Protest singer, jazz vocalist, pianist, temperamental diva and American civil rights heroine, Nina Simone remains one of the most important musicians in American music history.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21 in 1933, Simone started playing the piano at the age of four, and made her concert debut when she was just ten years old. During her recital, her parents were moved to the back of the hall to make room for white people. She refused to play until they were brought back to the front.
She wanted to be the first black concert pianist and was one of the first black women to be classically trained at Julliard. She started playing jazz and pop music in clubs in the mid-1950’s while at Julliard to supplement her income, changing her name to Nina Simone, possibly to protect her classical standing. She never intended to sing, but started when a club manager told her she would lose her job if she didn’t. She became instantly popular, and was known for her inventive style that incorporated jazz, Bach, pop, soul, folk, gospel, and show tunes.
She had a majestic onstage presence, and was known for her love/hate relationship with the audience. She sang with such raw power and soul; if you didn’t like it, you could get out.
She paid great attention to the musical expression of emotions, and could range from intense highs to melancholy tragedy in a single concert or album. She was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in the sixties, but it was kept secret until after she died.
Simone recorded over forty albums over the course of her life, each progressing in artistic control over the next one. She becomes more and more vocal about racial prejudice over the years; after 1964 the civil rights message became standard in her recording repertoire.
She recorded songs such “Mississippi Goddam” – her response to the bombing of a church that killed four black children and covered “Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday’s anthem about lynchings of black men in the south. After Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered she sang “Why? The King of Love is Dead.” She turned Lorraine Hansberry’s play “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” into a civil rights song. This song became the “National Anthem of Black America.”
When you raise a glass to toast the weekend, let's toss one back for the late, great Nina Simone, whose birthday was yesterday and whose legacy lives on in song!
Juice of 1/4 orange
1/3 French Vermouth
1/3 Italian Vermouth
Shake well and strain into a medium glass, add slice of orange and a cherry.