Nina Simone
Nina Simone © Getty  /  Jack Robinson

A portrait of Nina Simone through 10 songs

Nina Simone was one the great voices of the 20th century. Here is a look back on her life and the causes to which she dedicated herself through 10 songs.

A deep and powerful voice, one that grabs you instantly. From the cabarets of Atlantic City to the world's greatest stages, from classical music to jazz, from the poor boroughs of Tryon, North Carolina to her home in the south of France, here is a portrait of Nina Simone, a pianist first and a singer second, a High Priestess of Soul equally committed and dedicated to the Civil Rights movement.

Love Me or Leave Me

Nina Simone's first dream was to become a pianist, "the first black female concert pianist in America". As a teenager, she prepared intensively for the audition to the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, but was denied admission and therefore performed in various cabarets in Atlantic City.

Spotted by a manager of the Bethlehem Records label, Nina Simone recorded in 1957 the album Little Girl Blue, including a cover of the song Love Me or Leave Me. She works into this cover an instrumental passage on par with a fugue by Johann Sebastien Bach., displaying in full her pianistic abilities, a small nod to her dream of becoming a concert pianist.

I Love(s) You Porgy

The album Little Girl Blue (1958) also contains the song I Loves You Porgy, composed by George Gershwin for his opera Porgy and Bess (1935). With this popular jazz version comes Nina Simone's first taste of success.

Though well-advised by a shrewd manager, I Loves You Porgy already hinted at the most characteristic elements of Nina Simone as an artist: a light and supple style, a deep yet soft voice, and a firm stance, a dedication to a cause. When performing Gershwin's song, Nina Simone refused to make the grammatical error of adding the s in «I loves», a mistake that the composer intentionally added for the character Bess, a black woman from a poor neighbourhood.

Mississippi Goddam

On 12 April 1963, Nina Simone was walking off the prestigious stage of the Carnegie Hall when she learned of the arrest of Martin Luther King, key figure of the Civil Rights movement. The priorities between the success of one concert and a historical event, between personal fame and racial segregation, became clearer for Nina Simone. From that point on, she too would make her voice heard, that of social engagement.

She composed Mississippi Goddam in honour of Medgar Evers, a civil rights militant killed in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and stood proudly alongside the protestors in 1965 in Selma, Montgomery, a key moment in the fight for civil rights in the United States.

Four Women

In 1969, during a concert in Harlem (New York), Nina Simone called for a riot, a revolution: "Are you ready to do what is necessary?", she asked the crowd? The latter answered with cries of enthusiasm, as if this were all but a show. However, the singer truly was waiting for change, a rebellion.

Waiting for her revolution, Nina Simone composed, described, and denounced. In her song Four Women, recorded in 1966, her voices draws the portrait of four women: Aunt Sarah, a former slave, Safronia, a mixed race girl born from rape and torn between two worlds, Sweet Thing, an Afro-American prostitute, and Peaches, a rebel who sings : "My skin is brown, my manner is tough".

Nobody’s Fault But Mine

1969. Nina Simone performs Nobody’s Fault But Mine, a famous gospel song. As always, her performance goes beyond merely reappropriating the words, or simply adding a swing and a groove: she tells her own story.

« My mother taught me to pray. [...] If I die and my soul is lost, it will be my fault." Nina Simone's mother was indeed very pious. So when the young singer began performing jazz music (a music for 'savages') in the Atlantic City cabarets, she hides behind the pseudonym Nina Simone rather than display her true name, Eunice Kathleen Zaymon, a nod to the French actress Simone Signoret.

Do I Move You?

"Do I move you? [...] Do I groove you? [...] The answer better be yeah". These words were written by the singer-pianist for her album Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967), and reflect the spirit of her concerts: Nina Simone needed a reactive audience.

In 1977, at Cannes, exacerbated by the passive attitude of her crowd (a majority of which unfortunately didn't speak a word of English), Nina Simone remarked coldly: "I will never be your clown. [...] I am not here just to entertain you. But how can I be alive when you are so dead?"

Mr. Bojangles

Originally, Mr. Bojangles was a country song, written and performed in 1968 by Jerry Jeff Walker. Three years later, Nina Simone replaced the guitar with a piano, bringing to this sad ballad her unique voice and turning Mr. Bojangles into a hit.

This was her winning secret. Not only did she write and compose, but she also knew perfectly how to rearrange the songs of others for her own voice, her personality, not hesitating to take on some of the most popular melodies from pop and rock music: Here comes the sun by the Beatles, Just Like a Woman by Bob Dylan, and even To Love Somebody by the Bee Gees.

Ne me quitte pas, Don't leave me

Was Nina Simone already considering moving to France when she performed the famous love ballad Ne me quitte pas by Jacques Brel? In the early 1980s, she lived for a short while in Paris before years of moving around, and finally settled in Aix-en-Provence in 1993.

Moving from the Carribbean Isles to the Netherlands, via Switzerland and Liberia, Nina Simone was now fleeing her native America, the United Snakes of America as she renamed it in 2001, following the election of Georges W Bush. However, even in Europe were there demons for her to fight, notably her own from her past: her alcoholism, lost love, and various health problems.

My Baby Just Cares For Me

A jazz standard. One of Nine Simone's most famous songs, and yet it was only after thirty years that My Baby Just Cares For Me was finally accepted by the public. Included on the album Little Girl Blue released in 1958, the song went more or less unnoticed upon its release.

A surprising rebound in 1987: the famous brand Chanel used the song for the publicity of its famous perfume N°5. Nina Simone suddenly lept to the top of the international charts, a regular occurrence for the singer throughout her career: ups and downs, rebounds, a second chance.

I Put a Spell on You

Nina Simone died on 21 April 2003, but her voice lives on, like a character that keeps on breathing, moving and inspiring future generations.

Amongst her countless unforgettable works must not be forgotten I Put A Spell on You and Feeling Good, two songs on the same album from 1965, two songs that Nina Simone did not compose but contribute nonetheless to the incredible rebirth of her music.