Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on this day in 1933; the sixth of eight children, she grew up in poverty in Tryon, North Carolina. A child prodigy, her mother’s wish for her talented daughter was that she should be the world’s finest, as well as the first black, classical pianist – always likely to be an insurmountable challenge for a poor girl from the segregated Southern states.
Simone blamed racism for her failed admission to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, and later for her decision to leave the United States, citing the heavy price she had paid for fighting the establishment as well as disappointment with what she considered the failure of the Civil Rights movement. She is claimed to have favoured, indeed advocated, violent revolution such was her fury at the time it was taking for change to come, writing in less than an hour ‘Mississippi Goddam’, her enraged reaction to the September 1963 Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which claimed the lives of four young girls during Sunday services, as well as the murder of Mississippi Civil Rights activist and World War II veteran, Medgar Evers, in June of the same year.
By 1963, Simone had started to tour Europe, where she would soon became more popular than in her native America. She would have just one Top 20 hit in the US: her first single, ‘I Loves You, Porgy’.
Her music was an often volatile fusion of gospel, blues, jazz and folk, although she bitterly resented the ‘jazz’ label for its stereotypical undertones and begrudged categorisation in general. She helped define the Civil Rights movement, which she belatedly, somewhat reluctantly, became involved in with her raspy voice, so rich in tone, increasingly singing of bigotry and injustice. Her regal presence and diva antics earned her the nickname ‘The High Priestess of Soul’. There was scandal, involving unpaid taxes and the use of firearms, and only after her death did it become known that she had suffered from bipolar disorder for some four decades.
She died in 2003, at home in France, aged 70.
As we’ve nattered quite a lot lately about Bob Dylan covers (sorry about that), it may not surprise you that Nina Simone recorded several of his songs, including ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ and ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’.
In fact, she has covered many of my favourite songs, George Harrison’s ‘Isn’t It a Pity’ being one of them (she also did a delightful gospel version of ‘My Sweet Lord’). Others of note include the excellently-titled ‘Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter’, originally by Ike and Tina Turner; Mama Cass Elliot’s ‘New World Coming’; the Chuck Berry number, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ (also covered by Paul McCartney on Run Devil Run, of course, with a little help from our David); and then there’s this one, which fans of Leonard Cohen will know well: ‘Suzanne’.
Everyone’s had a go at it, it seems, but I can’t pretend to enjoy her interpretation of ‘My Way’. Still, it’s worth a listen not least for the bongos. A lyric that suited her feisty attitude and honours her bravery in the face of so much adversity, certainly. (Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded Simone’s signature tune, ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, too. But you really mustn’t get me started on Sinatra.) Her classical instrumental rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic from Carousel, more than makes up for the relentless ‘My Way’ bongos, though. Rousing, stirring, simply stunning.
Her songs have also been covered by others. For example, ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, a hit record for The Animals a year after the 1964 original; Muse accomplished ‘Feeling Good’ (and it’s played on Planet Rock every-bloody-day, why is that?); Janis Joplin did an amazing ‘Little Girl Blue’ (which I realise was not written by Simone; it’s another from the Great American Songbook, which is most definitely a topic for another day, this time from Rodgers and Hart and the musical Jumbo, yet she would record it and name her 1958 debut album after it.
Anyway, enough trivia. Which covers, either way, do you like best?
I hope you can play some of her songs today as she was quite brilliant.