Nina Simone, who would've turned 80 on Feb. 21, was a strong and vocal civil rights advocate who carried the message of universal rights and personal empowerment, freedom, equality and dignity throughout her career. Whether it was political or emotional or personal, she never failed to tell the truth through her music.
One of the most powerful and uncompromising artists of the 20th century, Simone was a natural talent who developed into a virtuosic performer--an ineffable song stylist with concert hall piano skills and a transcendental on-stage presence. Singer, songwriter, arranger, and pianist, Simone wove classical, blues, jazz, pop, rock, R&B, folk, gospel, torch songs and world music into a body of work as eclectic as it is incomparable. In addition to being a classically trained pianist, Simone was a musical powerhouse known to her fans as the “High Priestess of Soul” who combined the styles of folk, jazz and blues with her deep, velvet voice.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, N.C., Simone began her career as a recording artist in 1958 with her version of "I Loves You, Porgy," from George and Ira Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," her first US chart success, and made more than 40 albums before her death in 2003 at the age of 70. She also became a major figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and a fixture at protests like the Selma to Montgomery March. She wrote songs that addressed racism facing African-Americans, including “Mississippi Goddam,” composed in response to the killing of Medgar Evers and “Four Women,” which described the histories and skin tones of four Black women. Simone celebrated her looks, which were unconventional by show-business standards, with a personal style that included tribal inspired jewelry and hairdos.
"Nina Simone was one of those controversial figures American pop music puts forward from time to time," wrote Ed Ward in his liner notes for “To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story.” "To see this African-American woman get angry about the racial situation in her country, right there on stage, was a shock to people who’d come to hear her sing 'I Loves You, Porgy.' Not that she cared; she figured that it was the artist’s job to deliver the truth, and if the truth hurt, so be it. Of course, events wound up proving her right, but she never stopped being prickly about one thing or another. It was just part of who she was, and part of why her music has endured while that of some of her contemporaries has faded: she’s still contemporary."
Simone left the U.S. in 1973 and lived in the Caribbean and Africa before settling in Europe. She didn't return to the U.S. until 1985 for a series of concerts. In a 1998 interview, Simone blamed racism in the U.S. for her decision to live abroad. In her last years, she remained a concert draw, though she was frail. At a 2001 concert at New York's Carnegie Hall, she needed help to get to the piano and was later seen sitting backstage in a wheelchair.
At her funeral, several speakers praised her activism and her courage in speaking out. "Nina Simone was a part of history," read a message from the South African government. "She fought for the liberation of Black people. It is with much pain that we received the news of her death."
Since her death in 2003, Simone’s voice continues to enhance music scores on television and in movies (from “Sex and the City” to “The Watchmen”)—and is the subject of an upcoming bio flick. Legacy Recordings, the catalog division of Sony Music Entertainment, has deemed the iconic vocalist as the label's Artist of the Month for February 2013. Fans and collectors will find access a variety of comprehensive Simone titles including: “Nina Simone - The Complete RCA Album Collection;” “To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story” (a four-disc set including DVD) and “The Essential Nina Simone; Playlist: The Very Best of Nina Simone” by visiting legacyrecordings.com
The Associated Press contributed to this report.