I’m Faith Lapidus.
And I’m Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program People in America. Today we tell about singer Nina Simone and play some of her music. She was also active in the civil rights movement of the nineteen-sixties.
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Nina Simone wrote and performed the song you just heard. It is called “Young, Gifted and Black.” In the nineteen-sixties, a major black civil rights group declared it the national song of black people in America.
Nina Simone was very young when her musical ability first appeared. She could play songs on the piano when she was three years old. She learned by listening to music and then searching for the correct piano keys.
In a book about her life, Nina Simone wrote that everything that happened to her as a child involved music. She said her first memory was of her mother singing. She said her mother always sang Christian songs around the house. That influence shows up years later in the recording of “If You Pray Right” on Mizz Simone’s album “Baltimore.”
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Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in nineteen-thirty-three in the southern town of Tryon, North Carolina. Her parents owned several businesses there. Her mother was also a Methodist minister. The family of ten lived in a big house and made good earnings. However, difficult economic times in the United States hurt the family’s businesses. The family had to move to smaller homes as their finances continued to shrink.
In time, Eunice’s mother went to work cleaning house for a white woman in the town. The woman knew about Nina’s piano playing. She suggested that Missus Waymon send her daughter to a piano teacher for lessons. When Missus Waymon said the family did not have the money, her employer said she would pay for the girl’s first year of lessons.
Nina Simone wrote that she grew to love her first piano teacher, a white woman from England. In fact, the teacher helped set up financial assistance for Nina’s lessons. Nina Simone also wrote about how much she liked her mother’s employer. She wrote that, as a child, she expected all white people to be as kind as they were.
Eunice Waymon had her first public performance when she was eleven. Many people in the town had given money to help pay for lessons for the young pianist. Mizz Simone wrote that it was expected she would perform to show them what their money had produced.
The performance was at the town hall. Eunice was at the piano. She looked at her parents just before she was to play. She saw them being forced from their seats in the front. A white family wanted to sit in their place. Her parents did not resist.
The young girl stood up and spoke. She said no one would hear her play if her parents were not returned to their seats. They were and the concert began.
Nina Simone wrote that her whole world changed in that moment. She said nothing was easy anymore. She wrote that racism became real for her like the turning on of a light. Nina Simone continued to stand up and speak out. One of her most famous songs expressed her anger about the treatment of black people in America.
“Mississippi Goddam” was released in nineteen-sixty-three. Mizz Simone wrote the song in reaction to extreme violence against black Americans. The incidents included the murder of a civil rights activist in Mississippi and the killings of four young girls in Alabama.
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Eunice Waymon graduated from high school at the top of her class in nineteen-fifty. She moved to New York City to attend the famous Juilliard School of Music. She had been awarded money to pay for one year at the school.
After that first year, Eunice had to support herself financially. For a while she worked as a piano player for people studying singing. Then she learned of summer jobs in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that paid more money.
She went to Atlantic City and got a job playing piano at a drinking place. On her second night, she was told had to sing also. Eunice had never sung in public before. Nina Simone later told a reporter that she decided just to try to sound like the famous singer Billie Holiday. She got the job.
Nina Simone recorded a number of songs made famous by Billie Holiday. Some of Mizz Simone’s versions also became popular, like this song, “Don’t Explain.”
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Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone because of the job at the drinking place. She said she changed her name because she did not want her parents to know what she was doing.
But she could not hide her career for very long. In nineteen-fifty-eight, Nina Simone recorded her first album. It was called “Little Girl Blue.” One song became a top radio hit in America. It is “I Loves You, Porgy” from George Gershwin’s opera, “Porgy and Bess.”
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Nina Simone became very active in the civil rights movement in the nineteen-sixties. She came to be known as a protest singer. She was also called the “High Priestess of Soul.” But she did not like either description. Nina Simone often said she hated to be linked with any one kind of music or message. She sang it all – blues, jazz, Christian spirituals, rock and roll and pop.
Mizz Simone was married two times. She had a daughter, Lisa, who is also a singer. Nina Simone left the United States in nineteen-seventy-three. She said she was angry about the treatment of black people in America. She lived in the Caribbean and Africa before settling in France. She died there at the age of seventy in two-thousand-three.
One of Nina Simone’s most popular songs was “I Put a Spell On You.” She took the title for the book she wrote about her life, published in nineteen-ninety-two.
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This Special English program was written and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Faith Lapidus.
And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another People in America program on the Voice of America.