa) but their relationship deteriorated with each passing day. Andrew’s selfishness and lust for money would never end. This obviously affected Nina’s health as she used to sing 12-16 hours a day, stuck in a manic schedule of three recordings and 2 shows a day.

During the 1960s, the hot-headed Miss Simone began to show signs of bipolar personality. In her autobiography, Janice Ian (Nina's then-girlfriend and a world class singer) recounts that she pointed a gun at a shopkeeper only because he refused to take back a used pair of sandals. Nina fired an air gun at the neighbor kid after being interrupted by his laughter during the practice and ended up in prison for eight months!

Her songs in the Civil Rights Movement

But in the meantime she had reached the pinnacle of success. The songs she wrote in the Civil Rights Movement touched not only black workers but also political leaders, while her jazz and classical music became popular among the white aristocrats, making Nina a 'sensation' of the time. She was used to taking people for granted. Eventually, she was also estranged from her daughter for a long time, but her music never left her side. In the 1980s, she became extremely popular not only in the US but also in the UK and Europe. One of her greatest hits MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME was featured in the commercial of Chanel No. 05 perfume. She recorded nearly 40 albums in the 1960s-1970s. Nina was one of the most extraordinary artists of the 20th century, a true icon of American music. She has used her remarkable talent to create a legacy of liberation, empowerment, freedom and love through her unique talent of storytelling through music.

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