The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering

Tim Flight - September 16, 2019

Nina Simone is one of the most important figures in 20th century music. From humble origins, she found great fame in the 1960s with her mixture of original compositions and interpretations of standard tunes. Despite her fame and being one of the most gifted pianists in the history of popular music, Simone never scored a Billboard Number One hit. Sound strange? Nina’s life was just as extraordinary. In this article, we’ll discover what made the great lady tick, her important role in the Civil Rights movement, and the controversies that dogged her private life. Fasten your seatbelts.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina Simone in North Carolina, 1930s. 24Celebs

40. She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, and later adopted the stage name ‘Nina Simone’

The name ‘Nina Simone‘ is a stage name. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, her real name did not hold the same intrigue. She began performing jazz and blues live at an Atlantic City bar around 1954. Eunice worried her deeply-religious mother would object to her daughter playing what the press called ‘the Devil’s Music’ in so dingy and sinful a setting. To prevent her from finding out, she took on a new public identity. Eunice chose ‘Nina’ because a Spanish-speaking boyfriend nicknamed her niña (‘girl’), and ‘Simone’ in homage to the French movie star, Simone Signoret.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina’s childhood home, Tryon, North Carolina. Saving Places

39. Nina grew up very poor in North Carolina during the Great Depression

Nina (as we’ll call her throughout, to avoid confusion) came into this world in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933. She grew up with seven siblings in the 650 square feet, three-roomed house photographed above. Her mother, Kate Waymon, was a Methodist minister. Her father, John Devan Waymon, was a handyman who owned a dry-cleaning business. Nina looked back on her childhood fondly, but the family was very poor. In 1933, North Carolina’s agricultural and manufacturing economy was especially hard-hit by the Great Depression, which meant that the Waymon family had to learn to live extremely frugally.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Bus station in North Carolina, 1940. Slide Player

38. She spent her childhood in the Jim Crow-era South

The young Nina not only had to deal with terrible poverty, but the horrors of the Jim Crow Laws. These enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. The Jim Crow Laws made it clear that whites and blacks had to be separated because of the inferiority and wickedness of black people, and in North Carolina, even libraries had segregated areas for readers. Books couldn’t pass from black people to white people or vice versa, and even the North Carolina State Militia was segregated. Growing up with Jim Crow, Nina’s fury at such injustice later blossomed into Civil Rights activism.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina at the piano, 1960s. Flickr

37. She began playing the organ when she was just two and a half

Nina’s home was poor, but musical. Her pious parents had a keen appreciation of music, and the tiny, overcrowded family home was full of religious songs. Aged just two and a half, the intrepid Nina learned not only to climb up onto the organ stool at St Luke Church, where her mother preached, but taught herself to play the instrument. One day she even surprised her mother by playing her favorite hymn, ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again‘. ‘We knew she was a genius by the time she was just three’, recalled her brother Carrol.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Old St Luke’s Church, Tryon, where Nina began performing. Nina Simone Project

36. Her mother was a minister, and so her early performances were at Methodist Churches

Like Carrol, Nina’s parents soon realized that they had a musical prodigy on their hands. They exempted her from household chores to protect her little fingers, but incredibly her less-fortunate siblings didn’t begrudge her the special treatment. When Mary Kate Waymon began traveling to Methodist churches in surrounding counties to preach, she took her four-year-old daughter with her to provide musical accompaniment. Dressed in her smartest clothes, Nina was so small that she could hardly reach the organ’s pedals, but still blew congregations away with her precocious displays of talent.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Miss Mazzy, aka Muriel Mazzanovich, in a 1969 portrait by Betty Anne Mills Dobbyns. Nina Simone Project

35. She was taught by an inspirational piano teacher, who raised funds for Nina to attend a private boarding school for black girls

Aged just five, Nina’s ability so impressed Mrs. Miller, whose house Kate Waymon cleaned for extra cash, that she paid for a year’s piano lessons with an Englishwoman called Muriel Mazzanovich, affectionately known as Miss Mazzy. Nina flourished and developed a lifelong love of composers such as Bach, and she did so well that Miller and another kindly local, Esther Moore, continued to pay for the lessons for years. Miss Mazzy, in turn, helped to secure donations to the ‘Eunice Waymon Fund’ to pay for Nina to go to a good, private school where her talent could be further nurtured.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
A protest against racial segregation in the Methodist Church, 1968. United Methodist Reporter

34. Aged just 11, Nina refused to perform a recital when her parents were moved to the back of the venue because of their race

Miss Mazzy also taught Nina the etiquette of a concert pianist and arranged for her to perform piano recitals in public. One of these recitals was crucial in the development of Nina’s social consciousness. In 1944, 11-year-old Nina was due to play at the Lanier Library to an all-white crowd, but had insisted that her parents attend. Kate and John sat at the front, but just as Nina was ready to begin, she saw her parents being hustled to the back. Incredibly, Nina refused to play until her parents returned to their seats. The shocked host obliged.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Allan School for Girls, Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville Historic Inns

33. At school, Nina was so smart that she skipped two grades

Thanks to the generosity of Tryon locals such as Mrs. Miller, Nina went to Allen High School for Girls, an elite private boarding establishment for black girls in Asheville, North Carolina, between 1945 and 1950. But her musical talent was too great even for Allen when she arrived, and the school let her get private tuition off-campus with a friend of Miss Mazzy. She loved her new school, with its brand new textbooks and beautiful surroundings, and became president of numerous societies. Nina also shone academically, skipping two grades and graduating as her class’s valedictorian in 1950.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina at the Allan School, aged 14. Pinterest

32. After leaving school in Asheville, Nina dreamed of becoming the first African-American concert pianist

After her glittering high school career came to an end, Nina had one thing on her mind: to become a professional concert pianist. She had everything needed to achieve this dream – natural musical talent, real passion for the great composers, classical training, and an extraordinary work ethic – and believed that she would become the first African-American concert pianist in America in so doing. Unknown to Nina, however, there were in fact several black women performing classical piano at the time, which goes to show how much information technology has improved in the last 70 years!

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Juilliard School, 1960s. Juilliard

31. In 1950, 17-year-old Nina studied with the great pianist, Carl Friedberg, at Juilliard School in New York City

Miss Mazzy managed to secure Nina a scholarship to the celebrated Juilliard School of Music after leaving Allen for the summer of 1950. Aged just 17, Nina lived in New York away from her family and friends in a shared house in Harlem. Her main teacher was Carl Friedberg, a former student of the famous Clara Schumann, who had performed with the Vienna Philharmonic amongst others. Nina found herself moving between two very different worlds that summer: the mostly-white world of Juilliard, and the all-black borough of Harlem, but found herself more at home at the former.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia. Visit Philly

30. But she soon suffered a blow when her application to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected

After her summer scholarship ended, Nina decided to apply to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. It guaranteed one-to-one tuition and gave full scholarships to every student, but perhaps even more importantly her mother and two younger siblings moved to Philadelphia in late 1950. Nina stayed in New York to prepare for her audition in April 1951, and moved in with her family soon afterward. But within days came the crushing news that she had been rejected. For the rest of her life, Nina believed that this was motivated by racism. Curtis awarded her an honorary degree in 2003.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Vladimir Sokoloff and pianist Ruth Butterfield-Winter in front of the Curtis Institute of Music, July 1984. Wikimedia Commons

29. She took further lessons, and worked as a photographer’s assistant, while waiting for her big break

Although the suspicions of racism at least stopped Nina from thinking her rejection had come because she wasn’t good enough, they also stopped her from working hard to apply again the following year, which had been her original plan. Deflated, she declared herself ‘a stranger to the piano’, and took a job as a photographer’s assistant. But luckily her brother, Carrol, encouraged her not to give up, and she took lessons with Vladimir Sokoloff, a teacher from Curtis, in preparation for reapplying. Nina gave up her job, and paid for Sokoloff’s lessons by working as an accompanist at a local vocal studio.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Boardwalk, Atlantic City, in the 1950s. Pinterest

28. Nina began performing (and singing) at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City to pay for her lessons and soon had a loyal following

As well as giving piano lessons herself at $2.50 an hour, Nina also began giving paid performances in public and realized that better money could be earned through these gigs. Nina wound up getting a nightly slot at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City in June 1954, and even though she (rightly) saw it as beneath her great talents as a classical pianist, the experience proved the turning point of her career. The bar’s owner threatened to sack her if she didn’t sing, and despite her reluctance, her distinctive voice and musical virtuosity soon drew loyal crowds.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina in the 1950s. Biography

27. Nina’s performances and recordings also attracted the attention of a music label

Nina proved so popular at the Midtown that she was in demand all over the East Coast. A recording of one of her shows at a club called New Hope in Philadelphia fell into the hands of Sid Nathan, who owned the jazz label Bethlehem Records, and in 1957 Nina recorded a few songs with him. Nathan offered her a record deal, but Nina refused to be told what to play and record, which led to some fiery arguments. The notoriously stubborn Nina ultimately overcame Nathan’s resistance, and her subsequent career proved her absolutely correct!

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina in the 1970s. Westbury Arts

26. In 1958, she married a beatnik poet

In 1956, Nina met Don Ross, a Beatnik poet who worked as a fairground barker in Atlantic City. Ross lived the lifestyle of a drifter, but he was irresistible to a lonely Nina: ‘he was at the bar [the Midtown] every night, and I was lonely and drinking milk’, she explained. The Waymon family did not like him and saw him as a leech, but nonetheless, Nina and Ross married in 1958. Perhaps her family was right all along, however, as Nina swiftly regretted the marriage and they separated after less than a year, legally divorcing in 1960.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Original vinyl pressing of Nina’s first hit, ‘I Loves You, Porgy’. Way Back Attack

25. Also in 1958, Nina released her first single and scored her only top-20 hit

After ironing out her differences with Sid Nathan – or, more accurately, browbeating him into submission – Nina’s cover version of I Loves You, Porgy, from George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, was sent to local radio stations. Nina used her classical training to improve the song, and really made it her own. It was so popular that DJs would play it several times in a row but, incredibly, Nina had to fight Nathan tooth and nail to convince him to release it as a single. When finally released, it reached the Billboard Top 20 chart in 1959, making Nina a star almost overnight.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Little Girl Blue’, Nina’s first LP. Jazz Messengers

24. Her first album, Little Girl Blue, was a success, but she made next to nothing from it

I Loves You, Porgy, was included on Nina’s first album, Little Girl Blue, which also came out in 1958. The single when finally released made the album a real success, and it included 11 tracks in total, with only one original composition by Nina. Sadly, like countless other African-Americans in the music industry in the mid-20th century, Nina was paid the flat amount of $3,000 for her work, rather than receiving royalties. Although it seemed a fortune at the time, it is estimated that the crooked deal brokered by Nathan eventually cost Nina $1 million in lost royalties.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Amazing Nina Simone’, Nina’s first recording for Coptix Records. CD and LP

23. Despite signing a contract with Coptix Records, Nina saw her commercial success as the means to fund her classical training

After the success of Little Girl Blue, Nina signed a record deal with Coptix Records, a much bigger label than Bethlehem. Unlike Bethlehem, Coptix would actually promote her music without Nina having to shout at them, and most importantly handed over all creative control to the artist. But despite achieving a level of success that few musicians ever do, Nina still saw herself as a concert pianist releasing popular music to make ends meet and, more importantly, to pay for her private lessons, and was utterly indifferent to her fame and success away from classical recitals.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina and Andy Stroud in a hotel, 1960s. Daily Telegraph

22. She married a New York cop, Andy Stroud, in 1961, but he was appallingly abusive

A year after formally divorcing Don Ross, Nina married Andy Stroud, a New York cop. He helped her to deal with the inconveniences of fame and later became her manager, and in 1962 they had a daughter together, but this wasn’t the whole story. Stroud was a cruel and violent man, and his treatment of Nina is truly horrifying. To give but one example, after seeing her pocket a note from a fan at a disco, Nina wrote in her diary, ‘[Stroud] beat me all the way home… placed a gun to my head, tied me up and raped me’.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina performs at the Carnegie Hall for the second time in 1964. Pinterest

21. In 1963, Nina achieved her dream of performing at the Carnegie Hall, New York

One good thing that Stroud did for Nina was to get her booked to play at the famous Carnegie Hall, New York. This was a lifelong dream come true for Nina: the Carnegie was a famous venue for classical music, and no less than the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky conducted at its opening night in May 1891. Nina was extremely nervous before she played on April 12, 1963, but her performance won rave reviews and saw a live album released. Best of all for Nina, both Miss Mazzy and her parents were in the crowd to see her perform.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Medgar Evans, pictured here in 1958, whose assassination in 1963 inspired ‘Mississippi Goddam’. Biography

20. Her 1964 anti-racism anthem, Mississippi Goddam, was extremely controversial

Nina’s social conscience, developed during her youth in the Jim Crow south, exploded into action in 1964. That year she wrote Mississippi Goddam in response to the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers in the state, and the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. ‘All I want is equality/ for my sister my brother my people and me’, Nina raged in the song. Mississippi Goddam was very popular at her concerts but was immediately banned in several Southern states, and radio stations nationwide returned promotional copies they’d been sent broken in half.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina depicted on a Civil Rights mural in Baltimore. Artsology

19. From this point on, Nina started writing more and more Civil Rights protest songs

Mississippi Goddam marked a turn in the lyrical direction of Nina’s career. Realizing she had a platform as a famous musician, she used her influence for good, and tried to secure her fellow African-Americans the same basic rights as everyone else. She realized that in so doing she was taking a big risk with her career, but as ever Nina did what she thought was right, and wouldn’t be dissuaded. For example, Backlash Blues, from 1967, with lyrics written by the poet Langston Hughes, hit out at the white racist reaction to the Civil Rights movement.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
One of the Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965, with Martin Luther King leading the way. New Republic

18. She performed at numerous Civil Rights protests, including the Selma to Montgomery Marches of 1965

When it came to Civil Rights, Nina didn’t just talk the talk, she walked the walk. In 1965, the three Selma to Montgomery Marches were held in protest at the murder of a peaceful protestor by Alabama state troopers and African-Americans being prevented from voting. On March, 25, Nina performed for the marchers at the City of St Jude, risking her own safety not just by turning up but by performing incendiary tracks such as Mississippi Goddam. Along with other prominent African-Americans such as Sammy Davis Jr, Nina played on a stage made out of empty coffin crates.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Malcolm X in the 1960s. Ethics

17. Her neighbor in Mount Vernon, New York, was none other than Malcolm X’s wife

Unlike Martin Luther King. Jr, Malcolm X wanted a separate all-black state and saw all white people as evil. He later renounced these views when he left the Nation of Islam and promoted racial integration, but in February 1965 his former organization murdered him in Manhattan. Despite popular myth, Malcolm did not live next door to Nina in New York, but his wife, Betty Shabazz, did. Nina heard Malcolm speak in Harlem and approved of some of his ideas, but never met him. ‘Even now I wish I had known the man’, reflected Nina in later life.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nation of Islam counter-demonstration at an NAACP rally in Harlem, 1961, advocating the creation of an all-black state. Boston Review

16. Sickened by the appalling racism in 1960s America, she once advocated racial separatism

When she heard about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, Nina’s immediate reaction was understandably vitriolic: ‘I had it in mind to go out and kill someone. I tried to make a zip gun’, she remembered. In the event, Nina wrote Mississippi Goddam, but for some time she advocated separatism: ‘Much as I liked the idea of the world being as one and wanted it to be true, the more I looked around, the more I learned… the less I thought it would ever happen… but I didn’t believe that there was any basic difference between the races’.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina in 1968. The Guardian

15. Though she disagreed with his methods, Nina performed a song written by a member of her band, Why? (The King of Love is Dead), in tribute to Martin Luther King

After her performance at the Selma to Montgomery March, Nina met Martin Luther King onstage. Their exchange highlighted the fundamental difference between the pair’s outlook on the Civil Rights movement: ‘I’m not nonviolent!’, she greeted the doctor, referring to King’s policy of peaceful protest and resistance. She admired King, nonetheless, and when he was tragically murdered in 1968, Nina’s bassist, Gene Taylor, immediately composed Why? (The King of Love is Dead) in tribute. Three days later, Nina performed the moving track at the Westbury Music Festival, Long Island, perfectly capturing the nation’s widespread horror at King’s death.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Lorraine Hansberry, a friend and mentor to Nina. PSMag

14. Nina credited her friend Lorraine Hansberry with inspiring her to political activism

One of Nina’s best-known songs, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, is a tribute to her friend Lorraine Hansberry, an African-American playwright who died of pancreatic cancer at the tragically young age of 34 in 1965. Nina credited Hansberry with encouraging her to act on the bitter injustices she felt and get involved in the Civil Rights movement. Hansberry berated Nina for not taking a more public stand against events in the South, and Nina realized that she needed to get involved. ‘We never talked about men or clothes, always about Marx, Lenin and the Revolution. Girly things’, quipped Nina.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
‘Wild is the Wind’, Nina’s 1966 album featuring ‘Four Women’. Discogs

13. The 1966 song, Four Women, was a feminist anthem way ahead of its time

It wasn’t just Civil Rights in general that Nina’s music commented upon. In 1966, she wrote the song, Four Women, which explored the plight of African-American women specifically. The song confronted issues around body image, and the prevailing assumption that real beauty was only found in Caucasian women, and that any deviation from this ‘norm’ was inferior. It also confronted four stereotypes of black women, and highlighted how society absurdly determined their personalities and behavior based entirely on their physical appearance. It seems that only now is the world catching up with Nina’s views, over fifty years later.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina at Fillmore East, Greenwich Village, May 1970. Morrison Hotel Gallery

12. Nina’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement harmed her career

With all her protest songs, involvement in Civil Rights protest, and an attempt to incite a riot in Harlem in 1969 (‘Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings, are you ready? Are you ready to build black things?’) concert promoters and venues started seeing Nina as a dangerous person to book for shows. She was also positively loathed by the far right and much of the South, and so when the Civil Rights movement ended with its leaders dying, incarcerated, and (according to Nina) selling out, and the liberals’ focus switched to Vietnam, Nina was left high-and-dry.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Protest march against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC, November 1965. New Yorker

11. She refused to pay her taxes in protest at the Vietnam War

‘You raise my taxes, freeze my wages/ and send my son to Vietnam’ raged Nina in Backlash Blues. Like many left-leaning Americans in the 1960s, Nina was dead against American involvement in the Vietnam War, which inspired widespread protests both in music and on the streets. The draft system targeted the lower classes and ethnic minorities, quite apart from the horrors of war itself, so it is not hard to see why Nina was so critical of the conflict. In protest, she refused to pay any taxes to fund what she saw as a racist and immoral conflict.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina and Andy Stroud, late 1960s. Flickr

10. In 1970, she finally escaped her abusive husband and fled to Barbados

1970 was a big year for Nina. Her career was irreparably harmed by her Civil Rights involvement and she felt disenfranchised by the US after the movement’s end. Wholesale change was needed. With the end of the Civil Rights movement, Nina felt she had no purpose as a musician, and so no longer needed to put up with the physical and mental abuse of her monstrous husband, who was also her manager and looked after her bookings, finances, and publicity. Leaving her wedding ring on her pillow, she fled to Barbados.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow, civil rights activist, Prime Minister of Barbados, and Nina’s lover, pictured with Eric Williams. Hansib

9. In Barbados, Nina had a love affair with Errol Barrow, the prime minister

Taking her daughter, Lisa, with her, Nina spent a period of time in Barbados, initially on vacation, but then returned a few years later and started an affair with Prime Minister, Errol Barrow. Barrow is a much-revered national hero in Barbados, and during his term as the island’s first Prime Minister, he achieved independence from Britain, introduced free education, improved healthcare, and oversaw a period of economic growth. He was also a passionate advocate of civil rights, so it is no surprise that the two hit it off. Lisa remembers Barrow as her favorite of Nina’s boyfriends.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina attends a birthday party in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1974. Guernica

8. With an arrest warrant issued for her arrest over unpaid taxes, Nina could not return to the US

One of the reasons that Nina returned to live in Barbados after her initial vacation ended was because the US government issued an arrest warrant for her unpaid taxes. Nina’s refusal to pay taxes had been a political protest, and she hadn’t softened her stance on Vietnam. Instead, she left the US for good (periodically returning to play shows in later life), and after her affair with Errol Barrow ended Nina lived in Liberia for three years, then various places in Europe before settling near Aix-en-Provence in the South of France in 1993.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina and Lisa, late 1960s or early 1970s. Irish Mirror

7. Her relationship with her only daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud, was strained and, at times, abusive

The tumult of Nina’s life started to show in her private life after she left the US. Although her daughter, Lisa, eventually joined her in Liberia, Nina was so cruel to her that she was soon on a plane back to New York to live with her father, aged just 14. ‘She [Nina] went from being my comfort to the monster in my life’, Lisa reflected in a 2015 interview. ‘My mother was angry with the world and often the only person around to blame was me’. Their relationship was so bad that Nina left Lisa out of her will.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Johann Sebastian Bach, Nina’s favorite composer, depicted by E. G. Haussmann in 1748. Times of Israel

6. Despite never fulfilling her dream of becoming a concert pianist, Nina’s original songs were heavily influenced by classical composers

Although she is primarily known as a jazz pianist and singer, classical music aficionados can tell from many songs that Nina was classically trained. Many of her reinterpretations add flourishes more commonly seen in the fugues of her favorite composer, Johan Sebastian Bach. Her original compositions are even more telling of Nina’s background and desire to be a classical pianist, and no matter how famous she became she always saw herself as a classical pianist playing popular music out of necessity. ‘Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music,’ she once explained.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina, c.1997. Blogspot

5. She battled with a nasty pill addiction during the height of her fame

As well as her own exacting standards, Nina’s punishing touring schedule – forced upon her by Andy Stroud, you’ll be unsurprised to hear – proved a heavy toll on her wellbeing. Anyone who has seen Nina perform with characteristic swagger will be shocked to hear that she often suffered from nerves before shows, which were made much worse by fatigue and the fear of not living up to her own standards, so Nina became addicted to prescription pills during her 1960s heyday. She also became dependent on alcohol, though strenuously denied that she was ever an alcoholic.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina, pictured here in the late 1960s, was a famously-heavy smoker. Project Revolver

4. Nina was famously belligerent, stubborn, and artistically-tempered

At concerts, Nina not only had high standards for herself but expected her audience to behave in a manner she deemed acceptable. After growing up playing classical recitals, Nina refused to tolerate anyone talking or not showing adequate attention at her shows, and would often stop playing to berate them or give them one of her trademark thousand-yard stares. Off-stage, too, Nina was uncompromising. She once fired buckshot over a neighbor’s garden to make their teenage kids quieten down. Nina’s mental illnesses, which only came to light after her death, explain her more violent episodes.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina performing in her adopted homeland, France, in May 1982. Wikimedia Commons

3. Nina suffered from mental illness, and wasn’t diagnosed until the 1980s

Like many other talented people, Nina suffered from bipolar disorder. This explains much of her erratic behavior onstage and her treatment of Lisa, but sadly she was not diagnosed until the mid-1980s. She also likely had PTSD from her abusive second marriage. Nina lived for years with these conditions, completely un-medicated and untreated, and it was only after her death in 2003 that they came to light. Her fits of anger were misogynistic ally ascribed to her being a ‘diva’ during her life, but it is sad to note that many of Nina’s symptoms still define what makes a diva today.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
An 8-foot high statue of Nina at the Plaza named after her in Tryon, NC. Blogspot

2. In 2003, Nina died peacefully in her sleep after losing a battle with breast cancer

Nina’s career plummeted to the point that she once again played at bars and cafes (this time in Paris) for low sums of money. However, her career was reinvigorated in the 1980s after she received mental health treatment and began performing at bigger venues. Her role in the Civil Rights movement also won the great respect it deserved and her back catalog was reassessed and finally won critical acclaim. In the late 1990s, however, Nina was struck down with breast cancer, and after a battle lasting a few years, she died two months after her 70th birthday in 2003.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Films such as this 2015 documentary are ensuring a new generation are exposed to Nina’s music. IMDB

1. Her posthumous reputation is stronger than ever

Nina’s ashes were scattered in several African countries, but as is often the case with celebrity deaths, this ending was a beginning. For Nina is now more popular than ever, with all manner of musicians paying homage to her music and the more controversial episodes in her life being re-examined. Numerous biographies have been written about her and her amazing story has recently been immortalized in film. In 2015, two documentaries were released about Nina’s life, What Happened, Miss Simone? and The Amazing Nina Simone, and the following year a biopic entitled Nina starring Zoe Saldana was also released.


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

Chandler, Adam. “What Happened to Nina Simone?”. The Atlantic, June 27, 2015.

Cohodas, Nadine. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Keepnews, Peter. “Nina Simone, 70, Soulful Diva and Voice of Civil Rights, Dies”. The New York Times, April 22, 2003.

Light, Alan. What Happened, Miss Simone? A Biography. New York: Random House, 2016.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone Turned the Movement into Music”. The New Yorker, August 3, 2014.

Simone, Nina, and Stephen Cleary. I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone. London: Penguin, 2003.