Nina Simone: The Life and Music of the "Priestess of Soul"

Nina Simone , circa 1968
Nina Simone, circa 1968. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Legendary jazz pianist and singer Nina Simone composed over 500 songs and recorded almost 60 albums. She was the first woman to win the Jazz Cultural Award and contributed through her music and activism to the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s.  She lived from February 21, 1933 to April 21, 2003.  

Also known as: "Priestess of Soul"; birth name: Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Eunice Wayman

In 1993, Don Shewey wrote of Nina Simone in the Village Voice, "She's not a pop singer, she's a diva, a hopeless eccentric ... who has so thoroughly co-mingled her odd talent and brooding temperament that she has turned herself into a force of nature, an exotic creature spied so infrequently that every appearance is legendary."

Early Life and Education

Nina Simone was born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, daughter of John D. Waylon and Mary Kate Waymon, an ordained Methodist minister. The house was filled with music, Nina Simone later recalled, and she learned to play piano early, playing at church when she was only six. Her mother discouraged her from playing music that wasn't religious. When her mother took a job as a maid for extra money, the woman she worked for saw that young Eunice had special musical talent and sponsored a year of classical piano lessons for her. She studied with a Mrs. Miller and then with Muriel Mazzanovitch, who helped raise money for more lessons.

After graduating from the Allen High School for Girls in Asheville, North Carolina in 1950 (she was valedictorian), Nina Simone attended Juilliard School of Music, as part of her plan to prepare to attend the Curtis Institute of Music. She took the entrance exam for the Curtis Institute's classical piano program, but was not accepted. Nina Simone believed that she was good enough for the program, but that she was rejected because she was Black. She studied privately with Vladimir Sokoloff, an instructor at the Curtis Institute.

Music Career

Her family by that time had moved to Philadelphia, and she began to give piano lessons. When she discovered that one of her students was playing in a bar in Atlantic City—and being paid more than she was from her piano teaching—she decided to try this route herself. Armed with music from many genres—classical, jazz, popular—she began playing piano in 1954 at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City. She adopted the name of Nina Simone to avoid her mother's religious disapproval of playing in a bar.

The bar owner demanded that she add vocals to her piano playing, and Nina Simone began to draw large audiences of younger people who were fascinated by her eclectic musical repertoire and style. Soon she was playing in better nightclubs, and moved on to the Greenwich Village scene.

By 1957, Nina Simone had found an agent, and the next year issued her first album, "Little Girl Blue." Her first single, "I Loves You Porgy," was a George Gershwin song from Porgy and Bess that had been a popular number for Billie Holiday. It sold well, and her recording career was launched. Unfortunately, the contract she signed gave away her rights, a mistake she came to bitterly regret. For her next album she signed with Colpix and released "The Amazing Nina Simone." With this album came more critical interest.

Husband and Daughter

Nina Simone briefly married Don Ross in 1958, and divorced him the next year. She married Andy Stroud in 1960—a former police detective who became her recording agent—and they had a daughter, Lisa Celeste, in 1961. This daughter, separated from her mother for long periods in her childhood, eventually launched her own career with the stage name of, simply, Simone. Nina Simone and Andy Stroud drifted apart with her career and political interests, and their marriage ended in divorce in 1970.

Involvement with Civil Rights Movement

In the 1960s, Nina Simone was part of the civil rights movement and later the
Black Power movement. Her songs are considered by some as anthems of those movements, and their evolution shows the growing hopelessness that American racial problems would be solved.

Nina Simone wrote "Mississippi Goddam" after the bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama killed four children and after Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi. This song, often sung in civil rights contexts, was not often played on radio. She introduced this song in performances as a show tune for a show that hadn't yet been written.

Other Nina Simone songs adopted by the civil rights movement as anthems included "Backlash Blues," "Old Jim Crow," "Four Women" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black." The latter was composed in honor of her friend Lorraine Hansberry, godmother to Nina's daughter, and became an anthem for the growing Black Power movement with its line, "Say it clear, say it loud, I am black and I am proud!"

With the growing women's movement, "Four Women" and her cover of Sinatra's "My Way" became feminist anthems as well.

But just a few years later, Nina Simone's friends Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes were dead. Black heroes Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, were assassinated. In the late 1970s, a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service found Nina Simone accused of tax evasion; she lost her home to the IRS.

Leaving America

Nina Simone's growing bitterness over America's racism, her disputes with the record companies she called "pirates," and her troubles with the IRS all led to her decision to leave the United States. She first moved to Barbados, and then, with the encouragement of Miriam Makeba and others, moved to Liberia.

A later move to Switzerland for the sake of her daughter's education was followed by a comeback attempt in London which failed when she put her faith in a sponsor who turned out to be a con man who robbed, beat her, and abandoned her. She tried to commit suicide, but when that failed, found her faith in the future renewed. She built her career slowly, moving to Paris in 1978, having small successes.

In 1985, Nina Simone returned to the United States to record and perform, choosing to pursue fame in her native land. She focused on what would be popular, de-emphasizing her political views, and won growing acclaim. Her career soared when a British commercial for Chanel used her 1958 recording of "My Baby Just Cares for Me," which then became a hit in Europe.

Nina Simone moved back to Europe—first to the Netherlands then to the South of France in 1991. She published her biography, I Put a Spell on You, and continued to record and perform.

Later Career and Life

There were several run-ins with the law in the 1990s in France, as Nina Simone shot a rifle at rowdy neighbors and left the scene of an accident in which two motorcyclists were injured. She paid fines and was put on probation, and was required to seek psychological counseling.

In 1995, she won ownership of 52 of her master recordings in a San Francisco court, and in 1994-95 she had what she described as "a very intense love affair"—"it was like a volcano." In her last years, Nina Simone was sometimes seen in a wheelchair between performances. She died April 21, 2003, in her adopted homeland, France.

In a 1969 interview with Phyl Garland, Nina Simone said:

There's no other purpose, so far as I'm concerned, for us except to reflect the times, the situations around us and the things we're able to say through our art, the things that millions of people can't say. I think that's the function of an artist and, of course, those of us who are lucky leave a legacy so that when we're dead, we also live on. That's people like Billie Holiday and I hope that I will be that lucky, but meanwhile, the function, so far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times, whatever that might be.


Nina Simone is often classified as a jazz singer, but this is what she had to say in 1997 (in an interview with Brantley Bardin):

To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that's not what I play. I play black classical music. That's why I don't like the term "jazz," and Duke Ellington didn't like it either—it's a term that's simply used to identify black people."

Selected Quotations

  • Jazz is not just music, it's a way of life, it's a way of being, a way of thinking.
  • I tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.
  • What kept me sane was knowing that things would change, and it was a question of keeping myself together until they did.
  • Talent is a burden not a joy. I am not of this planet. I do not come from you. I am not like you.
  • Music is an art and art has its own rules. And one of them is that you must pay more attention to it than anything else in the world, if you are going to be true to yourself. And if you don't do it—and you are an artist—it punishes you.
  • There's no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.


  • 'Nuff Said
  • Ain't Got No - I Got Life
  • Amazing Nina Simone
  • And Piano!
  • At Carnegie Hall
  • At Newport
  • At The Village Gate
  • At Town Hall
  • Baltimore
  • Best of the Colpix Years
  • Black Gold
  • Black Soul
  • Broadway-Blues-Ballads
  • Eclectic Collection
  • Fodder on My Wings
  • Folksy Nina
  • Forbidden Fruit
  • Gifted & Black
  • Heart & Soul
  • Here Comes the Sun
  • High Priestess of Soul
  • I Put a Spell on You
  • In Concert & I Put A Spell On You
  • It Is Finished
  • Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club
  • Let It All Out
  • Let It Be Me
  • Live
  • Live & Kickin' - In Europe and the Caribbean
  • Live at Ronnie Scott's
  • Live in Europe
  • Live in Paris
  • My Baby Just Cares for Me
  • Ne Me Quitte Pas
  • Nina's Back
  • Nina's Choice
  • Nina Simone and Her Friends
  • Nina Simone and Piano
  • Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall
  • Nina Simone at Newport
  • Nina Simone at the Village Gate
  • Nina Simone at Town Hall
  • Pastel Blues
  • Rising Sun Collection
  • Silk & Soul
  • Single Woman
  • Sings Ellington
  • Sings the Blues
  • To Love Somebody
  • A Very Rare Evening with Nina Simone
  • Wild Is The Wind
  • With Strings

Print Bibliography

  • Nina Simone with Stephen Cleary. I Put a Spell on You.
  • Richard Williams. Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Nina Simone: The Life and Music of the "Priestess of Soul"." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Nina Simone: The Life and Music of the "Priestess of Soul". Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Nina Simone: The Life and Music of the "Priestess of Soul"." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).