Nina Simone: The Devil Made Me Change My Name!

Nina Simone: The Devil Made Me Change My Name!

Donna Patricia Ward - March 11, 2018

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in a small mountain town in western North Carolina on February 21, 1933. At the age of 3, she began playing the piano and performing at her church. In 1945, when she was 12, she performed her first classical recital. Full of pride, her parents sat in the front row to watch their daughter. In the middle of her performance, they were forced to move to the black section of the concerns hall. Eunice stopped performing until her parents were permitted to return to their seats in the front row.

This was her first act of defiance. As a black child in North Carolina, a young Ms. Waymon was all too aware of discrimination directed at African Americans, referred to at the time as colored or negro. Inequality was everywhere. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) even published an annual book directing black travelers to friendly environments and illustrating the places to avoid. In the midst of inequality a new musical genre spread like a wildfire across the nation. Critics called it the Devil’s Music. Eunice Waymon found the music liberating and a way to pay her bills. She changed her name to Nina Simone and a trailblazer was born.

Nina Simone: The Devil Made Me Change My Name!
1916 Pro-Segregation pamphlet from St. Louis, Missouri. Google Images.

The world in which Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born was one of forced segregation. Blacks were prohibited from sharing the same accommodations as whites. Southern states enforced the notorious Jim Crow laws and changed state constitutions to ensure that African Americans by law were never permitted to have the same opportunities as whites. In North Carolina, for example, the state constitution was changed making it illegal for black students to use state-provided textbooks that were once used by white students.

Racism ran deep in the more ethnically diverse northern and western states. But instead of changing state constitutions, Segregationists simply forced blacks and whites into separate realms of society. Restrictive covenants were attached to property to prohibit the sail of a white-owned home to an African American. A homeowner’s association or neighborhood improvement association could sue for eviction if a black family moved into a home with a restrictive covenant proclaiming that only whites could own the property. If successful, and thousands of cases were, the new homeowners would be evicted from their own home, their possessions thrown onto the sidewalk, and the money used to purchase the home was simply gone. This tool was a way for ethnic whites to prevent what they called a “negro invasion” as millions of southerners—black and white—walked away from their tenant and sharecropping arrangements for opportunities in urban factories.

People enforced segregation throughout the United States either with Jim Crow laws or simply by terror tactics and violence. Restaurants that once were welcoming to all races suddenly forced blacks to order at a back window and eat standing up. Movie theaters, concert halls, and public facilities all had black and white sections and neither race was permitted to cross into the other race’s section. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented his New Deal plan, the federal government hired white workers to build new roadways, parks, and other infrastructure projects. Black workers were hired to clear away the debris or perform the most menial tasks. Racism ran deep in the early 20th century throughout the entire nation.

Nina Simone: The Devil Made Me Change My Name!
White students protesting integration in their school. Google Images.

For Eunice Waymon, the treatment of her parents at her recital in 1947 would not be her only brush with discrimination and activism. The young woman wanted to be a professional concert pianist. To ensure that she could fulfill her dreams, Waymon’s music teacher created a fund to pay for her education at the Allen High School for Girls in nearby Asheville. Then int eh summer of 1950, she attended the Juilliard School in New York City. Her next step was to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her parents moved to Philadelphia to be near their talented daughter. When Eunice was denied admittance because of what she believed was because she was black, she was devastated.

Eunice Waymon taught piano and then began performing at a honky tonk in Atlantic City. She still dreamed of being a concert pianist, but she needed money to pay for her studies. The honky ton was a way for her to earn money while patrons ate food, let loose, and danced to music that would never be played in the high-society dinner clubs frequented by whites. The Devil’s Music became Eunice Waymon’s bread and butter. But to hid her gig from her mother, she changed her name to Nina Simone.

Nina Simone: The Devil Made Me Change My Name!
Nina Simone in 1975. Wikipedia.

The Devil’s Music

Influenced by gospel and negro spirituals, jazz in the great American art form. Musicians improvised instead of following standard melodies that catered to white sensibilities. Lyrics centered on themes of heartbreak, hard times, and dreams denied. By the 1920s, people of all races flocked to jazz. Critics labeled it the Devil’s Music and called those that played it degenerates, immoral, and barbaric. Rural shacks and bars in red-light districts enjoyed the notoriety and the scandal of jazz.
When Eunice Waymon began performing as a pianist and vocalist at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City for $90 per week in 1954, she changed her name. Trained as a classical pianist, Simone was influenced by the German composer Johann Sebastian Back, Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin, and the Hungarian composer, pianist, and arranger Franz Liszt. She played a mixture of jazz, blues, and of course, classical music as she used spoken word and lyrics to take her audience on an emotional story-telling journey where they lost track of space and time. Simone earned a small but loyal fan base.

In 1958, Simone released her first album, “Little Girl Blue.” The album included Simone’s own arrangements of previously recorded material, of which listeners loved. She earned commercial success and her fan base grew. Yet, classical piano was her first love and she did not care much for recording pop songs. She sold the rights to Little Girl Blue for $3000. Her goal at the time was to pay for her classical training.

Nina Simone: The Devil Made Me Change My Name!
“Little Girl Blue” by Nina Simone, 1958. Wikipedia.

After the success of her first album, Nina Simone singed a new contract with Colpix Records which permitted her to retain the rights and have all artistic control over her work. Nina Simone could record and arrange the music that she wanted instead of abiding by the whites of record executives. Every day Nina Simone faced discrimination because of her race. Yet, she had enough talent and wherewithal to ensure she retained artistic control, making her a true trailblazer in a white and male dominated recording industry.

Andrew Stroud and Nina Simone married in 1961. They had one daughter, Lisa, during their very turbulent marriage. There were numerous reports that Stroud was physically and psychologically abusive to his wife. Despite the marital discord, Simone performed at nightclubs in Greenwich village and continued to record and release albums. She had frequent outbursts and fits of rage, but managed to take her audience on a magical journey where time and space were suspended. She earned the moniker the “High Priestess of Soul.”

Nina Simone: The Devil Made Me Change My Name!
Blood Sunday, Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. Wikipedia.

Breaking the Mold

Nina Simone included social commentary in her work. At the time, very few musicians sang about social injustices. Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” and the Four Seasons’s “Sherry” focused on fun, love, and romance. As a black woman living in a world that socially and legally believed that she had no place in modern society, Nina Simone refused to keep social commentary out of her performances.

On June 12, 1963 a member of the White Citizen’s Council murdered a Second World War veteran and the Mississippi field secretary of the NAACP, Medgar Evans. Three months later, four black girls were killed when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Civil rights activists were enraged. Since the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education that separate was not equal, whites had protested with violence to keep black students out of their schools. The killing of Evans and the four black girls was a watershed moment for Simone.

In 1964, Simone released perhaps her most controversial song, “Mississippi Goddam.” Proclaiming that she means every word, Simone plays an upbeat cadence on the piano and states, “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” The next line she sings is “hound dogs on my trail, school children sitting in jail, black cat cross my path, I think every day’s gonna be my last.” The song was a critical critique on the lack of law and order applied to preventing and prosecuting the hundreds of crimes committed against black Americans that were fighting for voting, education, and equal rights. Radio stations the South refused to play the song, with some even going as far as destroying their entire Nina Simone recordings.

Nina Simone: The Devil Made Me Change My Name!
Nina Simone in concert, May 1980. Wikipedia.

Simone did not care about the boycotts against her music. She continued to record and relate her own arrangements that included black social commentary. Two of her songs, 1965’s “Four Women” and 1969’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” were sued in protest movements. When recounting her years as an activist, Nina Simone stated that “she felt more alive” because she “was needed” and that she could “sing something to help my people.” She believed that all races were equal but supported a violent revolution, aligning herself with Malcom X and the Black Nationalist Movement.

By the late 1970s, Nina Simone had left the United States living in Barbados, Liberia, and finally France. Throughout her career she was prone to fits of rage and violent outbursts. iN 1985 she attempted to kill a record company executive and shot at her neighbor’s son for interrupting her concentration. Simone died of breast cancer in April 2003. Only after her death was her diagnosis of bipolar disorder made public. In April 2018, Nina Simone was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Devil’s Music: 1920s Jazz.” The TV Series & Beyond on PBS. February 2, 2000.

“Bio of Nina Simone.” The Nina Simone Estate.

“To Be Young, Gifted and Black”. Composed by Nina Simone, Lyrics by Weldon Irvine, Produced by Stroud Productions. Recorded October 26, 1969.

“Four Women”. Songwriter Nina Simone, Producer Hal Mooney. Recorded in 1965.

“Mississippi Goddam”. Songwriter and Composer Nina Simone, Producer Hal Mooney. Recored live at Carnegie Hall in New York City and released in 1964.

“Nina Simone”. Wikipedia.

“Medgar Wiley Evans”. Wikipedia.

“List of Billboard Hot 100 Singles of 1960, 1961, and 1963.” Wikipedia.