“How do you explain what it feels like to get on the stage and make poetry that you know sinks into the hearts and souls of people who are unable to express it?” — Nina Simone
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on 21 February 1933, Nina’s talent as a musician was evident early on when she started playing the piano by ear at the age of three. Her mother, a Methodist minister, and her father, a handyman and preacher himself, couldn’t ignore young Eunice’s gift of music.
Able to play virtually anything by ear, she was soon studying classical music with a teacher named Muriel Mazzanovich, who had moved to the small southern town from England. It was from these humble roots that Eunice developed a lifelong love of Johann Sebastian Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert.
After graduating from high school, raised money was raised for a scholarship for her to study at Julliard in New York City before applying to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia – but the school denied her admission.
To survive, she began teaching music to local students. One fateful day in 1954, looking to supplement her income, Eunice auditioned to play the piano at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The owner informed her that not only would she be hired to play but she was also required to sing.
Her rich, deep velvet tones, combined with her mastery of the keyboard, soon attracted fans from the East Coast. In order to hide the fact that she was singing in bars, Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone by taking the nickname “Nina” meaning “little one” in Spanish and “Simone” after the actress Simone Signoret.
In 1957 Nina recorded “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” previously recorded by Nate King Cole, Count Basie, and Woody Herman. The song was used by Chanel in a perfume commercial in Europe in the 1980’s and it became a massive hit for Nina, and a staple of her repertoire for the rest of her career.
As Nina’s reputation as an engaging live performer grew, it wasn’t long before she was asked to perform at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival.
Nina Simone died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rout, Bouches-du-Rhone in April 2003. Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message, “You were the greatest and I love you”.