UNSPECIFIED - OCTOBER 18, 1964: American pianist and jazz singer Nina Simone performs October 18, 1964 in an unidentifed location. Simone, whose deep, raspy voice made her a unique jazz figure and later helped chronicle the civil rights movement, died in her sleep on April 21, 2003 of natural causes after a long illness. She was 70. (Photo by Getty Images)

Happy Black History Month! This is the 8th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. Each blog focuses on the life and career of a Black American whose life has shaped American history.

The focus of today’s blog is Nina Simone, an icon in American music, known for her remarkable vocal talent.

Early Talent

Born in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina as Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Nina Simone’s musical talent became very obvious very early on in her life. According to the biography on her official website, as a child, she played piano at her mother’s Methodist Church where she served as a minister. She began learning about classical music from a neighbor named Muriel Mazzanovic, and she fell in love with it.

Simone excelled in school. Her biography says her community raised enough money for her to attend classes at Julliard in New York City. These classes would help prepare her for an audition for Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. Although her family moved to Philadephia to be closer to their daughter, their dreams were dashed when she was not accepted into the program. Simone always believed her rejection was due to racial prejudice.

First Show

After this, Simone took lessons with Curtis Institute professor Vladimir Sokoloff. During this time, she made an income by giving private piano lessons to students from wealthy families (Biography). She also worked at Arlene Smith’s vocal studio. In June 1955, she put on her first show with the stage name Nina Simone in Midtown Bar in Atlantic City. Performing at bars became a regular thing and at age 24, she signed with Bethlehem Records. Only a few years later in 1959, she released her first jazz album called “Little Girl Blue” (Biography).

“Mississippi Goddam”

In the 60’s, Simone switched to Colpix Records and came out with nine albums while signed with the company (Biography). After moving to Philips under Mercury Records, she wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in 1963 as a response to racial injustices occurring at the time. One event was the murder of Medgar Evers, who was an NAACP field secretary and civil rights activist who was killed by a white supremacist in Mississippi (History). Another event was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four young girls were killed and countless others were injured (SPLC). Listen to Mississippi Goddam below.

World Tour

After marrying her then-husband and manager Andy Stroud, in 1967, Simone signed with RCA. She stayed with them for 7 years and during that time, she released nine albums and toured everywhere. Her biography says when she left that company, she spent a few years traveling around the world. She toured throughout the 80s and 90s and ultimately, Nina Simone passed away of natural causes in 2003 at age 70.

Her biography included this quote from her autobiography, where she says, as an artist, she felt her job was “…to make people feel on a deep level. It’s difficult to describe because it’s not something you can analyze; to get near what it’s about you have to play it. And when you’ve caught it, when you’ve got the audience hooked, you always know because it’s like electricity hanging in the air.”

Learn more about Nina Simone from the Nina Simone Official Website Biography

Other sources: SPLC and History

READ NEXT: Black History Month Heroes You Should Know: Glenn Burke

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