Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg.
Known as the “high priestess of soul,” Nina Simone is an artist who is often copied but absolutely impossible to duplicate. The daughter of a minister and a handyman, Simone (née Eunice Wayman) was raised in the small Southern town of Tryon, North Carolina. Despite her modest upbringing, Simone nurtured an interest in music from a preternaturally early age, learning the piano at the age of three. As a teen, she aspired to be a concert pianist, but these dreams were hampered when she was denied scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music on the basis of her race. It wasn’t until she was discovered by Bethlehem records in 1958, while performing in an Atlantic City night club, that Simone emerged as the artist we know her as today.
The career that followed was as long as it was lively. From the late 50s through her death in 2003, Simone released over forty albums, each with her signature combination of gospel, jazz, and classical music. Known for her strong opinions and fiery personality, she was unafraid to ruffle feathers (or take shots if she didn’t take kindly to you). In the mid 1960s, her music took on a decidedly political tone with songs that dealt with segregation and racial inequality.
Simone is probably most legendary for her extraordinary voice, cool style and idiosyncratic stage presence. Often coupling her performances with drawn-out soliloquies, her languid cadence and poetic non sequiturs endowed her with a hypnotic, regal quality. A performer through and through, Nina Simone is one of those fascinating, rare artists whose craft extends beyond her music and into her persona, painting a beautiful and oftentimes entrancing portrait.