We are starting a new series of blogs appreciating both the musical and social contributions made by a number of artists on our repertoire.
This week’s blog focuses on the inimitable Nina Simone, her music, and her invaluable contributions to the civil rights movement in America.
Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was one of the most influential American singers of the twentieth century. Her music drew influence from a wide range of backgrounds, including folk, soul, jazz, R & B, and gospel. Her background as a classical pianist who trained at Julliard leant her a distinct style that cemented her position as a unique and successful recording artist who constantly produced the unexpected to dodge lazy labels and pigeon-holing.
Best known for hits like ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ and ‘I Loves You, Porgy’, some of her most successful songs also included inventive covers of ‘Here Comes The Sun’ by The Beatles and ‘Feeling Good’, which you can find on our grade 2 piano and keys syllabuses.
A versatile musician who was far more than ‘just’ a jazz singer, Nina Simone constantly changed her musical style, with her albums often taking different directions in attempts to break new creative ground. Simone showed early promise as a pianist when performing at church in front of her family and friends, and it was on the basis of her proficiency on this instrument that she was admitted to the Julliard School as a student of Carl Friedberg. Her classical style of playing pervades her music, with her improvisation often blending complex jazz language with a deft technical touch that is undoubtedly classically-trained.
She didn’t just shift her musical style; in 1954 Eunice adopted the stage name Nina Simone as she started performing music that she believed her mother wouldn’t appreciate because of its jazz influence.
Nina’s fanbase grew steadily as her recording career blossomed. Her version of George Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ brought her initial success in the Billboard top 20 before she recorded many more albums that were a mix of both studio and live recordings. Her career saw her flit between various record labels, and it was her move to Philips Records in 1964 that saw her creative output draw more heavily on issues of civil rights.
’Mississippi Goddam’ displays Simone’s frustrations at the inequality black people were facing in America more resoundingly than any of her music prior. Her previous stance of peacefully demonstrating in an attempt to achieve change was cast aside in favour of a more radical approach that demanded more immediate progress, as demonstrated in the lyrics, as she grows tired of the slow rate of change.
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You're all gonna die and die like flies
I don't trust you any more
You keep on saying 'Go slow!'
But that's just the trouble
'Do it slow'
To Be Young, Gifted and Black
Simone’s version of ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ became an unofficial anthem for the civil rights movement in America upon its release, but it was her 1969 release ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ that helped to was her most explicitly celebratory song on the subject of what it meant to be a black American in the twentieth century.
The song would go on to be covered by Donny Hathaway and even Elton John, while artists have frequently sampled it in their work since the turn of the millennium, with Faith Evans and Rapsody featuring it in their music in 2014 and 2017 respectively. Aretha Franklin made it the title of her 1972 album, which won the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance of the year.
The lyrics champion the importance of youth and reflect the optimism that was beginning to grow following the recent successes of the civil rights movement.
“In the whole world you know / There are a billion boys and girls / Who are young, gifted and black / And that’s a fact!”
Nina Simone died in 2003, aged 70, but her legacy is far-reaching and enduring. ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’, a biographical portrait of Simone’s life premiered at the 2015 Sundance Festival, before its release on Netflix later that year. The film, directed by Liz Garbus, intimately chronicles the life of Nina Simone, and received critical acclaim. The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 88th Academy Awards and is an inspiring watch to anyone who's looking to change the world through music.
If you’ve been inspired to listen to more of Nina Simone’s music, you can listen to a Spotify playlist of some of her best songs below.
Learn more about the Rockschool repertoire here.