"The High Priestess of Soul," singer and pianist Nina Simone died April 21, of natural causes at her home in the south of France. She was 70 years old. Simone could sing just about anything in any style, from jazz and blues to pop, folk, gospel and classical music. She sang protest songs during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, but later claimed her true love was performing with symphony orchestras.
Nina Simone never really cared about labels. "It's always been my aim to stay outside any category," she once said. During a recording career that began in the 1950s, Simone was both commercial and controversial. She had top selling singles and albums, performed in some of America's best venues, and composed poignant songs that reflected a nation in turmoil. Disappointed with the recording industry and the political landscape, she moved from the United States in 1973, and lived in the Caribbean and Africa before settling in Europe.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina. One of eight children, she studied classical piano, and later enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York. When she went to work as a singer in a nightclub, she changed her name to Nina Simone, an attempt to hide her identity from her mother, a Methodist priest. One of her standard numbers at the Midtown Bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey was Love Me Or Leave Me.
Simone had her biggest hit on the Bethlehem label with I Loves You Porgy from the Gershwin musical Porgy And Bess. When it reached the Top 20 in 1959, she suddenly found herself playing to audiences at the Newport Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall.
Nina Simone wasn't concerned with the international commercial success that followed. She continued along a diverse and prolific path, recording jazz standards and Israeli folk songs, as well as songs by Judy Collins, The Bee Gees and George Harrison. Her own composition To Be Young, Gifted and Black, based on the Lorraine Hansberry play, was an inspiration to millions.
One of Nina Simone's last concert appearances was at Carnegie Hall in 2001. Although her health was failing and her voice had lost its famed deep growl, she sang and played piano to an appreciative sold out crowd.
Singer, songwriter and pianist Nina Simone was 70 years old when she died in her sleep in France on April 21.