was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist widely associated with jazz music. Simone aspired to become a classical pianist while working in a broad range of styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop.
Born the sixth child of a preacher's family in North Carolina, Simone aspired to be a concert pianist. Her musical path changed direction after she was denied a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, despite a well-received audition. Simone was later told by someone working at Curtis that she was rejected because she was black. When she began playing in a small club in Philadelphia to fund her continuing musical education and become a classical pianist she was required to sing as well. She was approached for a recording by Bethlehem Records, and her rendering of "I Loves You, Porgy" was a hit in the United States in 1958. Over the length of her career Simone recorded more than 40 albums, mostly between 1958—when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue—and 1974.
Her musical style arose from a fusion of gospel and pop songs with classical music, in particular with influences from her first inspiration, Johann Sebastian Bach, and accompanied with her expressive jazz-like singing in her characteristic contralto. She injected as much of her classical background into her music as possible to give it more depth and quality, as she felt that pop music was inferior to classical. Her intuitive grasp on the audience–performer relationship was gained from a unique background of playing piano accompaniment for church revivals and sermons regularly from the early age of six years old.
In the early 1960s, she became involved in the civil rights movement and the direction of her life shifted once again Simone's music was highly influential in the fight for equal rights in the United States. In later years, she lived abroad, finally settling in France in 1992.
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. The sixth of eight children in a poor family, she began playing piano at age three; the first song she learned was "God Be With You, Till We Meet Again". Demonstrating a talent with the instrument, she performed at her local church, but her concert debut, a classical recital, was given when she was twelve. Simone later said that during this performance her parents, who had taken seats in the front row, were forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for white people. Simone said she refused to play until her parents were moved back to the front, and that the incident contributed to her later involvement in the civil rights movement.
Simone's mother, Mary Kate Waymon, was a Methodist minister and a housemaid. Simone's father, John Divine Waymon, was a handyman who at one time owned a dry cleaning business, but also suffered bouts of ill health. Mary Kate's employer, hearing of her daughter's talent, provided funds for piano lessons.Subsequently, a local fund was set up to assist in Simone's continued education. With the assistance of this scholarship money she attended high school at Allen High School for Girls in Asheville, North Carolina.
After finishing high school, she studied for an interview with the help of a private tutor to study piano further at the Curtis Institute, but was rejected. Simone believed that this rejection was related directly to her race, although Curtis began accepting black applicants in the 1940s and the first black graduate was George Walker in 1945 who went on to win a Pulitzer. Simone then moved to New York City, where she studied at the Juilliard School of Music.
To fund her private lessons, Simone performed at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, whose owner insisted that she sing as well as play the piano. In 1954 she adopted the stage name Nina Simone. "Nina" (from niña, meaning 'little girl' in Spanish) was a nickname a boyfriend had given to her, and "Simone" was taken from the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she had seen in the movie Casque d'or. 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 befriended and married Don Ross, a beatnik who worked as a fairground barker, but quickly regretted their marriage. Playing in small clubs in the same year 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 40 success in the United States, and her debut album Little Girl Blue soon followed on Bethlehem Records. Simone lost more than $1 million in royalties (notably for the 1980s re-release of My Baby Just Cares for Me) and never benefited financially from the album's sales because she had sold her rights outright for $3,000.