Nina Simone: Jazz Singer's Biography & Things You Didn't Know

By | February 20, 2021

test article image
Nina Simone on the cover of her debut album. (Bethlehem Records)

Courageous and complicated, Nina Simone remains an artist whose work begs to be pored over and inspected. She may be famous for her performance of "I Loves You, Porgy," but her life is so much more interesting than one song.

Nina Simone's Early Life

Nina Simone began her life as someone else. In 1933, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born the sixth of eight children to a poor family in Tyron, North Carolina. She was only a few years old when she began playing piano, and by the time she was 12, she was playing at her local church and giving classical recitals. One of her earliest memories of mixing musical performance with her strict moral code occurred when her parents were asked to move from the front row of the venue where she was performing to make way for a group of white people. Simone stopped playing until her parents were allowed to return to their seats.

With the help of donations from her community, Simone enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York City to prepare for an audition for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but although she insisted that she played flawlessly, she was denied admission. Simone's entire family had relocated to Philadelphia in anticipation of her acceptance to Curtis, so rather than pack up and move back to North Carolina, the young pianist began taking private lessons with Curtis professor Vladimir Sokoloff in 1954. To pay for her time with Sokoloff, she performed at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey, adopting the moniker of Nina Simone so her family wouldn't find out she was playing "the devil's music."

test article image
Simone at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in Amsterdam, Netherlands in March 1969. (Dutch National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

Little Girl Blue

In 1958, Simone was still playing in small clubs when she recorded a version of Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy" from the modern opera Porgy And Bess. The recording, which she only did as a favor for a friend, became her only song to crack the Billboard Top 20 in the United States. One year later, Bethlehem Records released her debut album, Little Girl BlueSimone needed money, so she sold the publishing rights for the album for $3,000, costing her $1 million in future royalties. Following the release of Little Girl Blue, she hopped over to Colpix Records, where she didn't make a lot of money but regained control over the material she recorded.

Simone funneled what little money she had into her twin passions of classical music and political activism. Although she was initially reluctant to record what she described derisively as "protest music," a domestic terror attack on a black church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 changed her mind. She wrote the song "Mississippi Goddam" in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, explaining that it came to her "in a rush of fury, hatred and determination." From that point forward, "I stopped singing love songs and started singing protest songs because protest songs were needed," in addition to speaking and performing at Civil Rights rallies.