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This is excerpted from the Nina Simone wikipedia page.
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, one of eight children. She began playing piano at her local church and showed prodigious talent on this instrument. Her concert debut, a classical piano recital, was made at the age of ten. During her 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 refused to play until her parents were moved back. This incident contributed to her later involvement in the civil rights movement.
Simone’s mother, Mary Kate Waymon (who lived into her late 90s) was a strict Methodist minister; her father, John Divine Waymon, was a handyman and sometime barber who suffered bouts of ill-health. Mrs. Waymon worked as a maid and her employer, hearing of Nina’s talent, provided funds for piano lessons. Subsequently, a local fund was set up to assist in Eunice’s continued education. At 17, Simone moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she taught piano and accompanied singers to fund her own studying as a classical music pianist at New York City’s Juilliard School of Music.
With the help of a private tutor she studied for an interview to further study piano at the Curtis Institute, but she was rejected. Simone believed that this rejection was directly related to her being black, as well as being a woman. It further fueled her hatred of the widespread and institutionalized racism present in the U.S. during the period.
Early success (1954-1959)
Simone played at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City to fund her study. The owner said that she would have to sing as well as play the piano in order to get the job. She took on the stage name “Nina Simone” in 1954 because she did not want her mother to know that she was playing “the devil’s music”. “Nina” (from “niÃ±a”, meaning “little girl” in Spanish) was a nickname a boyfriend had given to her and “Simone” was after the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she had seen in the movie Casque d’or. Simone played and sang a mixture of jazz, blues and classical music at the bar, and by doing so she created a small but loyal fan base.
After playing in small clubs she recorded a rendition of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” (from Porgy and Bess) in 1958, which was learned from a Billie Holiday album and performed as a favor to a friend. It became her only Billboard top 40 hit in the United States, and her debut album Little Girl Blue soon followed on Bethlehem Records. Simone would never benefit financially from the album; she sold the rights for $3000, missing out on more than $1 million of royalties (mainly because of the successful re-release of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” in the 1980s).
Becoming “popular” (1959-1964)
After the success of Little Girl Blue, Simone signed a contract with the bigger label Colpix Records, followed by a string of studio and live albums. Colpix relinquished all creative control, including the choice of material that would be recorded, to her in exchange for her signing with them. Simone, who at this point only performed pop music to make money to continue her classical music studies, was bold with her demand for control over her music because she was indifferent about having a recording contract. She would keep this attitude towards the record industry for most of her career.
I remember being amazed when I first read that ‘Nina’ had been a classical pianist at Julliard. And that she hadn’t even been a singer till her bar-manager made her sing with her piano-playing. Amazing woman, amazing song. Good day.