Her musical talents were shown from a young age. She learned to play piano at the age of 3 and sang in her church’s choir. Simone’s music teacher even established a special fund to help pay for her education and send her to Juilliard School of Music in New York.
In 1954, Simone began her vocal career and started performing at bars and nightclubs. It was also during this time that she also took on the stage name Nina Simone. “Nina,” came from a nickname used by a former boyfriend while “Simone” was inspired by French actress Simone Signoret. When she released her first album in 1959 it became a hit and featured distinct versions of jazz and cabaret standards, including “I Loves You, Porgy.”
As the 1960s entered and the Civil Rights Movement pursued, Simone began to add protest songs to her repertoire. She began performing at civil rights demonstrations and making connections with the likes of Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin. Her hits from the period include “Mississippi Goddam,” “Young, Gifted and Black” and “Four Women.”
Simone decided to leave the United States during the 1970s due to the deep-rooted racial divide and traveled to countries including Liberia, Switzerland, England and Barbados. In 1985, her career experienced a resurgence when her song “My Baby Just Cares For Me” was used in a Chanel No. 5 perfume commercial in the United Kingdom and became a Top 10 hit on the charts.
Simone continued touring and maintained a strong fan base over her four-decade career. She died at the age of 70 on April 21, 2003, at her home abroad in France. The famed singer’s life has been chronicled in documentaries including The Amazing Nina Simone and What Happened, Miss Simone? To preserve her legacy, Simone’s childhood home was designated a “national treasure,” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.