An accomplished pianist as a child, Simone later studied at New York's Juilliard School Of Music but left in 1954 after struggling to make headway in the tradition bound classical music world. She began working as a singer-pianist in the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, taking her stage name from the French actress Simone Signoret. Her jazz credentials were established in 1959 when she secured a hit with an emotive interpretation of George Gershwin's 'I Loves You Porgy'. Her influential 60s work included 'Gin House Blues', 'Forbidden Fruit' and 'I Put A Spell On You', while another of her singles, 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood', was later covered by The Animals. The singer's popular fortune flourished upon her signing with RCA Records. 'Ain't Go No - I Got Life', a song lifted from the musical Hair, was a UK number 2, while her searing version of The Bee Gees' 'To Love Somebody' reached number 5. Her choice of material was always considered and excellent.
In America, her own composition, 'To Be Young, Gifted And Black', dedicated to her late friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, reflected Simone's growing militancy. The potent 'Mississippi Goddam' detailed the singer's enraged reaction to the deaths of four children in the bombing of a Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963. Promotional copies of the single were smashed and returned to Simone's record label by a Carolina radio station, reflecting the danger a black performer faced in challenging ingrained prejudice. Releases grew infrequent as her political activism increased. Simone began exploring African-American history and struck up a close association with Liberia, a country to which she would return throughout the following decades. She left the US in the 70s, moving between Liberia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France. In 1991, in a final snub to an America she perceived as uncaring, Simone settled in Bouc-Bel-Air in France where her work continued to flourish.
A commanding, if taciturn and sometimes difficult, live performer, Simone's appearances became increasingly focused on benefits and rallies, although a fluke UK hit, 'My Baby Just Cares For Me', a resurrected 50s master, pushed the singer, momentarily, into the commercial spotlight when it reached number 5 in 1987 thanks to its use in a commercial for Chanel No 5. She gave a series of mesmerising performance at Ronnie Scott's jazz club during this period.
Simone's standing as a performer was increasingly at odds with her turbulent personal life. A suspended eight-month jail term for firing a scattergun in the direction of two teenagers in the pool of the villa next to hers indicated ongoing personal problems, but during this period Simone was buoyed by winning back the licensing rights to several of her original recordings. Her live performances continued to enthral and enrage in equal measure, a situation completely in keeping with her stature as one of popular music's great divas. An uncompromising personality with a distinctive voice, Nina Simone's interpretations of pop, soul, jazz, blues and standards were both compulsive and unique.
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