By Gillian G. Gaar
Sunday, September 15, 1963. At the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carol Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were in a basement room together, changing into their choir robes. Then, at around 10:22am, the explosive force of 15 sticks of dynamite hidden under the church steps ripped through the building, killing all four girls, and injuring 22 others.
It was turning point in the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. Though the first of the four men involved in the bombing — all members of the Ku Klux Klan — wasn’t convicted until 1977 (two others were convicted in 2001 and 2002), a response from the civil rights community came much swifter.
Nina Simone, then 30 years old, had established herself as a singer and pianist, finding success with her interpretations of such standards as “I Loves You Porgy,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Trouble in Mind.” Now, she felt called to use her gifts in the fight for justice. “When they killed those children is when I said ‘I have to start using my talent to help black people,’” she said.
She sat down and wrote a song, matching a bright and upbeat melody to lyrics that were darkened with anger: “Alabama’s gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam!”
She first performed the song when she appeared at Carnegie Hall 1964, and it was later released as a single. The song was banned from radio stations due to the use of the expletive “goddam”— but that wouldn’t explain why promo singles were broken and then returned to the record company. Nina Simone was now a controversial figure — and would remain so. From this point on, there would always be an element of drama in her life.
Nina would likely have regarded her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with some amusement. She was not a big fan of pop music, and had instead dreamed of becoming a classical pianist, not a singer. She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. She began playing the piano at three, and was soon providing accompaniment at the church where her mother preached. She later took formal lessons, playing classical music; she called Bach “technically perfect.”
After high school, she applied for a scholarship at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. When she was turned down, she moved to Philadelphia and became a piano teacher. In 1954, the agent of one of her students got her a summer engagement at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City. She only planned on playing piano, but was told she’d have to sing to keep the job, and proved to have a rich, warm voice. She also changed her name to “Nina Simone,” to keep her mother from finding out she was playing in nightclubs. “Nina” was from the affectionate nickname “niña” (little girl) a boyfriend had given her; Simone was from French actress Simone Signoret.
She soon built a following. Two recently released collections spotlight this era in Simone’s career. Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles (BMG) brings together all 14 songs she recorded for the label, including her first single, “I Loves You Porgy,” which reached No. 18 pop, No. 2 R&B. In the liner notes, her drummer, Al “Tootie” Heath, notes her unique style that was already present: “Her piano playing was something I had never heard before because it wasn’t typical jazz or it wasn’t typical classical.” There are unusual flourishes, like the bit of “Good King Wenceslas” that appears at the beginning of “Little Girl Blue,” and she draws on her classic background for further embellishments. With some of the tracks only previously available on the original 45s, “Mood Indigo” is an essential purchase for the Simone aficionado.
Nina Simone: The Colpix Singles (Stateside Records) picks up the story when she moved to that label. It’s a key period in which she further honed her skills; just listen to the transformation from the breezy gospel pop of “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow” to the haunting despair of “Blackbird,” with drums providing the only musical accompaniment.
“Mississippi Goddam” was Simone’s first foray into protest songs, and subsequent years would see the release of similarly themed work: “Four Women” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” inspired by the play of the same name by her friend, Lorraine Hansberry (author of the landmark play A Raisin in the Sun). Her chilling performance of “Pirate Jenny” (from The Threepenny Opera), in which a servant imagines a bloody revenge on her masters echoes the turbulence of the period.
But these were also the years that saw her record versions of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (prior to The Animals’ version) and a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” which John Lennon cited as an influence on The Beatles’ song “Michelle.” The range of styles in her work led to her becoming an influences for artists in a similarly wide range of styles: from Janis Joplin to David Bowie.
Disillusioned with the U.S., and frustrated in her dealings with record companies (she once pulled a gun on a record company boss who owed her money), Simone spent most of her life after 1970 abroad, eventually settling in France. The period of her greatest influence had passed, but she remained a compelling live performer, and she continued to record. In 1987, she enjoyed a surprise hit, when her song “My Baby Cares Just for Me,” originally recorded in 1958 was used in a commercial in the U.K.; released as a single there, it reached the Top 5. Her last studio album, “A Single Woman,” was released in 1993.
Nina Simone died of breast cancer on April 21, 2003 in France. She was 70 years old. She left behind an impressive catalogue of work that can’t be easily categorized. Not purely a jazz artist, R&B singer, or even a soul performer, Nina Simone is perhaps best regarded as an artist whose awesome technical skill was balanced by her captivating and fiery passion.