A young Eunice Kathleen Waymon—who would later change her name to Nina Simone—shocked her congregation when, at the age of 2, she climbed on the organ bench at her church in Tryon, North Carolina, and played a flawless rendition of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” Three years later, her mother’s employer offered to pay for piano lesson’s for the young child, and Eunice immediately fell in love with the classical composers.
After falling in love with the piano, Eunice decided to attend a Julliard Summer Program, but her dream school was Curtis Institute of Music. However, she was rejected from the school, and she always suspected that it was because of her skin color. Shortly before she died in 2003, the Curtis Institute of Music issued her an honorary degree.
Eunice got a job at an Atlantic City cocktail bar shortly after she was denied admission from Curtis Institute of Music. To keep her new job a secret from her religious mother, she adopted a new name: Nina Simone, “Nina” the Spanish word for “little one,” and “Simone” in honor of the French actress, Simone Signoret.
Surprisingly, Nina was hesitant to lend her voice to the Civil Rights Movement, but not for the reason you may think. In her autobiography, she explains that she didn’t think it was possible to reduce the complexities within the Black community and within the Civil Rights Movement into a three-minute song. She felt that doing so would “strip the dignity” from those who were fighting. It wasn’t until the 1963 Birmingham bombing that she—quite literally—changed her tune.
One of Nina’s most famous protest songs, “Mississippi Goddam,” came naturally to the songstress. She wrote the song in less than one hour, and debuted it only a few days later. She ended up singing it during the Selma-to-Montgomery march.
Nina’s bipolar disorder first emerged in 1967, five years after giving birth to her daughter, Lisa Celeste. Her husband, Andre Stroud, found her in her dressing room confused, unaware of her surroundings and putting makeup in her hair. It would be more than 20 years until Nina would be diagnosed as bipolar and prescribed medication, forcing her to live in anguish for years.
Nina took pride in her musical variety. In her autobiography, she writes about critics being confused as to what genre she could be classified as. “[Critics] tried to find a neat slot to file it away in. It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz. On top of that, I included spirituals and children’s songs in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there.” Something for everything and everyone!