Nina Simone, the legendary jazz artist and pianist, found refuge at the Trois Mailletz club in Paris during a troubling time of her career. Here is the amazing story of her life that is the subject of three movies.
Who Was Nina Simone?
While Nina Simone in her day didn’t reach the popularity of some jazz and blues singers like Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday, the world rediscovered Simone in recent years – and she is rightfully taking her place in music history.
Recently, the film industry couldn't seem to get enough of Nina Simone, with two documentaries and a controversial biopic released this decade. Simone is more popular today – some 17 years after her death – than ever before. The documentaries are What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix) and The Amazing Nina Simone. The Hollywood movie is simply titled Nina, and its controversy stems around the casting of Latin actress Zoe Saldana for the part of Nina. The Avatar star has been called in the media as “not dark-skinned enough” to play Simone – she reportedly had her skin darkened for the role.
Who was Nina Simone and where did she come from?
Simone’s spectacular but tumultuous career spanned five decades. She recorded some 40 albums; was a 15-time Grammy Award nominee; and received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000 for the Porgy and Bess song "I Loves You, Porgy" (a Billboard top 20 hit in the USA in 1959). Simone was also a civil rights activist during the racially tense 1960s in the USA, and she used her music to denounce discrimination and fuel the Black Power movement. Later in her career, Simone played at the Trois Mailletz entertainment club in Paris during a troubling time of her career as introduced in Part 1 of this series:
Born into Segregation
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 in the small Southern town of Tryon, North Carolina in the USA. Segregation of whites and blacks was a fact of life during Simone’s upbringing in the Deep South. Blacks, for example, had to use separate entrances, drink from separate water fountains, and use separate restrooms from their white counterparts – not to mention being discriminated against in acquiring jobs and housing.
"My mom rarely referred to Jim Crow (government-sanctioned racial oppression) and segregation,” says Simone’s only child, Lisa, in the Netflix movie. “But she did tell me about times when she was told her nose was too big, her lips were too full, and her skin was too dark. And after that, they probably told her, 'There's only certain things you'll be good for in your life.' ”
Simone’s parents, descendants of slaves, were churchgoing ministers (among various other jobs) and raised Nina on the straight and narrow. Nina’s mother and father played the piano and sang in church choirs; Nina’s seven brothers and sisters sang in various choirs as well.
“Everything that happened to me as a child involved music,” Simon writes in her autobiography titled I Put a Spell on You. “My first memory is of my mother’s singing.”
Nina displayed a precocious musical talent and, at the age of three, she climbed on the stool of the family's pedal organ and played, by ear, her mother’s favorite church hymn, “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again” in the key of F. Her mother “was so surprised she almost died on the spot,” Nina writes. “To Momma’s mind there was only one explanation: I had received a gift from God.” By age six, Nina was playing piano – but didn’t sing – at her mother's Sunday church services.
Simone was soon studying classical music thanks to a white benefactor who recognized Nina’s talent and paid for her to take lessons in her hometown of Tryon. The lessons were given by a local transplanted Englishwoman named Muriel Mazzanovich (called “Miz Mazzy” by Nina – and also, later on, “my white momma”). It was from these humble roots that Simone developed a lifelong love of Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert.
A Career Spawned by Racism?
After Nina graduated as valedictorian of her high school class, the Tryon community raised money for a scholarship for Nina to study at the Juilliard School in New York City, a well-known performing arts conservatory. Nina’s goal was to advance her skills so she could attend the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Nina’s dream was to be the first black classical pianist and appear at Carnegie Hall.
Simone and some of her family moved to Philadelphia in anticipation of her attending the Curtis Institute of Music there. However, even though Nina practiced several hours a day and took advanced piano lessons, she was denied admission to the Curtis Institute, despite what was said to be a stellar audition performance. During those days, an African-American female classical pianist faced enormous odds against achieving success. “People who knew – I was told – white people who know, said the reason I was turned down [at the Curtis Institute] was because I was black,” Nina writes. “You can never know for sure if it is true, because no one is going to turn around and admit to being a racist.”
Some wonder: What would have happened to Simone if she had been accepted to the Curtis Institute? Would she have become a classic pianist and, while still being successful, ended up in relative obscurity instead of becoming the jazz icon she is today? Some say this may have been the case. Instead, while Simone’s original dream of being a classical pianist was unfulfilled, she embarked on a different path – unplanned and unexpected – that would result in an incredible worldwide career as a unique performer, gauged today against the all-time best musicians and singers.
Rocket Rise to Fame
After her disappointment in being rejected by the Curtis Institute, Simone writes, “I was finished with music.” But this attitude was short-lived, and Simone stayed in Philadelphia to teach singing lessons to students, accompanying the lessons with her talented piano playing. This is when Simone turned from classical music to the popular songs and standards of the day.
Simone learned all the popular songs “in her head rather than use sheet music – it saved time,” she writes. Simone was able to play virtually anything by ear. “Playing by ear" is a term describing the ability of a musician to reproduce a piece of music after being heard, without having observed another musician play it or having seen the written music.
During this time, some of Simone’s students had summer jobs playing in Atlantic City, New Jersey on the Atlantic Ocean shore, about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, earning double the money that Nina did as a singing instructor. So after contacting one of her students’ agents, Nina landed a summer job in 1954 at a place in Atlantic City called Midtown Bar and Grill.
To hide the fact she was performing in a bar – something Simone’s mother would refer to as “working in the fires of hell” – Simone took a stage name: “Nina” meaning “little one” in Spanish (a nickname by an old Hispanic boyfriend) and “Simone” after the French actress Simone Signoret. “So when summer came, I left Philly as Eunice Waymon and arrived in Atlantic City as Nina Simone,” Simone writes.
The churchgoing Simone had never been in a bar before and, when asked if she wanted a drink there, she ordered milk. On her first night, she wore her best long chiffon gown and played only the piano. “The guys at the bar must have thought I was from another planet,” Simone writes. The bar owner, Harry Steward, was pleased with Simone’s first performance but asked why Nina didn’t sing. Simone said she was “only a pianist” and Steward responded: “Well, tomorrow night you’re either a singer or you’re out of a job.” Thus, as the result of another unplanned event, Simone’s singing career began.
Nina’s debut and subsequent popularity at the Midtown Bar put her on the fast track to success. Word spread about this new singer and pianist who was playing Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and the like, transforming popular tunes of the day into a unique blend of jazz, blues and classical music. Simone’s eclectic musical repertoire and style – with her rich, deep velvet vocal tones, combined with her mastery of the keyboard – soon attracted club-goers up and down the East Coast.
Within a few years, Simone was a headliner at nightclubs all along the East Coast, and in 1957 she came to the attention of Syd Nathan, the brash owner of the influential blues and country label King Records. Nathan offered Simone a contract with his jazz subsidiary, Bethlehem Records.
'I Loves You Porgy' Reaches the Charts
After a marathon 13-hour recording session, Simone’s first album, Little Girl Blue, was released in 1958. Simone’s first single, "I Loves You Porgy," was a George Gershwin song from the Porgy and Bess musical, the same song that had been a popular number for Billie Holiday. Simone’s version became a Billboard top 20 hit in the United States despite not being promoted (sung by Simone using the grammatically correct tense of "I Love you Porgy"). The album sold well, and her recording career was launched. “”I made a record call ‘I Loves You Porgy,’ and I became an instant hit, all over the U.S. and eventually the world” Simone says in the 1992 documentary Nina Simone – The Legend. “It made me into an instant celebrity and after that, it was just clear sailing.”
Nina also cut “My Baby Just Cares For Me” on her first album, previously recorded by Nate King Cole, Count Basie and Woody Herman. The song was used in a Chanel perfume commercial in Europe in the 1980s and it became a massive hit for Nina, a British chart topper at No. 4, and a staple of her repertoire late in her career.
Unfortunately, Simone immediately sold the rights for the songs on the Little Girl Blue album to Bethlehem for $3,000. In the end, the shady deal cost Simone massive royalty profits. “I had no manager, no lawyer and no accountant,” Simone writes. “What would I need them for? I was a classical pianist, not some pop star. It was a mistake that, in the end, would cost me over a million dollars.”
It was during this time that Simone, in her mid-20s, performed her debut concert in New York City at Town Hall in 1959, recorded live for the album Nina Simone at Town Hall, released the same year. “The New York press went crazy over me,” Simone writes. “The reviews were the best I had ever had. I was a sensation. An overnight success, like in the movies.”
Simone's Carnegie Hall Debut and Summary of Her Prolific Career
Simone first played at Carnegie Hall in 1961, not as the classical pianist as she dreamed but as an innovative jazz player mixing Bach-type techniques into her tunes. In 1960, Simone was a guest star on the famous Ed Sullivan Show in the USA.
Nina’s career continued to skyrocket during the 1960s and 1970s, with Nina recording dozens of albums during that time (with a good share of the songs composed by her) including the following:
- Nine albums for Colpix (a division of Columbia Pictures) from 1959-1963, including the The Amazing Nina Simone, which received critical interest, and Carnegie Hall, a live-recorded performance that fulfilled her dream of playing at the storied venue
- Seven albums for Philips from 1963-1966, including I Put a Spell on You, one of her most famous and enduring albums
- Nine albums for the major label RCA from late 1966-1973, including her last major album ironically titled It is Finished
- Nine albums for Stroud Records (formed by her manager and second husband) from live material of 1960s and 1970s
- Several miscellaneous albums including Baltimore for CTI in 1978
Unfortunately, Simone never received the full extent of royalties due to her for creating this vast body of recorded works. Simone spent years in litigation trying to rightfully gain payment for her work, and was only partially successful in this endeavor later in her career.
In addition to her copious number of albums, Simone played literally thousands of concerts during her peak years through 1974, including several European tours, and was better known for her live performances than her record sales. Her venues and festivals read like a Who’s Who: Apollo Theater; Newport Jazz Festival; Royal Albert Hall in London; Palladium in London; Olympia in Paris; Philharmonic Hall; Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.; New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; Lincoln Center; and Kennedy Center. In addition, in a somewhat unusual concert-and-comedy-show format, Simone toured with Bill Cosby, Dick Gregory and Flip Wilson.
During her illustrious career, Simone mainly lived in the USA but also spent time in Liberia, Barbados, England, France, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Several books have been written on the many highlights of Simone’s career including the previously mentioned David Brun-Lambert’s Nina Simone: The Biography (2005); Princess Noire by Nadine Cohodas (2010); and Nina Simone: Break Down and Let It All Out by Sylvia Hampton with David Nathan (2004). As Elton John is quoted as saying about Simone: "The greatest female artist of the 20th century.”
Continued in Part 3 linked here:
This final part of the series focuses on the downturn of Nina Simone’s career and how she was saved at Trois Mailletz in Paris by the club’s benevolent owner/director Jacques Boni.
'The greatest female artist of the 20th century.' - Elton John
Advert for Nina Simone's first gig in Atlantic City, USA
Nina Simone Albums (all time including after her death)
1959 Little Girl Blue
1959 Nina Simone And Her Friends
1959 The Amazing Nina Simone
1959 Nina Simone At The Town Hall
1960 Nina Simone At Newport
1961 Forbidden Fruit
1961 Nina Simone At The Village Gate
1962 Nina Simone Sings Ellington
1963 Nina's Choice
1963 Nina Simone At Carnegie Hall
1964 Folksy Nina
1964 Nina Simone In Concert
1964 Broadway ... Blues ... Ballads
1965 I Put A Spell On You
1965 Tell Me More
1965 Pastel Blues
1966 Let It All Out
1966 Wild Is The Wind
1966 Nina With Strings
1966 This Is
1967 Nina Simone Sings The Blues
1967 High Priestess Of Soul
1967 Sweet 'N' Swinging
1967 Silk And Soul
1968 'Nuff Said
1969 And Piano!
1969 To Love Somebody
1970 Black Gold
1971 Here Comes The Sun
1971 Heart And Soul
1972 Emergency Ward
1972 It Is Finished
1974 Gifted And Black
1977 I Loves You Porgy
1980 Cry Before I Go
1982 Nina Simone
1982 Fodder On My Wings
1987 Live At Vine Street
1988 Live At Ronnie Scott's
1989 Nina's Back
1992 In Concert
1993 A Single Woman
1996 The Great Show Of Nina Simone: Live In Paris Compilations
1966 The Best Of Nina Simone
1975 Fine And Mellow
1982 The Artistry of Nina Simone
1983 Music For the Millions
1984 My Baby Just Cares For Me
1987 Lady Midnight
1989 The Nina Simone Story
1993 16 Greatest Hits
1993 A Single Woman
1997 Anthology: The Colpix Years
- Simone, Nina and Cleary, Stephen, “I Put a Spell on You, the Autobiography of Nina Simone", First Da Capo Press, 1993
- Hampton, Sylvia and Nathan, David, "Nina Simone: Break Down and Let It All Out", Sanctuary Publishing, Ltd., 2004
- “Biography,” The Official Home of Nina Simone, The Estate of Nina Simone, 2015
- Luck, Adam, “My mummy never cared for me”, Mail Online, July 2014
- "Nina Simone," Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015, Web, May 11, 2015
- Hampp, Andrew, “Sundance Review: 'What Happened, Miss Simone' Details Nina Simone's Troubled Life & Legacy”, Billboard, January 2015
- Mike Zwerin, “Nina Simone: An Appreciation”, Culturekiosque Publications Ltd., May 2, 2003
- Loudermilk, A, “Nina Simone & the Civil Rights Movement: Protest at Her Piano, Audience at Her Feet”, Journal of International Women's Studies, Volume 14, Issue 3, Article 9, July 2013
- Pierpont, Claudia Roth, “A Raised Voice,” The New Yorker, American Annals, August 11, 2014
- "The Amazing Nina Simone: She Wanted To Lead the World", L.A. Record, June 19, 2015