For those of us coming of age in the tumultuous sixties, Nina Simone was an iconic figure of struggle and revolution. Often referred to as the High Priestess of Soul, in hindsight she now seems more like a goddess. That voice, that stage presence, that piano virtuosity, that ability to switch effortlessly between musical genres in the same set (folk, jazz, blues, pop, classical, gospel) distinguished her from her contemporaries and elevated her to a musical pantheon all her own. When Eunice Katherine Waymond (her birth name) showed up to play she wasn’t playing.
Simone provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. From Mississippi Goddam, which she penned and released in 1964 in response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the murder of four little black girls in Birmingham, to To Be Young Gifted and Black (lyrics by Weldon Irvine) inspired by Lorraine Hansbury’s play and released in 1970, Simone showed a generation what it meant to be a fierce woman warrior and uncompromising artist. Her example inspired writers, poets, musicians and dancers, especially dancers. Her Four Women (1966) instantly became a rite of passage for any aspiring “black” female dancer. If you were in the US in those days, you probably sat though countless interpretations of it as I did.
Simone’s personal life also was marked by struggle. Not surprisingly, she made bad deals with record companies, got into trouble with the IRS (she faced arrest for unpaid taxes), and had her share of difficult relationships with the men in her life. The consequences for her personally and for those of us who loved her were a vastly diminished output of recordings. She also left the US and migrated to Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands before settling in the South of France. After battling breast cancer for several years, she died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rhône on April 21, 2003. She was 70 years young.
The documentary film provided below is based on her autobiography I Put A Spell On You. It was made in the 1990s when Simone was living in the Netherlands.