The week before Nina Simone’s death in 2003, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia awarded her an honorary doctorate to correct a grievous error half a century earlier when the conservatoire had rejected her application for a scholarship to study classical piano. Simone was convinced that she had been refused for no other reason than the colour of her skin. Yet in excluding the 20 year old Eunice Waymon - as she then was - the school made a vital contribution to black musical history. Had she been accepted, we might never have heard the searing, unforgettable voice of Nina Simone, The High Priestess of Soul.
Hers was a voice so visceral that it was “the closest we have to the sound that blood would make were it to sing,” as one critic memorably put it. At her best she performed with a lacerating intensity that cut so deep that it left almost everything else sounding flimsy and shallow. “I’m not a blues singer,” she once insisted. “I’m a diva.”
Born in North Carolina on February 21, 1933, she took piano lessons from an early age and gave her first recital when she was ten. Her mother and father were moved from their seats to make way for a white family and were forced to stand at the back. She refused to perform until they were found seats. After that, “nothing was easy anymore,” as she wrote in her memoir I Put a Spell on You. Her ambition to be a concert pianist thwarted, in 1954 she was forced to take a job in a bar in New Jersey. The owner was furious when she spent her first evening playing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. "Tomorrow you're a singer, or you're out of a job," he told her. The enthusiastic response which greeted her husky, expressive voice the following night evoked a reluctant change of direction. Three years later she was singing at Carnegie Hall.
The recordings included here were made soon after and span the first phase of her career, from Little Girl Blue,her 1958 debut album, which included ‘I Loves You Porgy’, her first million seller, and ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, a top ten hit three decades later after being used in a perfume ad, through to 1960’s dynamic live album Nina At Newport. The artistry is phenomenal, as jazz and R&B stylings fuse seamlessly with her classical piano training to create a style that is richly and uniquely Nina Simone.