There’s a reason people called Nina Simone “The High Priestess of Soul”—her talent was almost other-worldly. Yet for every demon Simone exorcised on stage, two more were waiting in her dressing room. From her erratic behavior to her heartbreaking personal life, Simone’s genius was at once utterly staggering and acutely tormented.
1. She Was a Child Prodigy
Born on February 21, 1933 in North Carolina, Simone came from a huge family; she was the sixth of eight children. Yet even from this tender age, it was clear Simone would stand out. She had an innate sense of music, started playing piano at her local church, and had her first classical recital at age 12. Only, Simone had to learn rebel from a young age, too…
2. She Was a Rebel
When Simone staged her first concert as a pre-teen, it almost turned into an utter disaster. Her parents had come to the front row to watch their daughter play—only to have organizers force them into the back to make way for white people. Simone’s response was legendary. The precocious girl refused to play a note until her parents went to their the rightful place. It wouldn’t be the last time she was an absolute boss.
3. She Had a Strange Stage Presence
Early on in her career, Simone’s stage presence was both intimidating and mysterious, and she often seemed haughtily removed from her audience. After all, she was used to performing classical piano music for a hushed, reverential room. This same haughtiness helped earn her the nickname “The High Priestess of Soul”…but as we’ll see, it also caused plenty of controversy.
4. She Was Classically Trained
Simone’s music career started fast and furious, and people took major notice immediately. She spent the summer after her graduation at none other than Juilliard training with the legendary pianist Carl Friedberg. The goal? To get into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia the next year. All she got was heartache.
5. She Suffered a Brutal Rejection
Simone reportedly nailed her audition for the institute—in fact, her family was so confident, they even moved down to Philadelphia. So when she got rejected, the blow was beyond devastating. Not only did Simone believe the denial came from racial prejudice, she also couldn’t even reapply, since Curtis didn’t accept incoming students over 21. But when one door closes, another one opens.
6. She Had a Twist of Fate
Although she was on the verge of giving up her dreams, Simone started taking private lessons in the piano and even “stooped” to play in nightclubs. This is where everything changed. To save costs, the nightclub owner demanded she also sing her own accompaniment, forcing Simone to use her voice, and birthing an icon in the process. Not that everyone was happy…
7. She Lied About Her Name
Simone’s nightclub work would have scandalized her parents, so she came up with a sneaky solution: Her now-legendary stage name. Originally born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Simone picked the name “Nina” because of her boyfriend’s nickname for her, and “Simone” after the French actress Simone Signoret. As “Nina Simone,” she could play undetected.
8. She Had a Quickie Marriage
In 1958, all-consuming love came for Simone and left her ravaged. That year, she met and then married white fairground worker Don Ross when she was still just 25 years old. Ross was something of a hanger-on, and almost immediately after tying the knot, Simone regretted her decision. The couple split up shortly after saying their vows, but sadly, it wasn’t her worst heartbreak.
9. She Sold Herself out
In 1959, Simone put out her debut album…and made her first huge career mistake. Her album Little Girl Blue became a sensation, but Simone had huge contempt for its more mainstream material, and she actually sold the rights to the record label for a paltry sum that lost her over a million dollars in royalties. This fateful decision would come back to haunt her again and again.
10. She Liked Strong Men
Simone was in love once more in the early 1960s, this time with New York detective Andrew Stroud. She married him in 1961, and the sturdy, domineering Stroud soon became her manager and then the father of her child, Lisa Simone Kelly. On the outside, it might have seemed like a perfectly respectable marriage. But behind closed doors, it was a nightmare.
11. Her Husband Attacked Her
Simone and Stroud were doomed from the very beginning, and I mean that literally. Stroud, who had already gone through three failed marriages, physically attacked Simone on the very day of their engagement. Simone went ahead with the marriage anyway, and gave him ever more control of her life. It would be a long while before she (literally) escaped him.
12. She Threw Temper Tantrums
Though Simone got more comfortable, confident, and loose on stage as her star rose, this wasn’t always a good thing. She became infamous for heckling her own audience if she thought they were in any way disrespectful, sometimes even calling people out from the piano and demanding they sit down. Other times, she’d storm off the stage and end the performance in a fit of rage. As we’ll see, these fits only grew more alarming.
13. She Experienced Bizarre Delusions
During one particularly disturbing episode, Simone’s erratic behavior reared its ugly head in an eerie way. That day in 1967, her husband Andrew Stroud walked in on her in her dressing room, trying to put makeup into her hair. As best as she could recall, she was trying to get her hair to match her skin tone, saying, “I had visions of laser beams and heaven, with skin—always skin—involved in there somewhere.”
14. She Had a Smash Hit
In 1964, Simone reached an astounding milestone when she released the electric protest song “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the racial unrest flaring up in America, particularly the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. She admitted the song was like “throwing ten bullets back” and that it came to her “in a rush of fury, hatred and determination.” But it has a darker history.
15. She Wanted to Kill Someone
They say “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but I don’t think Nina Simone really believed that. After she heard about the tragedies that inspired “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s first instinct wasn’t to write, it was to strike out. She even tried to make a gun out of tools around the house, since “I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone.”
16. She Raised Her Voice
During this period of her life, Simone plunged headfirst into the Civil Rights movement, counting among her friends luminaries like Malcolm X and poet Langston Hughes. At almost every Black moment of civil triumph, Simone was there—she even marched during the Selma to Montgomery protests. Yet she paid a bitterly high price for her bravery.
17. The Industry Turned on Her
By the 1970s, Simone claimed her career suffered brutal setbacks because of her commitments to justice, and said no one would take her calls anymore, much less let her perform music. Consumed with hurt and anger, Simone decided to leave the US and set up in Barbados without telling almost anyone. This…didn’t exactly turn out well.
18. She Left Her Husband a Disturbing “Gift”
When Simone left, she expected her husband and manager Andrew Stroud would simply call her when he needed her to perform again. That call never came—for a chilling reason. As she fled, Simone left her wedding ring on the table, and Stroud simply assumed she was telling him she wanted a divorce; they split in 1970. But then things went from bad to scandalous.
19. She Seduced a Powerful Man
Once she arrived, Simone decided to stay in Barbados for the foreseeable future…but she might have had help in her decision. You see, she’d picked up a lover along the way. Simone always knew how to charm the most important people, but her latest conquest was a very big fish indeed: the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow. This too, ended in disaster.
20. She Was a Homewrecker
Although Simone’s affair with Barrow was passionate, it was all the more steamy because it was super illicit. Not only was Barrow an enormous public figure, he was, uh, also very much married at the time. Although the pair were seriously into each other, he wasn’t prepared to sacrifice his career for the scandal, and they eventually petered out.
21. She Fell in Love With a Bellboy
For what it’s worth, Simone seemed to get along juuust fine without Prime Minister Barrow as her lover. In fact, Barrow wasn’t even the only man in her life at the time. While she posted up in Barbados, Simone also fell in love with a hotel porter, and struck up another boudoir romp with him. Door’s to the left, Mr. Prime Minister.
22. She Abandoned Her Family
Simone lived a jet-set life over the next years, moving from Barbados over to Liberia—but all the while, she was hiding a dark secret. During this time, she all but abandoned her young daughter Lisa, foisting her off onto friends or her father while she went off adventuring. And when Lisa decided to visit her mother in Liberia, it only got worse.
23. She Hurt Her Daughter
Although Lisa once believed her mother was her “comfort” in the face of her aggressive father, the tables quickly turned. As Lisa confessed, “Now she was the person that was doing the beating, and she was beating me.” The situation was so dire, the girl even considered suicide before fleeing back home. Yet even then, few people understood the demons Simone was fighting…
24. She Was Addicted to Love
In this era of her fame, Simone hopped from bed to bed in hopes of finding fulfilment, and her diaries show how obsessed she was with the idea of sex, whether she was having it or not. In Liberia, she took up with a plantation owner and then a writer, but the relationships both ended almost as quickly as they began. Meanwhile, her professional life was floundering, too.
25. Her Friend Double-Crossed Her
While Simone was in Liberia, she was so worried about her business affairs that she hired a man to sort them out. He dealt her a heartless betrayal. After finding out the associate had racked up huge hotel bills behind her back, Simone confronted him about the spending. His response? To beat her senseless. This act pushed her over the edge.
26. She Tried to End It All
Simone’s life was marked by a righteous, raging anger against her inner world and the world she lived in. In the 70s, a hurting Simone became depressed and despondent, and soon enough she was suicidal. In short order, she tried to end her life with a heaping dose of sleeping pills. Although she survived, she still had a very long road to walk.
27. She Ran Hot and Cold
Simone could dish in it as well as she could dish it out. Eric Burdon, the lead singer of the band The Animals, once recalled Simone getting angry at him for re-recording her song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which became a hit. When Burdon made a counterpoint about Simone recording prison songs, she did an about-face and replied, “Sit down, what would you like to drink?”
28. She Begged Her Fans
Although she was notorious for her antics on stage, Simone did have a vulnerable side. At one show in London in the 1970s, her delays started to annoy the audience, while the other half continued supporting her. Simone responded by asking all the nice fans to give her their phone numbers so she could call them when she was feeling down.
29. She Threatened a Store Clerk
The 1980s ushered in Simone’s most tormented years, and her legendary temper began to flare even in innocent moments. One day, Simone was shopping with her friend, fellow singer Janice Ian, and went to return a pair of sandals she’d already worn to a store. When the cashier politely said she couldn’t accept them, Simone went ballistic, pulling a gun and forcing the employee to process the refund anyway.
30. She Terrified Her Friend
Simone’s furies even extended to her friends. At one point, she started demanding that Janice Ian pay her a royalty fee, and Ian—knowing full well Simone wouldn’t like it—refused. Well, the hammer came down alright: An enraged Simone pulled a payphone clear out of the wall to show her displeasure. But one day, this all came to a disturbing climax.
31. She Shot an Executive
In one explosive incident from Simone’s life, she was again demanding a royalty payment, this time from an executive from her record company. After accusing him of taking what was rightfully hers, Simone went further than she ever had—she actually fired a gun at him. Yet it was her words afterward that became the most notorious.
32. She Could Be Heartless
In truth, Simone deserved the royalty money, and her record company did refuse pay it. For the singer, then, there was zero remorse. She later recalled the incident jubilantly, saying “They said, ‘We’re not going to give you any money,’ and I said, ‘Oh yes, you are.” In fact, Simone fully admitted she “tried to kill” the executive, but “missed.” And that’s why she’s a legend. But what was happening to Miss Simone?
33. She Suffered From a Disorder
By this time, Simone’s dysfunction had become so obvious to everyone around her that her friends and family urged her to get help and a professional opinion. The diagnosis made too much sense. Doctors eventually told Simone she was suffering from bipolar disorder, which at least put a name to her volatile rages. Except that wasn’t all.
34. She Was Medically “Psychotic”
Those closest to Simone were so aware something wasn’t right, they’d actually been trying to medicate her for decades before her official diagnosis. From the mid-1960s onward, it was an open secret among a tiny potion of her nearest and dearest that the singer was on an anti-psychotic called Trilafon…only this didn’t mean she took it willingly.
35. Her Friends Drugged Her
At times, Simone was on-board with her medication, but on her bad days she scorned the prescription—and forced her friends to resort to desperate measures. If Simone proved difficult, her caretakers would slip the medication into her food and get her to take it unwittingly. The public never knew, either—so the infamous outburst of her final years was especially alarming.
36. Her Producers Locked Her up
Simone often had periods of frenzied productivity, where she’d release a flurry of songs followed by stagnant phases throughout her career. Unfortunately, not everyone was so understanding of this process. She claimed heartless producers once locked her into a Paris recording studio and forced her to record her 1978 album Baltimore.
37. She Had an FBI File
In the 1960s and 1970s, Simone added one more entry on her list of mortal enemies: The United States Government. She long claimed that there was an FBI file on her Civil Rights activities, but in 1978 it all really it the fan. Authorities put out a warrant for her for tax evasion, which she had done in protest. Simone eluded capture, but the whole thing took a decade to resolve.
38. She Publicly Insulted Her Enemies
Obviously, Simone had a horrific relationship with record executives, and she once let them know it in the most scorched-earth way possible. At one industry event, she took the mic and sneered out into the audience, “I am a genius. I am not your clown. Most of you people out there are crooks…five record companies owe me money.” Okay, show me the lie, though.
39. She Pushed Through Tragedy
In 1968, Simone’s Civil Rights activism took a tragic turn. On April 4th of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just as Simone was three days out from recording a big concert. Everyone expected her to cancel, so Simone did the exact opposite, performing an 18-minute tribute to King at the show. “We really didn’t expect anybody here tonight,” she said tearfully at the event, “They’re shooting us down one by one.”
40. She Believed in Revolution
In reality, Simone and Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t always see eye-to-eye. While King wanted non-violent, peaceful progress, Simone believed in rapid change where upheaval could be necessary. When she initially met King, she actually held out her hand and blurted out, “I’m not nonviolent!” King’s response was a simple, “Not to worry, sister.”
41. She Got a Long-Awaited Letter
Just before she passed, Simone received a heartbreaking tribute. Although her rejection from the Curtis Institute stung for years, the school eventually made good on their huge mistake, awarding the singer with an honorary degree. Sure, some might rightly say “too little, too late,” but it was a touching gesture nonetheless.
42. She Loved “Girl Talk”
One of Simone’s closest friends was A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansbery, who the singer credited with awakening her to injustice and action. As Simone revealed of their friendship, “We never talked about men or clothes. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk.” Okay, sign me right up for that.
43. She Was a True Genius
Look, don’t read this one unless you have a very healthy ego and a sense of self, because it could make Albert Einstein insecure. Alright, still here? Then get this. Simone wrote up her instant, earth-shattering classic “Mississippi Goddam” in a single hour. I know, I KNOW. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, and walk it off.
44. Her Skills Were Unbelievable
Simone’s talent was undeniable, and occasionally unbelievable. Jazz legend Miles Davis was an enormous fan of the singer, and particularly loved her ability to play three-part counterpoint. This was where her two hands and voice were all playing a different melody at the same time. Yeah, that’s as tough as it sounds to do properly.
45. She Earned a Strange Name
Obviously, Nina Simone knew her worth, and she fought tooth and nail her entire life to make sure other people never forgot it either. So it makes sense that when Amherst University granted her an honorary doctorate, she regularly insisted that people address her as “Doctor Nina Simone” forever after the fact. I mean, it does have a nice ring to it.
46. She Got a Heartbreaking Phone Call
In 1974, Simone was at a low point—but a famous friend helped her through. While in New York City, she met David Bowie, who asked for her number and called her that very night at 3:00 am. He told her, “The first thing I want you to know is that you’re not crazy—don’t let anybody tell you you’re crazy, because where you’re coming from, there are very few of us out there.”
47. She Made Diva Demands
In 1991, Simone was promoting her new album A Single Woman across America when she ran into a controversial snag. Before performing on The Tonight Show, the vocal legend demanded her performance fee up front before she sang a single note. Well, The Tonight Show didn’t think that was reasonable, and her promotional tour stopped abruptly.
48. She Sent a Message Loud and Clear
Simone performed her music well into the late 90s, but she was so done with the drama by then. To show audiences and executives just how serious she was about this, she’d close every show with the defiant classic “My Way.”
49. She Had a Weapon of Choice
Simone battled all her life with bipolar disorder—but before she died, one episode ended in an utterly horrific turn. In 1995, Simone shot and injured her neighbor’s son with an air gun, shattering his leg. Her reason? Although she claimed he also made racist comments, it all started because the boy’s laughter had disturbed her practice time. And that wasn’t her only scandal of the 90s.
50. She Left Two People to Die
Just a month after her “bad neighbor” run-in, Nina Simone was at it again. She was driving her car around France when she ended up hitting two motorcyclists. This is bad enough, but she didn’t stop there. In fact, she didn’t stop at all: Simone just performed a hit and run, landing her with a fine from the French courts.
51. She Went out on Her Own Terms
By the early 2000s, Simone’s health was failing and her body was crumbling; everybody knew she was fading away from breast cancer. True to herself until the end, Simone refused to return to America to face the end, or even go to the hospital. On April 21, 2003, she passed in her sleep at home in Carry-le-Rouet in France, leaving an entire generation in her wake.