Originally called "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," Nina Simone wrote this song with a poet named Weldon Irvine, who contributed lyrics. It was a relaxed session, Simone's daughter Lisa remembered. "One of the first things I remember as a child was being in the studio when she and Weldon Irvine were working on 'Young, Gifted and Black.' Weldon was very laid-back and talented. He and my mother got along well. A personality like my mother's was offset very well by his laid-back personality. The first things I think about were his eyes, which were very big. He was the man when it came to organ and piano."
The author Lorraine Hansberry, famous for her play A Raisin in the Sun, was an inspiration for this song. After Hansberry died in 1965, a collection of her works was published under the title To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which was also made into an off-Broadway play. Simone wrote the song to honor her memory.
Simone told Irvine she wanted lyrics that "will make black children all over the world feel good about themselves forever." It proved to be a tall order for Irvine. He recalled to journalist Oliver Wang:
"It was the only time in my life that I wrestled with creating," he said. "Usually, I just open the door and it comes. I was in my Ford Galaxie on my way to the bus station to pick up a girlfriend from down South. I stopped at a red light at Forty-First Street and Eighth Avenue when all the words came to me at once. I tied up traffic at that red light for fifteen minutes, as I scribbled on three napkins and a matchbook cover. A whole bunch of irate taxi drivers were leaning on their horns. I wrote it, put it in the glove compartment, picked up the girl, and didn't look at it until she got back on the bus to go home." When he read it, he thought, "I didn't write this. God wrote it through me."
This was released as a single in 1969 and reached its Hot 100 peak of #76 in January 1970. Simone released an album in 1970 called Gifted & Black, but it didn't include this track. Simone did include the song on her live album Black Gold, which was released later that year. That album was recorded at the New York Philharmonic Hall in October 1969.
The single runs just 2:46, but the live version stretches to 9:34.
In the UK, the duo Bob & Marcia recorded the most popular version of this song, taking it to #5 in March 1970. Bob Andy and Marcia (pronounced "Mar-See-a") Griffiths were successful reggae solo singers in their native Jamaica. Producer Harry J put them together to record their reggae version of this song, which became the first UK hit to incorporate a reggae string section. A year later, Bob & Marcia hit #11 UK with "Pied Piper," then resumed their solo careers. Griffiths became a member of Bob Marley's backup group, and had a hit on her own with "Electric Boogie."
Simone's live album Black Gold, which included this song, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1971. That category was dominated by Aretha Franklin, who won it every year from 1968-1975, beating Simone twice (Nina was also nominated in 1968 for "You'll Go to Hell"). Franklin's "Don't Play That Song" was the 1971 winner, but Aretha loved "Young, Gifted And Black" and visited Simone in Barbados to personally ask permission to cover it. Franklin included it on her 1972 album, also titled Young, Gifted and Black. Franklin's performance of the song was the Grammy winner in 1973.
Harry J produced the Bob & Marcia version, recording it at his studio and releasing it on his Harry J Record label. The year before, Harry J had a #9 hit with "Liquidator," which he recorded with his reggae group The Harry J. All Stars. In 1981 he produced "The Bed's Too Big Without You," a #35 UK hit for Jamaican singer Sheila Hylton.
Boris Gardiner played bass on the Bob & Marcia version. He went on to have three UK Top 20 hits, including a #1 in 1986 with his light reggae version of the Mac Davis song "I Wanna Wake Up With You."