Death of diva who gave voice to civil rights struggle

Chris Bunting
Sunday 19 January 2014 05:57

The legendary jazz and blues diva Nina Simone died at her home in southern France yesterday. Simone, considered one of the finest singers and songwriters of her generation, died of "natural causes" in her sleep after a long illness, according her manager Clifton Henderson. She was 70 years old

Her rasping, forceful voice was so distinctive that she left her own imprint on every form of music she touched: not just jazz and blues but also Broadway, gospel and spirituals, soul, and even English folk songs, leading the American jazz critic Scott Yannow to describe her as "in a category by herself".

She also became one of the most powerful symbols of the civil rights movement in 1960s America.

Among her biggest hits were a 1959 recording of Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy", which made the Top 20 but, surprisingly, it was to be her only entry in the US Top 40. In 1987 her re-released "My Baby Just Cares For Me" endeared her to a new generation of fans three decades after its first recording, reaching No 5 in Britain.

But it will be for her involvement in the American civil rights movement that she will be remembered by many. She captured the tragedy of the assassination of Martin Luther King in the song "Why? The King of Love is Dead".

When a group of black schoolgirls were killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama, Simone wrote "Mississippi Goddam", a scathing attack on the racial injustices in the US.

Her 1969 song "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" became an anthem for the movement to end segregation in the US and made her a role model for Afro-American women, including the highly regarded jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. "I would say the person who influenced me as a young black girl was Nina Simone because she was so outspoken," she has said.

Simone, whose real name was Eunice Waymon, was born in 1933 in North Carolina as the sixth of seven children. She began playing the piano at age four and her precocious talent gained her entry to New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music, a rare opportunity for a black woman in the 1950s.

Later that decade she recorded her first tracks, including "Plain Gold Ring" and "Don't Smoke In Bed", but it was "I Loves you Porgy", released in 1959, that gained her popular attention.

Her musical range stretched to cover work by songwriters as diverse as Bob Dylan and the Bee Gees. Dubbed the "high priestess of soul" her range of styles in over 50 albums included classical, gospel, folk, pop, opera, and rock.

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But Simone also had a reputation for being temperamental and would often miss concerts or fight with audiences. Yet she was consistently revered and imitated by other singers. In 1974, after becoming disenchanted with life in the United States, she moved to Barbados and began a nomadic lifestyle that took her to the Netherlands and Paris before settling in the south of France.

In an interview in 1998 she blamed racism in the United States for her decision to live abroad, saying that as a black person she has "paid a heavy price for fighting the establishment." She did not elaborate but said racial inequality in the US was "worse than ever".

She said her protest songs had been a "political weapon" she had used to defend the rights of American blacks and third world people. In 1998 she was a special guest at Nelson Mandela's 80th birthday party. She was twice married and divorced, and is survived by a daughter, Lisa.

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