'High Priestess of Soul' mixed blues, gospel, B'way, jazz
This article was corrected on April 22, 2003.
Nina Simone, the pianist and vocalist who singularly brought together Broadway standards, political activism and soul music, died Monday at her home in southern France. She was 70.
Simone lived in Bouc-Bel-Air just outside Marseilles, where she had settled in the mid-1970s after living in Barbados, Switzerland, Liberia and the Netherlands. When she left the U.S. in 1974 — disgusted with record companies, show business and racism — Simone vowed to not return, but popular demand got her to perform in a handful of U.S. cities over the last five years. The singer, who preferred to be addressed as “Dr. Simone,” had been ill for some time and had canceled a show scheduled for March 7 at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
Impossible to classify as a singer, Simone uniquely assimilated elements of blues, gospel, Broadway, soul music and jazz and delivered music in a haunting style that was consistently airy and often eerie. Her name has been listed as an influence on countless jazz and R&B singers over the last three decades; most recently Norah Jones and Alicia Keys have invoked Simone’s name as key to their sounds.
Her only pop Top 40 hit in the States, however, was her version Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy,” which reached No. 18 in 1959.
Tagged as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone was born Eunice Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933 in Tyron, N.C. She started playing piano at 4 and eventually studied at the Juilliard School of Music to become a classical pianist.
To aid her family — she was the sixth of seven children — she worked as an accompanist and began singing at an Irish bar in Atlantic City. She changed her name to Nina Simone and cut her first records in 1957, recording standards such as “My Baby Just Cares for Me” for the Bethlehem label.
Simone then worked the Colpix label, which often recorded her live and issued an album from her practically every six months during the early 1960s. It was from those live albums that Simone’s eclecticism became readily apparent: Her material included spirituals, blues numbers from the likes of Leadbelly, Israeli folk songs, Jacques Brel and Bob Dylan tunes as well as classics from the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart and Duke Ellington.
Penned Grammy winner
As the U.S. civil rights movement grew, Simone’s own writing turned toward political and social statement — her “Mississippi Goddam” became an almost instant classic; she penned “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” which won a Grammy for Aretha Franklin in 1972; and her version of “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to be Free)” has come to be viewed as definitive.
Yet simultaneously, RCA was releasing Simone albums featuring her renditions of pop material — from the Beatles to “Mr. Bojangles” — and having some success in the U.K. “Ain’t Got No” from the musical “Hair” and her cover of the BeeGees’ “To Love Somebody” went into the Top 5 in England; in 1987, her 30-year-old recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” also reached the Brit Top 5 after appearing in a Chanel ad.
Simone’s steady stream of recordings and concerts stalled in 1974 when she divorced manager Andy Stroud and struggled financially. She made only two more studio albums — 1987’s “Baltimore” and 1993’s “A Single Woman” — though live discs and compilations have been released at a steady clip over the last two decades.
In addition, five Simone performances were featured in the 1993 film “Point of No Return.” Her Stateside profile was greatly enhanced over the last five years as she began to tour the country, playing five or six shows per year in the U.S.
She published her biography, “I Put a Spell on You,” in 1991. A biopic about Simone has been often discussed over the last decade, but no concrete plans have been made.
Simone was married and divorced twice and is survived by daughter Lisa, the legit actress who goes by the single name Simone.