Legendary jazz and blues singer Nina Simone died in her sleep at her home in Southern France on Monday, Reuters reports.
The 70-year-old singer was known for her fiery persona, civil rights anthems and versions of the jazz standard "My Baby Just Cares for Me" and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You."
Famously hard to categorize, "The High Priestess of Soul" was a renaissance woman whose career spanned more than 40 jazz, soul, pop, Broadway, gospel and blues recordings, from her 1958 debut, Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, to a series of late '90s live albums. Simone, who had been living in France for much of the past decade, was also known for her prowess as a composer and arranger and for such social statement songs as "Mississippi Goddam" and "Old Jim Crow."
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon into a North Carolina family of eight children on February 21, 1933, the notoriously feisty, powerful singer showed an early talent for singing and playing piano. At age 10, Simone's parents were removed from the front row of her music recital to accommodate a white couple — an incident that helped inspire her commitment to civil rights.
The singer went on to become one of the few black students at New York's celebrated Juilliard School of Music in the 1950s. She adopted her stage name in 1954 while working as the singer/pianist in residence at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey, taking Nina from the Spanish word for "girl," and Simone from the French actress Simone Signoret. Her first public notice came in 1959 with a top 20 hit version of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" from his opera "Porgy and Bess," a million-seller that was the only top 40 hit of her career.
In 1961 Simone recorded the traditional song "The House of the Rising Sun," which would also appear on Bob Dylan's debut a year later and become a hit for the Animals in 1964. In 1965 Simone recorded "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," also a hit for the Animals, who covered it later that year.
During this period, Simone became a vocal civil rights campaigner, penning the protest song "Mississippi Goddam," written after the 1963 murders of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and four black schoolgirls in an Alabama church bombing. She also wrote "The King of Love Is Dead" as an homage to slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and she penned the song that became known as the black national anthem, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's play of the same name. In between, Simone recorded everything from instrumental piano albums to lightweight pop and interpretations of French ballads.
Simone continued to chart with her interpretations from a variety of genres in the late 1960s, including a medley of "Ain't Got No/I Got Life" from the hippie musical "Hair" and a soulful version of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," which hit the British top 10 in 1969.
Fed up with racism in the United States, Simone led an itinerant life beginning in 1974, living in Liberia, Barbados, Switzerland, France, Trinidad, Belgium and England. She collaborated with Who guitarist Pete Townshend in 1989 on his musical "The Iron Man," and she underwent a brief career revival in 1993 when her five of her songs were used on the soundtrack to the film "Point of No Return." Simone moved to France in 1993 and mounted a world tour in 2001, though her health was beginning to fail at the time.
Renowned for her signature timing, which often employed silence as a musical element, Simone's rich, multifaceted singing inspired everyone from Fiona Apple to India.Arie, who recently recorded "Come Ye" as Simone for the soundtrack to the "American Dreams" television show.