Editor’s note: This is the last story in a four-part series on African-American musicians who made significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. A big thank you to contributing writers Michael Francis and Jim Shearer, along with Misty Choy, who designed the “Music and the Movement” header.
By Jim Shearer
Special to the Daily Record
Most people who know about Nina Simone enjoy a distinctly powerful passion for her music. She is the stuff of legend, a legend that often inspires something of a musical obsession.
Perhaps most amazingly (and particularly telling) is the depth and breadth of the diverse people who frequently pay tribute to Simone for their inspiration, including Elton John, Janis Ian, John Lennon, John Legend, Aretha Franklin, Lyle Lovett, Bob Dylan and numerous other figures from the worlds of pop music, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues and hip-hop.
The brilliant singer/songwriter/artist and Western raconteur Tom Russell may have summed it up best when he wrote the following in his song simply titled, “Nina Simone.” He sings: “Yeah, we’ve all been to hell and back/Love cut us right down to the bone/But walking beside us was Nina Simone.”
Born in North Carolina in 1933, Simone (real name Eunice Kathleen Waymon) was the sixth of eight children born to Methodist ministers (both mother and father). Classically trained as a pianist, she briefly attended the Juilliard School of Music and gave what is reportedly a very successful audition for the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was denied admission to the school, however, which she attributed to the overt racism of the day (though there are disputes to this claim).
Simone would incorporate intricate piano playing in many of her works, and her piano skills are an often overlooked part of her musical story. To make money, she began playing piano (and later singing) in a local Philadelphia bar and grill, adopting the name “Nina Simone” to hide this work from her family. Nonetheless, her mother later found out, referring to the job as, “Working in the fires of hell.” This gig eventually led to a contract with Bethlehem Records, where she recorded her first major hit, a stunning rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” from the Gershwin opera, “Porgy and Bess.” Other record contracts followed, and her style seemed to evolve in different directions with each new label. Her stylistic evolution led to issues in the music industry, as people could not easily place a label on her styles, which were blends of jazz, pop, soul, blues, black gospel, folk songs, children’s music, and increasingly, civil rights protest material.
Many civil rights protest songs, both Simone’s own and the work of others, such as Billie Holiday’s immortal “Strange Fruit,” became a regular part of her live performances (Photo courtesy of Nina Simone Facebook page).
Simone plunged into the depths of the civil rights debate with a now-classic original composition, titled “Mississippi Goddam.” Inspired by the 1963 murder of Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the subsequent racially motivated bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, “Mississippi Goddam” made no allusions to peaceful appeasement and protest. The lyrics to her song are powerful and direct. Here are a few excerpts: “Alabama’s gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/and everybody knows about Mississippi, Goddam. … Yes, you lied to me all these years/You told me to wash and clean my ears/And talk real fine just like a lady/And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie. … You don’t have to live next to me/Just give me my equality/Everybody knows about Mississippi/Everybody knows about Alabama/Everybody knows about Mississippi, Goddam.” Perhaps most jarring is the juxtaposition of such profound lyrics set to a very catchy, somewhat cynically upbeat tune.
“Mississippi Goddam” was a powerful message, which Simone followed with performances of many other civil rights protest songs, both her own and the work of others, such as Billie Holiday’s immortal “Strange Fruit.” These pieces became a regular part of Simone’s live performances. As her style continued to evolve throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Simone enjoyed something of a public resurgence, with her music appearing in the soundtracks of numerous films and TV scores (something that continues even today) and the very public use of her 1958 recording, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” in a series of 1987 commercials for Chanel No. 5 perfume. She continued to tour and perform into the late 1990s, passing away on April 21, 2003, just two days after she was awarded an honorary degree from the Curtis Institute of Music, the school that refused her admission over 50 years earlier and put her on the path to popular music performance.
Simone’s personal life was complex, and she has often been described as a “volatile” person. Many point to a later-in-life diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She spent much of her later life living in exile from America, with extended stays in France and Barbados, among other exotic locales. Recently, there have been several good films, documentaries and books that deal specifically with her life and music. All are highly recommended, as are her numerous recordings and live performances, many of which can be found on YouTube, Pandora, Napster and various other internet resources.
Dr. Jim Shearer is the regents professor of music at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and also serves as principal tubist with the Roswell Symphony Orchestra. Shearer has toured the United States, Europe, South America and the Far East as a member of the NMSU Faculty Brass Quintet, El Paso Brass and the Eastman Wind Ensemble, and as a soloist with many other ensembles both large and small. He can be reached at email@example.com.