De son vrai nom, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Nina Simone est née le 21 février 1933 en Caroline du Nord, aux Etats-Unis. Issue d’une famille de huit enfants et de parents pasteurs méthodistes, elle prend ses premières leçons de piano dès l’âge de six ans tout en accompagnant sa mère au chant à l’église. Elle ne met pas très longtemps avant de donner son premier concert… et d’être confrontée au racisme ! Ses parents sont en effet rapidement délogés des premiers rangs…
Nina Simone, profondément marquée, se battra toute sa vie contre ces préjugés raciaux. En 1950, elle quitte la Caroline du Nord pour étudier la musique à Philadelphie mais elle n’est pas admise au Curtis Institute Of Music, officiellement parce qu’elle n’est pas assez douée. Elle persévère cependant en s’inscrivant à la Juilliard School of Music de New York. C’est dans cette ville qu’elle va véritablement débuter sa carrière. Mais dans des bars plutôt qu’au conservatoire !
Little Girl Blue:
Nina Simone, qui rêve d’être une pianiste classique, donne alors dans le jazz et le blues en reprenant les grands standards du genre et propose des cours de piano pour gagner un peu d’argent. En 1954, elle est engagée par un club d’Atlantic City. C’est là qu’elle opte pour son nom de scène: Nina pour le surnom que lui avait donné un petit ami, Simone parce qu’elle aimait Simone Signoret.
En 1957, arrive le premier album de Nina Simone, Little Girl Blue, qui comprend déjà deux gros succès: I Loves You, Porgy et He Needs Me. L’album se vend à plus d’un million d’exemplaires ! Sa carrière est lancée et la chanteuse pianiste va publier pas moins de dix albums en cinq ans ! Six en studio et quatre en public…
Elle se marie avec un détective new-yorkais en 1961 et lui donne une fille l’année d’après. Pendant ce temps, elle s’investit également dans la lutte contre le racisme et milite activement aux côtés de Malcom X et Martin Luther King. Un combat qui passe aussi par la musique comme dans Mississippi Goddam écrit en réaction aux assassinats racistes en Alabama et au Mississippi. Son époux est devenu son manager mais abuse d’elle au point de presque la mener à la banqueroute dans les années 70.
Nina Simone est contrainte de s’exiler au Libéria, laissant derrière elle quelques jolis tubes de plus: My Baby Just Cares For Me, Ain’t Got No… I Got Life, To Love Somebody (reprise des Bee Gees) et Young Gifted & Black – également interprété par Aretha Franklin. Elle voyage, travaille avec son frère, Sam Waymon, et est arrêtée en 1978 pou n’avoir pas payé ses impôts afin de protester contre la guerre du Viêt-nam !
Ne me quitte pas:
En 1978, Nina Simone enregistre Baltimore mais ne retourne qu’épisodiquement en studio. Il faut attendre 1982 pour découvrir Fodder On My Wings puis trois nouvelles années avant la sortie de Nina’s Back. L’Europe la découvre sur le tard avec la réédition de My Baby Just Cares For Me, en 1987, et surtout une émouvante version de Ne me quitte pas de Jacques Brel.
Nina Simone tombe amoureuse de la France et s’installe dans le sud de l’Hexagone au début des années 90 après avoir rédigé son autobiographie, « I Put A Spell On You ». Elle publie un dernier album, A Single Woman, en 1993. La chanteuse qui en a influencé tant d’autres profite alors d’une retraite bien méritée dans sa propriété de Carry-le-Rouet, près de Marseille. C’est là qu’elle décède le 21 avril 2003 à l’âge de soixante-dix ans.
Albums Bethlehem (1958-1959)
1958 Jazz as played in an exclusive side street club
1959 Nina Simone And Her Friends
Albums Colpix (1959-1964)
1959 The Amazing Nina Simone
1960 Nina Simone At Town Hall
1961 Nina At Newport
1961 Forbidden Fruit
1962 Nina at The Village Gate
1962 Nina Simone Sings Ellington
1963 Nina Simone At Carnegie Hall
1964 Folksy Nina
1966 Nina Simone With Strings
Albums Philipps (1964-1967)
1964 Nina Simone In Concert
1964 Broadway Blues Ballads
1965 I Put A spell On You
1965 Pastel Blues
1966 Let It All Out
1966 Wild Is The Wind
1967 High Priestess of Soul
Albums RCA (1967-1974)
1967 Nina Simone Sings the Blues
1967 Silk & Soul
1968 ‘Nuff Said
1969 Nina Simone And Piano!
1969 To Love Somebody
1970 Black Gold
1971 Here Comes the Sun
1972 Emergency Ward
1974 It is Finished
Divers labels (1978-1993)
1982 Fodder On My Wings
1987 Live & Kickin
1987 Let It Be Me
1988 Live at Ronnie Scotts
1993 A Single Woman
Merci à Pierrick Roux
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Eunice Waymon was born in Tryon, North Carolina as the sixth of seven children in a poor family. The child prodigy played piano at the age of four. With the help of her music teacher, who set up the « Eunice Waymon Fund », she could continue her general and musical education. She studied at the Julliard School of Music in New York.
To support her family financially, she started working as an accompanist. In the summer of 1954 she took a job in an Irish bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The bar owner told her she had to sing as well. Without having time to realize what was happening, Eunice Waymon, who was trained to become a classical pianist, stepped into show business. She changed her name into Nina (« little one ») Simone (« from the French actress Simone Signoret »).
In the late 50’s Nina Simone recorded her first tracks for the Bethlehem label. These are still remarkable displays of her talents as a pianist, singer, arranger and composer. Songs as Plain Gold Ring, Don’t Smoke In Bed and Little Girl Blue soon became standards in her repertoire.
One song, I Loves You, Porgy, from the opera « Porgy and Bess », became a hit and the nightclub singer became a star, performing at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival. Even from the beginning of her career on, her repertoire included jazz standards, gospel and spirituals, classical music, folk songs of diverse origin, blues, pop, songs from musicals and opera, African chants as well as her own compositions.
Combining Bachian counterpoint, the improvisational approach of jazz and the modulations of the blues, her talent could no longer be ignored. Other characteristics of the Simone art are: her original timing, the way she uses silence as a musical element and her often understated live act, sitting at the piano and advancing the mood and climate of her songs by a few chords.
Sometimes her voice changes from dark and raw to soft and sweet. She pauses, shouts, repeats, whispers and moans. Sometimes piano, voice and gestures seem to be separate elements, then, at once, they meet. Add to this all the way she puts her spell on an audience, and you have some of the elements that make Nina Simone into a unique artist.
When four black children were killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham in 1963, Nina wrote Mississippi Goddam, a bitter and furious accusation of the situation of her people in the USA. The strong emotional approach of this song and the others on her first Philips record (« Nina Simone In Concert »), would become another characteristic in her art. She uses her voice with its remarkable timbre and her careful piano playing as means to achieve her artistic aim: to express love, hate, sorrow, joy, loneliness – the whole range of human emotions – through music, in a direct way.
One moment, she is the actress who turns a Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht song as Pirate Jenny into great theater, then, after a set of protest songs, she will sing Jacques Brel’s fragile love song Ne Me Quitte Pas in French.
Although Nina was called « High Priestess of Soul » and was respected by fans and critics as a mysterious, almost religious figure, she was often misunderstood as well. When she wrote Four Women in 1966, a bitter lament of four black women whose circumstances and outlook are related to subtle gradations in skin color, the song was banned on Philadelphia and new York radio stations because « it was insulting to black people… »
The High Priestess would walk different paths to find the adequate music to spread her message. Her first RCA album, « Nina Simone Sings The Blues », includes her own I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl, Do I Move You, a haunting version of My Man’s Gone Now (again from « Porgy & Bess ») and the protest song Backlash Blues, based on a poem written for her by Langston Hughes.
Her repertoire includes more Civil Rights songs: Why? The King of Love is Dead, capturing the tragedy of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Brown Baby, Images (based on a Waring Cuney poem), Go Limp, Old Jim Crow, … One song, To be Young, Gifted and Black, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s play with the same title, became the black national anthem in the USA.
She surprised even her most devoted fans with an album on which she sings and plays alone. « Nina Simone And Piano! », an introspective collection of songs about reincarnation, death, loneliness and love, is still a highlight in her recording career.
Her gift to give new and deeper dimensions to songs resulted in remarkable versions of Ain’t Got No / I Got Life (from the musical « Hair »), Leonard Colhen’s Suzanne, Bee Gees songs as To Love Somebody, the classic My Way done in a tempo doubled on bongos, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and four other Bob Dylan songs. This gift culminated on her record « Emergency Ward »: she set up an atmosphere that left no illusions and no escape, performing two long versions of George Harrison songs: My Sweet Lord (to which she added a David Nelson poem, Today is a Killer) and Isn’t it a Pity.
But Nina tried to escape anyway. She felt she had been manipulated. Disgusted with record companies, show business and racism, she left the USA in 1974 for Barbados. During the following years she lived in Liberia, Switzerland, Paris, The Netherlands and finally the South of France, where she is still residing.
In 1978 a long awaited new record was released, « Baltimore », containing the definite rendition of Judy Collins’ My Father and an hypnotizing Everything Must Change.
Her next album, « Fodder On My Wings », was recorded in Paris in 1982 and is based on her self-imposed « exile » from the USA. More than ever determined to make her own music, Nina wrote, adapted and arranged the songs, played piano and harpsichord and sang in English and French. The 1988 CD re-release of this album included some bonus tracks, e.g. her extraordinary version of Alone Again Naturally, reminiscing her father’s death.
In 1984, one of her concerts at Ronnie Scott’s in London was filmed, resulting in a captivating video, featuring Paul Robinson on drums. A song from her very first record, My Baby Just Cares For Me, became a huge hit and « Nina’s Back » was not only the title of a new album; her concerts would take her all over the world again.
In 1989 she contributed to Pete Townsend’s musical « The Iron Man ». In 1990 she recorded with Maria Bethania; in 1991 with Miriam Makeba. That same year, her autobiography, « I Put A Spell On You » was published. It was translated into French (« Ne Me Quittez Pas »), German (« Meine Schwarze Seele ») and Dutch (« I Put A Spell On You, – Herinneringen »).
In 1993 a new studio album was released. « A Single Woman » includes several Rod McKuen songs, Nina’s own Marry Me, her version of the French standard Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux and a very moving Papa, Can You Hear Me?
No less than five songs from her repertoire were used in the 1993 motion picture sound track of « Point Of No Return » (also called « The Assassin, code name: Nina »). Many other films feature her songs (e.g. « Ghosts of Mississippi », 1996: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, « Stealing Beauty », 1996: My Baby Just Cares For Me and « One Night Stand », 1997: Exactly Like You).
Her music continues to excite new and young listeners. Ain’t Got No / I Got Life was a big hit in 1998 in The Netherlands, just as it had been there 30 years before…
Together with her regular accompanists Lepoldo Fleming (percussion), Tony Jones (bass), Paul Robinson (drums), Xavier Collados (keyboards) and her musical director Al Schackman (guitar), she still excites audiences all over the world. At the Barbican Theatre in London in 1997 she sang Every Time I Feel The Spirit as a tribute to one of America’s first and foremost leaders in the cause of Civil Rights, peace and brotherhood, singer and actor Paul Robeson. More spirituals and « blood songs » would follow: Reached Down And Got My Soul, The Blood Done Change My Name and When I See The Blood.
Nina was the highlight of the Nice Jazz Festival in France in 1997, the Thessalonica Jazz Festival in Greece in 1998. At the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin, Ireland in 1999 her daughter, Lisa Celeste, performing as « Simone », sang a few duets with her mother. Simone has toured the world, sung with Latin superstar Rafael, participated in two Disney theatre workshops, playing the title role in Aida and Nala in The Lion King. She is currently working on her upcoming debut album, « Simone Superstar ».
On July 24, 1998 Nina Simone was a special guest at Nelson Mandela’s 80th Birthday Party. On October 7, 1999 she received a Lifetime Achievement in Music Award in Dublin.
In 2000 she received Honorary Citizenship to Atlanta (May 26), the Diamond Award for Excellence in Music from the Association of African American Music in Philadelphia (June 9) and the Honorable Musketeer Award from the Compagnie des Mousquetaires d’Armagnac in France (August 7).
Dr. Simone passed away after a long illness at her home in her villa in Carry-le-Rouet (South of France) on April 21, 2003. As she had wished, her ashes were spread in different African countries.
The Diva, who was as well an Honorary Doctor in Music and Humanities, has an unrivalled legendary status as one of the very last ‘griots ». She is and will forever be the ultimate songstress and storyteller of our times.
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