Happy Birthday, Ms. Simone!
Nina Simone would have been eighty years old today. Born Eunice Kathleen Wayman in Tryon, North Carolina, to a Methodist minister (her mother) and a handyman, Eunice showed a precocious musical talent at the tender age of three when she picked out tunes on the family piano.
After high school, she received a grant to study at Juilliard and applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where, despite a brilliant audition, she was not accepted. She insisted that her race was the reason why. However, she was determined to support herself as a musician, and began playing piano in New Jersey. But there was a catch: she had to sing, too. She’d never really sung before, but was a quick study. She adopted her stage name at this time: Nina, from a pet name her boyfriend called her, and Simone, for the French film star Simone Signoret. She performed a unique mixture of jazz standards, blues and classical pieces: she was absolutely like no one else.
Sam Shepard has a gorgeous little piece of a memoir about her entitled “I Used to Bring Nina Simone Ice.” It begins like this: “She was always nice to me. She used to call me ‘Dahhling.’ I used to bring her a whole big gray plastic bus tray full of ice to cool her Scotch.”
Her presence and style led her to be known as the “High Priestess of Soul.” After performing for twenty years, she became active in the Civil Rights Movement. For the first time she openly addressed the racial inequity of the United States her in performances, most notably in her song Mississippi Goddamn, about the murder of Medgar Evers.
The likes of Bono, Lauryn Hill, Jeff Buckley and Van Morrison cite Nina Simone as one of their most important musical influences. Fierce, prodigiously talented, and like no one else, Nina Simone was a national treasure. I raise a glass of single malt Scotch to you, Her Highness: Happy Birthday!