Listening to Nina Simone’s interpretation of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, one feels spellbound by her: Yet her expressive voice is not the main attraction of her performance: the classically trained pianist always accompanied herself on the piano on recordings and live.
How It Would Feel To Be Free
The content of many of her songs is highly political: usually, the subject is the oppression of people who do not belong to the great masses because of their outward appearance and therefore live in bondage. In songs like I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, Simone expresses her displeasure about this. Social criticism was not the only thing Nina Simone sang about, however: With her interpretation of I Loves You Porgy from the opera Porgy and Bess (George & Ira Gershwin), the singer proves that love hymns were also part of her repertoire.
Next is Nina Simone’s performance of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976:
Early education & Eunice Waymon Fund
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina on February 21, 1933. Her parents recognized the talent in their daughter early on: she began her piano training at the age of seven. Here she came into contact with works by Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and Schubert – composers who were to influence her throughout her life.
Regularly performing at community events, Eunice Waymon became a local celebrity at a young age.
To support the future pianist’s piano education, the community where Simone lived established the Eunice Waymon Fund: with the money raised, she planned to study classical piano music.
After studying for two months at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York, Nina Simone wanted to continue her music studies in Philadelphia. There, however, a rejection awaited her – a disappointment that Nina Simone is said to have never fully recovered from.
Rejection & Transition to entertainer
The Philadelphia rejection also meant the end of her dream of becoming a classical concert pianist. In addition, the money from the Eunice Waymon Fund had been used up. In the early fifties, Nina Simone earned her living by giving piano lessons. But that alone was not enough for her, for financial and artistic reasons: She wanted, first, to earn more and, second, to create music instead of teaching it.
In 1954, Nina Simone began performing at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City: At this bar, Simone was expected to perform as an entertainer, not as a classical pianist. For the pianist, it meant that playing the piano was no longer enough: She was now expected to sing. Paying tribute to her love of classical music, Nina Simone built classical accents into each of her interpretations: they fit so much into the overall picture of her interpretations that they are noticeable only to the listener who is familiar with classical music.
Nina Simone kept her bar appearances a secret from her family: to disguise herself, she chose as her stage name Nina Simone. “Nina” comes from the Spanish niña, meaning girl, and “Simone” was a tribute to her favorite actress, the French Simone Signoret.
First album with compromises
It didn’t take long for record companies to take notice of Nina Simone: At the age of 24, she recorded her first album, Little Girl Blue. To do so, she signed a contract that denied her all claims to royalties – she had to settle for a one-time fee of $3,000. In addition, it was not she but her producer Syd Nathan who owned the rights to the recordings.
Simone made this compromise in order to get any chance at all to immortalize her music on a record. Little Girl Blue was recorded in a thirteen-hour recording session: The record contains many of her later signature songs such as My Baby Just Cares For Me and I Loves You Porgy.
Her willingness to compromise paid off: in 1959 she was signed by Colpix Records: The studio recorded one of her shows on September 12, 1959, and released it on the record The Amazing Nina Simone.
Newport Jazz Festival
The success of her first two albums led to her appearance at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, a performance that was also recorded and released on her second live album, Nina At Newport.
Her legendary live performances and successful albums led to Nina Simone firmly establishing herself as a musician. As for Simone’s thoughts on her early days in the music industry, she writes in her 1991 autobiography:
“Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing, and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in. It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz. On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.“
Activism: Mississippi Goddam
Although she stood out from other musicians and was successful, she did not feel comfortable in the music industry: making music alone was not enough for her. At first, it seemed pointless to Simone to combine music with social criticism: But then the Alabama church bombing in 1963 and the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in the same year occurred – events that fundamentally changed Simone’s attitude to the subject.
From then on, socially critical songs determined Nina Simone’s live performances and LP releases: The song Mississippi Goddam is about the singer’s anger about the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers.
Chanel advertising: comeback
After a dark career phase in the seventies and eighties, her career got a new boost in the nineties: In 1987, the fashion label Chanel used the Nina Simone hit My Baby Just Cares for Me for a commercial. The teenage generation of the time came into contact with Nina Simone for the first time through this advertising clip: The publicity from the Chanel clip enabled Simone to release four new albums and her memoir in 1991.
In 1998 she was invited to the eightieth birthday party of Nelson Mandela, which she attended alongside Michael Jackson.
Throughout her life, Nina Simone was an entertainer who remained attached to the stage until her very last breath. At the end of her life, she was issued honorary degrees and awards from those institutions that had denied her a classical music education in the fifties and sixties. Nina Simone never gave up the dream of becoming a classical concert pianist.
Nina Simone died at her home in the south of France on April 21, 2003.
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Warner, Jennifer: Keeper of the Flame: A Biography of Nina Simone (2014 BookCaps), biography of Nina Simone on the official Nina Simone website
Cover picture: Nina Simone in 1965 in Amsterdam, taken from Wikimedia Commons