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

By Jacob Shelton

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."