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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 April, 2003, 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK
Nina Simone: The end of an era

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Nina Simone
Simone played organ in church during her childhood
Nina Simone was arguably the last of the great female jazz singers of her era. BBC News Online looks at her place among the giants.

Simone could be considered the last of the great black jazz divas who revolutionised popular music from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Though she was a generation younger than Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, and nearly a decade younger than Dinah Washington, Nina Simone is often spoken of with equal reverence.

It could be argued that Holliday and Fitzgerald paved the way for others like Simone to follow.

When Holliday and Fitzgerald were starting out, the obstacles in the way of mainstream acceptance were much more formidable.

In the 1920s and 30s, jazz and blues were played in segregated clubs where blacks were able to drink and dance. They were not the mainstream, accepted music forms they are today.

Billie Holliday
Music gave Holliday a chance to escape poverty
Both Holliday, born in 1915, and Fitzgerald, born in 1917, struggled through periods of destitution. Blessed with remarkable voices, music was a chance for them to escape lives of grinding poverty.

Holliday's mother was only 13 when she had her, and her early years were spent doing chores at a brothel in Baltimore.

She made her singing debut in nightclubs in the New York district of Harlem in the early 1930s, after years in a Catholic reform school and even time as a prostitute in New York.

Even when she recorded dozens of records in the 1930s and 1940s, the discrimination did not stop. Holliday received no royalties for many of the songs she recorded.

Ella Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald was among the great female jazz singers
But she moved millions of music fans, and struck a blow against racial discrimination with her standard Strange Fruit, one of the most celebrated songs of the 20th Century.

The song's haunting imagery of the bodies of black men hanging off trees in the Deep South angered many conservatives - but provided a clarion call for those seeking equal rights.

Holliday's legendary status was assured with her death at 44, in 1959, of heart disease, her body also having to contend with heroin withdrawal.

Ella Fitzgerald's life was no less difficult. She too had a poor childhood and periods of homelessness before her big break in 1934 in Harlem.

Fitzgerald's voice did not have the same gravitas as Holliday's, but she was a light, breezy singer who made dozens of classic renditions and became a huge star in wartime America.

Her classic "songbooks" in the 1950s - collections of songs by contemporary composers like Gershwin and Cole Porter - made her a household name.

Dinah Washington
Washington died at the peak of her powers
Dinah Washington was another singer whose bright style and impressive voice elevated her to the ranks of the greats.

Trained in gospel singing, from the age of 15 she was leading bands in concert halls in wartime America, broadening her style and enraging purists who believed she had turned her back on their beloved jazz.

Washington, like Holliday, died while at the peak of her powers, of an accidental drug overdose as she battled weight problems.

Simone's early life bore many resemblances to Holliday and Fitzgerald's.

She was born Eunice Waymon into a poor family in North Carolina, one of eight children.

She played the organ in church aged seven and announced that she wanted to become a classical pianist, almost unheard of for a black girl in the 1940s.

Nina Simone
Some of Simone's most lasting work was recorded in the mid-1960s
She trained at New York's prestigious Juillaird School and taught piano. It was only at an audition when she was told that she had to sing as well as play that she found her voice.

In the early 1950s Simone proved a queen of styles, ranging from jazz and blues to poppier material, showing a versatility that rivalled Fitzgerald and Washington.

Like Holiday she fought against racism. Her self-penned Mississippi Goddam was a strident anti-racism song that put Simone at the forefront of the new black consciousness.

Around that time came her song Young, Gifted and Black, covered by Aretha Franklin.

Some of her most enduring songs were the cover versions she recorded during the mid-1960s, including Brecht and Weill's Pirate Jenny, Brel's Ne Me Quitte Pas and The Animals' Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.


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