Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Nina Simone, would’ve turned 80 today. With her velvety vocals and unclassifiable music, the American singer and gifted pianist melded classical, jazz, folk, blues, pop, and more to create a sound uniquely her own in a career spanning five decades.
To celebrate this multifacted artist, here are some interesting factoids that reveal the makings of a “High Priestess of Soul.”
+ Nina was a child prodigy starting at the age of three, playing piano by ear.
+ Classical music was an essential influence in shaping Nina’s music, namely the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. She grew up studying him, as well as Brahms, Chopin, Schubert, and Beethoven, and has described herself as a black classical musician.
+ Her hopes of becoming a classical pianist were stripped away when her dream school, Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, denied her admission. For the rest of her life, she attributed racism as the reason for her rejection.
+ How did she come up with her stage name? She liked the name Nina because it meant “little one” in Spanish and chose Simone out of her admiration for French actress Simone Signoret.
+ Nina’s version of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” (1957) was used in a 1980s Chanel commercial in Europe. It quickly became a hit in the U.K., reaching #5 on the charts.
+ During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, she decided to use her music as a channel for social change. She recorded various Civil Rights-themed songs: “Brown Baby,” “Four Women,” “Strange Fruit,” and her original “Mississippi Goddam,” which was inspired by the Medgar Evans assassination and the Alabama church bombing. It was banned in the South.
+ Although she spent her early career living and performing in New York City, she would find herself living all over the world in the 1970s and 80s as an expat—from Barbados to the U.K., to Liberia to The Netherlands, and then finally made her home in France.
+ By the time of her death in 2003, Nina had produced 40 original albums.