With her virtuosity and defiant spirit of political commitment, the pianist-songwriter Nina Simone was a perfect fit for Rainbow Sign, whose founder led the city of Berkeley to proclaim “Nina Simone Day” on the occasion of this performance, and who praised how Simone handled two teenage girls who played hooky from school to meet Simone at the club.
Though best known for her singular covers of popular hits such as “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (originally by The Animals) or “I Put a Spell on You” (originally by Screaming’ Jay Hawkins), Nina Simone was trained since childhood to be a classical pianist and only turned to playing popular music in order to help support her family. When she had become a big enough name to headline at Carnegie Hall, she called her mother and voiced her bitter frustration at having been invited to play Carnegie Hall—but not to play Bach. The barrier between black female musicians and the high-powered world of classical music was only one of many obstacles Simone faced; she dealt with a domineering husband-manager and struggled with mental illness.
In spite of these challenges, Simone did more than survive: she flourished. Perhaps more than any other single artist, she consistently performed songs that captured many black people’s experience of the heady Civil Rights era, songs such as “Mississippi Goddamn!”; “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”; and “Why (The King of Love is Dead).”