Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. The sixth of eight children in a poor family, she began playing piano at the age of three or four. Her classical concert debut, was given when she was 12. Simone's mother, Mary Kate Waymon was a Methodist minister and a housemaid and her father, Rev. John Devan Waymon was a handyman. Simone's music teacher helped establish a special fund to pay for her education. With the help of this scholarship money, she was able to attend Allen High School for Girls in Asheville, North Carolina.
Denial from Curtis
After her graduation, Simone spent the summer of 1950 at the Juilliard School as a student of Carl Friedberg, preparing for an audition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her application, however, was denied. Only 3 of 72 applicants were accepted that year, but as her family had relocated to Philadelphia in the expectation of her entry to Curtis, the blow to her aspirations was particularly heavy. For the rest of her life, she suspected that her application had been denied because of racial prejudice. Discouraged, she took private piano lessons with Vladimir Sokoloff, a professor at Curtis, but never could re-apply due to the fact that at the time the Curtis institute did not accept students over 21. She took a job as a photographer's assistant, but also found work as an accompanist at Arlene Smith's vocal studio and taught piano from her home in Philadelphia.
In order to fund her private lessons, Simone performed at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, New Jersey, whose owner insisted that she sing as well as play the piano, which increased her income to $90 a week. In 1954, she adopted the stage name "Nina Simone". Knowing her mother would not approve of playing "the Devil's music", she used her new stage name to remain undetected. Simone's mixture of jazz, blues, and classical music in her performances at the bar earned her a small but loyal fan base.
In 1958, she recorded George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy" (from Porgy and Bess), which she learned from a Billie Holiday album and performed as a favor to a friend. It became her only Billboard top 20 success in the United States, and her debut album Little Girl Blue followed in February 1959 on Bethlehem Records. Because she had sold her rights outright for $3,000, Simone lost more than $1 million in royalties (notably for the 1980s re-release of her version of the jazz standard "My Baby Just Cares for Me") and never benefited financially from the album's sales.
Rise in fame
After the success of Little Girl Blue, Simone signed a contract with Colpix Records and recorded a multitude of studio and live albums. Colpix relinquished all creative control to her, including the choice of material that would be recorded, in exchange for her signing the contract with them. After the release of her live album Nina Simone at Town Hall, Simone became a favorite performer in Greenwich Village. By this time, Simone performed pop music only to make money to continue her classical music studies, and was indifferent about having a recording contract. She kept this attitude toward the record industry for most of her career.
In 1958, she befriended and married Don Ross, but quickly regretted their marriage. Simone remarried a New York police detective, Andrew Stroud, in December, 1961. In few years, he became her manager and the father of her daughter Lisa, but later he abused Simone psychologically and physically.
In 1964, Simone changed record distributors from Colpix, an American company, to the Dutch Philips Records, which meant a change in the content of her recordings. She had always included songs in her repertoire that drew on her African-American heritage, such as "Brown Baby" by Oscar Brown and "Zungo" by Michael Olatunji on her album Nina at the Village Gate in 1962. On her debut album for Philips, Nina Simone in Concert (1964), for the first time she addressed racial inequality in the United States in the song "Mississippi Goddam". This was her response to the June 12, 1963, murder of Medgar Evers and the September 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young black girls and partly blinded a fifth. The song was released as a single, and it was boycotted in some southern states. Promotional copies were smashed by a Carolina radio station and returned to Philips. After "Mississippi Goddam", a civil rights message was the norm in Simone's recordings and became part of her concerts.
Leaving the U.S.
In an interview for Jet magazine, Simone stated that her controversial song "Mississippi Goddam" harmed her career. She claimed that the music industry punished her by boycotting her records. Hurt and disappointed, Simone left the US in September 1970, flying to Barbados and expecting her husband and manager (Andrew Stroud) to communicate with her when she had to perform again. However, Stroud interpreted Simone's sudden disappearance, and the fact that she had left behind her wedding ring, as an indication of her desire for a divorce. As her manager, Stroud was in charge of Simone's income.
Nina's personal troubles
When Simone returned to the United States, she learned that a warrant had been issued for her arrest for unpaid taxes (unpaid as a protest against her country's involvement with the Vietnam War), and returned to Barbados to evade the authorities and prosecution. Simone stayed in Barbados for quite some time, and had a lengthy affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow. A close friend, singer Miriam Makeba, then persuaded her to go to Liberia. When Simone relocated, she abandoned her daughter Lisa in Mount Vernon. Lisa eventually reunited with Simone in Liberia, but, according to Lisa, her mother was physically and mentally abusive. The abuse was so unbearable that Lisa became suicidal and she moved back to New York to live with her father Andrew Stroud.
More troubles ahead
During the 1980s, Simone lived in Liberia, Barbados and Switzerland and eventually ended up in Paris. There she regularly performed in a small jazz club called Aux Trois Mailletz for relatively small financial reward. The performances were sometimes brilliant and at other times Nina Simone gave up after fifteen minutes. Often she was too drunk to sing or play the piano properly. Other times she scolded the audience. The end of Nina Simone seemed in sight. Manager Raymond Gonzalez, guitarist Al Schackman and Gerrit de Bruin, a Dutch friend of her, decided to intervene.
Minor surge in popularity
Nina Simone moved to Nijmegen in the Netherlands in the spring of 1988. She had just scored a huge European hit with the song My Baby Just Cares for Me. A song that she recorded for the first time in 1958 was used in a commercial for Chanel No. 5 perfume in Europe. This led to a re-release of the recording, which stormed to number 4 on UK's NME singles chart, giving her a brief surge in popularity in the UK and elsewhere.
Final years and Death
Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1980s. She was known for her temper and outbursts of aggression. In 1995, while living in France, she shot and wounded her neighbor's son with an air gun after the boy's laughter disturbed her concentration and she perceived his response to her complaints as racial insults. She was sentenced to eight months in jail, which was suspended pending a psychiatric evaluation and treatment. She suffered from breast cancer for several years before she died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rouet (Bouches-du-Rhône), on April 21, 2003.