Andra Day Honors Nina Simone at the 2018 Induction Ceremony
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Inductee Insights: Nina Simone

“Nina could sing anything, period.”

That’s what singer Mary J. Blige told Rolling Stone when the magazine named Nina Simone one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. While considered a jazz singer, Simone was classically trained and cited Bach as an influence. Yet her nickname was “The High Priestess of Soul.” And in some ways, that astonishing, unclassifiable range has made it especially difficult to assess Simone’s legacy. Watch more in the PNC Bank Inductee Insights episode below.

the high priestess of soul

“Nina could sing anything, period.”

That’s what singer Mary J. Blige told Rolling Stone when the magazine named Nina Simone one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. While considered a jazz singer, Simone was classically trained and cited Bach as an influence. Yet her nickname was “The High Priestess of Soul.” And in some ways, that astonishing, unclassifiable range has made it especially difficult to assess Simone’s legacy.

Her debut album, 1958’s Little Girl Blue, contained her biggest hit – a cover of “I Loves You Porgy” from George and Ira Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.  It was inspired by Billie Holiday ​– one of her biggest influences – and was the beginning of her national recognition.

Simone’s groundbreaking compositions “Young, Gifted and Black” and “Four Women” defined a songwriting voice that was proudly and defiantly black and female. In 1965, her sparse interpretation of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” reminded listeners of harsh realities African Americans once faced in the United States.  Her 1967 hit “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” ​spoke a simple message with powerful resonance. 

activism and music

“You can’t help it,” Simone later said.  “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”  She played benefits and demonstrations, including the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. Simone would also famously perform her landmark protest song  “Mississippi Goddam” at a live concert on April 7, 1968 – three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.​

Simone’s work as an artist and an activist has been celebrated by other artists such as Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, John Legend, Common, and Alicia Keys. Keys once wrote that “she made me want to live life, learn and experience it earnestly and use my voice to say SOMETHING!”

Interpretations and covers

Simone was prolific.  She recorded nearly forty albums between 1958 and 1973 in a wide range of styles. Folk songs, traditional ballads, spirituals, and children’s songs were all part of her dazzling repertoire. Her interpretations of songs by the Bee Gees, Leonard Cohen and George Harrison – just to name a few – remain unparalleled as she breathed new life into classic songs.  “She didn’t copy anybody, she was an original artist,” recalled George Wein, promoter of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals

Her radical rearrangements of other songs have been covered by everyone from George Michael to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Whitney Houston to Jeff Buckley. She was adored by Elton John, Bob Dylan and David Bowie. 

As journalist Alan Light said: “Her commercial success many have been slight next to that of pop giants who emerged during the same era, but her impact was profound”.  Nina Simone was a unique creative force and is a deserved Inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

 

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