Although she had just one top 20 hit – a 1959 version of Gershwin’s ”I Loves You, Porgy” – Nina Simone’s influence never faded. When she died at 70 after a long illness on April 21, at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, France, she was still a popular if enigmatic star.
In the late 1980s, Simone’s haunting rendition of ”My Baby Just Cares for Me” became the theme for Chanel No. 5 perfume TV ads. Like an alluring fragrance, her voice was powerful, unforgettable, and impossible to classify. As a singer and pianist, Simone had an emotionally direct style that freely blended jazz, blues, gospel, and European art song. In the ’60s, she was a prominent civil rights activist. Her ”Mississippi Goddam” was an impassioned response to the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. ”To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which she cowrote, became an anthem for Aretha Franklin.
Born Eunice Waymon, in Tryon, N.C., Simone earned a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in 1950, later getting a job playing piano and singing in an Atlantic City bar. She changed her name so her mother wouldn’t find out.
Simone interpreted an eclectic repertoire – from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ”I Put a Spell on You” to Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel to the Beatles’ ”Here Comes the Sun.” In her 1991 autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, she wrote, ”Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background, because I didn’t fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be.” Simone left the U.S. in 1974, settling in France. She is survived by three brothers, a sister, and a daughter, Lisa, known professionally as Simone and currently on Broadway in Aida. – Larry Blumenfeld
ANTHOLOGY: THE COLPIX YEARS (Rhino) contains original recordings of such early gems as ”Willow Weep for Me” and ”Trouble in Mind.”
IN CONCERT/I PUT A SPELL ON YOU (PolyGram) documents Simone at her peak in the mid-1960s.