Obituary: Nina Simone

Born into a poor family in North Carolina, Eunice Waymon, as she was christened, was a child prodigy who played the piano by the age of four and studied at the Julliard School of Music in New York. She could have been a classical pianist, but financial pressures pushed her into playing and singing in bars. After a while she changed her name and entered show business on a full-time basis.She started recording in the 1950s, putting her own stamp on standards such as Don’t Smoke in Bed and Porgy and Bess; the latter became a hit, and she was soon playing venues such as Carnegie Hall.
Her deep, almost baleful voice and starkly emotional style prefigured the soul era of the 1960s, and she came to be known as “The High Priestess of Soul”. There was always something of a religious passion in her performances: she drew on gospel music as well as jazz, the blues, popular song and classical piano to synthesise her unique style. As an interpretive singer, she made a wide range of material her own — from the Gershwins and Duke Ellington to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As she told one interviewer, “It has always been my aim to stay outside any category.“Simone became involved in the Civil Rights movement, writing protest songs such as the angry Mississippi Goddamn and Backlash Blues and Why? (The King of Love Is Dead), a heart-beraking lament for the assassinated Martin Luther King.Frustrated by racism and exploitation in the American record industry, she left the United States in the mid-1970s and never returned to live there. She made something of a comeback, after a period of career downturn, with Baltimore in 1978. She continued to record and perform, though she developed a reputation for unpredictability. She could be brooding, prickly or explosive. One critic described her, late in life, as a “distracted genius”. She was, if nothing else, a major diva with an unparalleled power to move the listener. One of her songs, a setting of a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar,encompasses her life, her career and her death in under two minutes:

“Because I have loved so deeply Because I have loved so long God in his great compassion Gave me the gift of song. Because I have loved so vainly Sung with such faltering breath The Master in His infinite mercy Offers the boon of death.”

Nina Simone, born February 21 1933; died April 21 2003

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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