Singer Nina Simone's music has gone from gospel to jazz to pop to R&B and blues to a raging black protest that moved her off the supper-club circuit and into political rallies and soul concerts. Known since the late '50s as the "High Priestess of Soul," she enjoyed a renaissance in her sixth decade with the publication of her autobiography and the exposure given her music in a popular American film. Taking her stage name from French actress Simone Signoret, she epitomizes the soul diva.
Simone began singing in church and taught herself piano and organ by the time she was seven. She took classical keyboard lessons and attended New York's Juilliard School of Music, then began playing East Coast clubs and concerts. Her first hit was a 1959 gold record of Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy."
In the 1960s she moved toward R&B, recording Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" (a subsequent hit for the Animals). This led to sizable popularity in England, where she had hits with "Ain't Got No/I Got Life" (from Hair) in 1968 and the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" in 1969.
By then she had become a black-power activist (her first protest song, "Mississippi Goddam," mourned the death of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers), and politically oriented tracks like "Four Women" (on an out-of-print Philips album) alienated her white audience. She became even more intense and unpredictable in concert, and despite continuing critical acclaim, she gradually lost her commercial standing. Financially, she fell upon hard times, and she divorced her manager/husband (her first marriage had also failed). In 1974 Simone quit the music business.
Leaving the States, Simone took up residence in Switzerland, Liberia, Barbados, France, and the U.K. in the mid-'70s. By 1978, however, she had returned to music, releasing Baltimore and touring the U.S. again. While the early '80s were a fallow period, Simone experienced a comeback in 1987 when a television commercial for Chanel No. 5 perfume used her early recording "My Baby Just Cares for Me." Her candid 1991 autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, and an appearance on Pete Townshend's Iron Man boosted her revival. In 1993, with her music featured in the film Point of No Return and with a new studio album, A Single Woman, Simone gained a new audience for her fiercely elegant fare. In 1995 Simone was ordered to pay a $4,600 fine for shooting at two teenaged boys whom she maintained were disturbing her peace while she was gardening; that year also, she was fined $5,000 for leaving the scene of a car accident that had occurred in 1993. The 1990s concluded, however, on a happier note, as her music was presented again in a number of well-crafted anthologies. In 2003, Simone died at age 70 after a lengthy battle with breast cancer.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).