Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze drifting on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me,
And I am feeling good
These words weren’t written by Nina Simone, but she made them her own, which is probably why any number of versions of it bring to mind the late jazz/blues pianist and Civil Rights icon.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina in 1933, Nina Simone’s mother was a maid and her father a handyman. Her aspirations were to become a concert pianist, and her talent was recognized by her music teacher and her community with a music scholarship. She studied briefly at the famed Juilliard School in New York, but her career took a different turn when she applied and didn’t get into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music — a rejection she reportedly never got over.
This led to Simone taking music lessons while trying to forge a music career, which, in turn, led to the development of her eclectic style. With a low, husky voice she could quickly go from a folk ditty to Chopin to gospel, making her different from her contemporaries and bringing her praise for the classical piano talent and her raw realness. She changed her name to Nina Simone after she began singing in nightclubs in the mid 1950s.
From the 1950s to the late 1970s, Nina Simone recorded albums, toured and played concert halls around the globe. Her interesting mix of classic piano and jazz, blues, folk, gospel, and pop vocal performances secured her ever-green fans. Pictures and documentaries show her strutting around onstage, dressed in swinging ‘60s outfits but with ethnic earring and headbands, her hair natural in the days when it was a statement as much as a style. She recorded approximately 60 albums during her lifetime, including compilations, reissues, and live shows.
Her charting singles include Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” which was #18 on Billboard, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “I Put a Spell on You,” “Revolution,” “To Love Somebody” (originally recorded by the Bee Gees), “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” inspired by an unfinished play by playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and “Feeling Good.”
However, it was her albums and live performances that brought the fans. Those fans include fellow performers who are already in the Hall of Fame: Elton John, who has a piano named after Nina Simone, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Bono, Sade and a few of the Beatles are just a few of the legends that have reportedly been influenced by Simone’s music.
John Legend and Common talked about her influence when they won the 2015 Oscar for Best Original Song, “Glory,” for Selma, he quoted Simone: “Nina Simone said, ‘It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live,‘” he said before talking more about the film. When Legend and wife Chrissy welcomed the birth of their daughter Luna Simone, he confirmed on Twitter that the “Simone” was named after Nina.
Nina Simone died in 2003 after living abroad for many years and battling physical and mental illnesses. However, her legend has continued to grow and her music continues to influence contemporary artists from Beyonce and Adele, to Alicia Keys and Lana Del Rey.
Isn’t it time the “High Priestess of Soul” got a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?