Famous Bis: Nina Simone

By Jennie Roberson

March 18, 2020



Photo credit: Nina Simone wearing a white, sits in front of a piano and microphone about to perform.

There are some musicians who, when you hear them for the first time, you know you’ll be listening to them for the rest of your life. Neko Case is one (and the only living singer who holds that honor for me). But my all-time favorite, who burrowed into my heart and tucked herself in with my soul, was Nina Simone. As soon as I curiously selected a “greatest hits” album of hers in a Borders listening station (yes, I’m that old) and heard “Black Is the Color”, I knew her voice would captivate my attention until the end of my days.

From that moment, I started to digest Simone’s entire anthology like my life depended on it. I scoured music stores to find rare recordings, and bopped along at Amoeba listening booths when I couldn’t afford chicken — at least Nina could feed my soul. And while I did know the basic beats of her varied and fascinating life, it wasn’t until a few years ago I learned that my favorite singer of all time, our divine Miss Simone, was bi.

Needless to say, that discovery left me feelin’ good. And when I started assembling a list of luminaries to cover for this column, Nina was right at the top of it. So let’s take a minute to go over the life and loves of this queer, incomparable woman of 20th-century music. And don’t forget to tell your Alexa to fire up the Nina Simone radio station as you read on.

Born the sixth of eight children to a minister mother and a preacher father, Eunice Kathleen Waymon came into the world on February 21, 1933. While she was still a toddler, young Eunice showed a proclivity for the piano, playing by ear and performing at her mother’s church. Her study of the instrument grew more serious as the years passed, and she made her concert debut at the age of 12. Her parents, initially seated in the first row for her recital, were forced to move to make room for white people, but young Eunice wouldn’t have it, and refused to perform until their seats were restored to them. This spirit of protest would color her perspective for the rest of her life.

Eunice’s talent at the piano was undeniable — so much so that her music teacher as well as the locals in Tryon, North Carolina, took up collections to pay for her education. These funds not only paid for a space at a high school in nearby Asheville, but eventually funded a scholarship to Juilliard in New York City. This move was meant to be a stepping stone before Eunice transferred to the Curtis School of Music for further study.

Unfortunately, after a summer at Juilliard, Eunice’s hopes for becoming a groundbreaking black classical pianist were dashed when Curtis denied her admission. While the prestigious school would eventually give her an honorary degree toward the end of her life, the rejection stung and weighed heavily on Eunice and her family. The Klan had already moved to Philadelphia in anticipation of her acceptance (and of her death). She always attributed the denial of a slot to racism.

Nina Simone crouched down with her hands together, wearing black and her hair in an afro.

Heartbroken, but still with ends to meet, Eunice took up teaching music to students as well as working as a photographer’s assistant. It was during this time she began forging friendships with some of the greatest luminaries of the age — Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and soon-to-be-mentor Lorraine Hansberry among them. It was also during these years Eunice began to explore her attraction to women as well as men, including frequenting the lesbian bar Trude Heller’s.

While there are some disparities between the particular details reported in official sources and other biographies, it’s generally agreed that it was around this time Eunice began playing at piano bars around New York and in Atlantic City. She didn’t want her mother, who described such bars and their tunes as “dirty”, “the Devil’s music”, and “the fires of Hell”, knowing where she was playing, so Eunice adopted a stage name — Nina (a nickname from an old flame) and Simone, after Simone Signoret, a French actress.

Black and white image of nina simone, wearing large earrings and her hair in an afro, looking to the distance.

The story goes that at one point, a bar owner in Atlantic City insisted she sing as she played, which would lead to an increase in her wages. Her vocal and playing styles, which not only bent classical but also infused other genres such as blues and jazz, quickly won her a loyal following.

Simone’s unique style caught the attention of the industry, and she signed to Bethlehem Records. During a marathon recording session for her debut album, Simone recorded her first hit, “My Baby Just Cares For Me” (which we’ll discuss more later), as well as her take on Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy”. Simone soon moved to a different record company and her profile continued to grow. In 1958, she married the first of her two husbands, Don Ross, a carnival barker, though the two soon divorced.

Simone’s friendship with the playwright Lorraine Hansberry intensified as the Civil Rights Movement progressed. Hansberry encouraged Simone to get more involved — not a common move for musicians of the day, especially women of color. It wasn’t until the adjacent events of the assassination of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church killing four black girls by a white supremacist that Simone knew she needed to channel the anger coursing through the community as well as her own veins. At first hearing the news, Simone wanted to get her hands on a gun and shoot the first white person she saw, but her new husband, police detective/manager Andrew Stroud, encouraged her to channel her passion into writing a song instead.

So she did. In 1964, Simone wrote the playfully arranged, incendiary “Mississippi Goddam” in under an hour. While some radio stations refused to give it airplay due to the threat of boycotts in the Southern markets (some even burned their copies), it quickly became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

This was a turning point for Simone’s career, and much of her subsequent recordings for the rest of the '60s had a political focus. The themes her music explored spanned everything from the complicated expectations for black women in America (in “Four Women”) to borrowing Hansberry’s title from her unfinished play (“To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”), to longing for the freedom afforded to white people in “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”. Simone even played “Mississippi Goddam” at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches. In 2019, the song was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation due to its cultural significance.

A young Nina Simone, against a poster that reads, young gifted and black, with a colorful dress.

But while Simone’s songs became musical staples of the movement, to her they also seemed a drag both on her career as well as her acceptance within the music industry. Fed up with the racism and shunning she experienced from multiple corners, she moved to Barbados for a time (and had an affair with its prime minister) before exiling herself to Liberia for some years. For the remainder of her life, Simone hopped around different places in Europe.

The singer was not without her troubles or flaws. Simone’s second husband Stroud, in particular, was physically and mentally abusive. Unfortunately, she often revisited these practices on her daughter, Lisa, to the point that Lisa fled from Liberia to live with her father. Simone had “mood swings” for decades as well, which were eventually diagnosed in the 1980s as bipolar disorder, for which she then received medical treatment. But in the interim (and at some points after), Simone had violent outbursts within her family and without, sometimes even pulling guns on anyone from a cashier to another artist.

Nina simone with her daughter, sitting together and reading a book. Both are wearing dresses.

Simone experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s when her recording of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” was used in a Chanel ad in Europe, leading to a bump in UK record sales and a surge to the top of the charts. Unfortunately, Simone did not always see profits from this comeback, but she did gain a bigger audience for her concert tours. While Simone allegedly got the nickname “The High Priestess of Soul” for holding an entertaining but imperious attitude in her early shows, in later years her live performances were known for more engagement, telling anecdotes between sets and even asking if anyone had requests.

Simone passed away in her sleep after years of battling breast cancer in France on April 21, 2003. Her funeral was attended by multiple luminaries, including actors and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Her works and musical style have influenced multiple generations of artists. Her life has been documented in multiple biographies (including her own autobiography), and has also been dramatized as the film Nina (2016), starring Zoe Saldana. Though Simone is no longer with us, she left a prolific body of work behind, with more than 40 albums and millions of fans worldwide.

While I have tried to give a reasonable overview of Simone’s life, in truth it’s no more than a taste of her storied career. If this column piqued your interest but you don’t know where to find more information on this #bicon, I highly recommend starting with the Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) as well as Simone’s autobiography I Put A Spell On You (1991).

The feminist writer Germaine Greer once declared: “Every generation has to discover Nina Simone. She is evidence that female genius is real.” There’s a lot of truth to that statement. While she led a troubled life, it is foolish to deny Simone’s musical brilliance. And it’s important to make sure in the narratives we tell about her that we include her whole truth; that she was flawed, but brilliant — and undeniably bi.

Nina Simone in her later years, smiling and looking to the side.