Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. The sixth child of a Methodist preacher, Simone would find her musical roots in church, where she began playing the piano at 3 years old.
Simone's talent was evident early on and by age seven, she had the goal to become a concert pianist. She explained to Hit Parader:
"I had been playing by ear and when I was seven a white woman heard me playing in a theatre and went to my mother with an offer to give me piano lessons. That's a very high goal to have, study eight hours a day to be a concert pianist. I didn't even think about it. I just got into it. I was very young. As I got older though I wanted a life of my own. The classical training was very demanding and thorough. It was a very sheltered existence. Even though I heard blues and gospel on the radio sometimes, it was always back to the piano and study and give recitals."
After high school, Simone studied a course in piano at New York's prestigious Julliard School of Music, but couldn't afford to stay.
Call her style gospel, blues, folk or soul, but never jazz. "Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music," she said.
Simone was a passionate civil rights activist who credited friend and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun
) for deepening her interest in politics. "Through her I started thinking about myself as a black person in a country run by white people and a woman in a world run by men."
She was ready to join the battle in 1963 when a church bombing in Alabama took the lives of four little black girls shortly after Medgar Evers, secretary for the NAACP, was murdered in front of his home in Mississippi. Her songs would reflect her pride in her heritage ("Young, Gifted And Black
") and her outrage at racial violence ("Mississippi Goddam
Her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement would have its repercussions. "It got me into a lot of trouble. It hurt my career. Maybe it helped black people, but it hurt me. That's why I'm not making the money I should be right now," She told New Music Express
Simone was known for her dark moods and hair-trigger temper. When a record company allegedly refused to pay her royalties in 1985, she took matters into her own hands. "I got a gun, it was a gun, it wasn't a knife, and I followed him to a restaurant and I tried to kill him. I missed him and I went back to America," she told BBC News.
Her aim got better. In 1995, she shot her neighbor's son with an air gun when his laughter interrupted her concentration.
Simone would earn the title The High Priestess of Soul because, according to critic Ralph J. Gleason, "She is a singer, an actress, an artist, a preacher and a religious symbol. Her very presence inspires to achievement, to art and ultimately to life itself."
The singer's first hit on the pop chart was a 1959 rendition of George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy." At #18, would remain her highest-charting hit on the US pop chart.
Simone took her stage name from French actress Simone Signoret (Diabolique). The first name, Nina, was a nickname from her Hispanic boyfriend meaning "little one."
Simone married twice. In 1958, she wed Don Ross, a fairground barker she befriended that year and would divorce two years later. Then, she married New York City police detective Andrew Benjamin Stroud, who would become her manager, in 1961. The ten-year union to Stroud produced one daughter, Lisa Celeste.
The singer was known to spin a tale or two, especially if it would reflect badly on the record labels that held a grip on her money. She once told NME (in 1984) that she was forced to record her 1978 Baltimore album after being kidnapped by five men and held in a basement without food or water until she finished the LP three days later. She would later retract the statement.
Eunice Waymon adopted her Nina Simone stage name to keep her Methodist minister mother from finding out about her nightly Atlantic City performances.