The Stacks: How Nina Simone Discovered Her Genius

How Eunice Waymon, an aspiring classical pianist, transformed herself into Nina Simone (the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary this year) is part hardluck story, part fairy tale, and like so many things in her life, the good and the bad were impossible to separate.

02.28.16 5:01 AM ET

Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C., in 1933, the young woman who the world would come to know as Nina Simone was so prodigally gifted as a classical pianist that she wound up at Julliard after high school and trained with a private tutor, who helped her prepare to audition at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. When Curtis rejected her application, she redoubled her efforts to become a classical pianist. To make ends meet, she accompanied voice students in a music academy and subsequently took a job playing piano in a bar in Atlantic City in the summer of 1954. It was there that she found her style, and the name Nina Simone.

Following is an excerpt from Princess Noire, Nadine Cohodas’s thoughtful, illuminating biography of Simone.

June 1954–June 1956

It was through her students that Eunice got to Atlantic City, New Jersey, the beachfront resort town about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia that was famous for three things: the annual Miss America pageant, which had been held at the convention hall since 1940; the Boardwalk; and the topflight performers who entertained the white tourists flocking to the grand hotels. As segregated as any Southern town, Atlantic City had its own black section, here a few blocks north of the Boardwalk, with nightspots that drew the best black talent. Blacks were also found on the Boardwalk, but as the mainstays of the housekeeping and custodial staffs at the hotels. Carrol had been a bellhop at the Claridge for a couple of summers after he got out of the service.

Eunice got curious about the place when she learned that a few of her college-age students took summer jobs at the hotels. One of them said he played the piano in a bar, and Eunice’s surprise must have shown on her face—she didn’t think he was very good. “Yeah, I know”—he shrugged—“but they’re going to pay me $90 a week.” And that didn’t include tips. It was nearly twice as much as Eunice made on her own. She was intrigued enough to follow up, and through the student, she found an agent who in turn booked her into the Mid-town Bar on Pacific Avenue. It was one block away from the Boardwalk and in the heart of the white entertainment district. Carrol remembered that her first booking was on the weekends. They would go together, and she could commute back and forth from Philadelphia.

Early in June 1954, Eunice made her way to 1719 Pacific Avenue, a nondescript one-story building with a sign out front that said “Mid-town.” She didn’t know what to expect, having never been in a bar before, but standing outside, she took a deep breath, opened the door, and went in. She stopped abruptly, overwhelmed by the smell of the place and barely able to see. The smoky air made her eyes water, but she collected herself, walked to the bar, and asked to see Harry Stewart, the owner.

What did she want? the bartender asked. Eunice told him she was the new piano player. The man said she’d have to wait a few minutes because Stewart was busy, but would she like a drink in the meantime? That would be nice, Eunice replied, and asked for a glass of milk. The request brought good-natured laughter from a few of the regulars sitting at the bar. Eunice blushed, and looked around to get her bearings while she waited.

The Mid-town was a long, narrow room with a bar that stretched about two thirds of the way down one wall. A few tables and chairs were laid out in the remaining space, and a piano stood on a tiny raised stage at the back. Eunice noticed sawdust on the floor. Locals thought of the place as “just a plain bar—almost a neighborhood type bar,” as one put it, for working people. A kitchen was in the back, “Open All Night” under the direction of “Chef Alberto,” a newspaper ad announced. Stewart advertised himself as “your host.” “He was a little Jewish guy and had a fat cigar in his mouth as a permanent fixture,” Eunice remembered, though she didn’t recall how she knew he was Jewish. Perhaps it was just a guess, given the standard view that men who ran nightclubs were usually Jewish. Stewart took Eunice over to the piano, which was no worse than many she’d seen, but it distressed her to see water dripping down from a leaky air conditioner exactly where she would sit. Stewart noticed the same thing, excused himself for a moment, and returned with an umbrella. He opened it and jammed it up into the ceiling near the air conditioner so that now the water was rerouted into a bucket in front of one of the tables.

How did Eunice want to be billed? Stewart asked. The question brought her up short. In the excitement over the new job, she had forgotten about what her family, particularly her mother, would think about her playing in a bar. She might as well tell Kate she was consorting with the devil. But even if Kate never found out, Eunice also realized she could lose students if their parents knew she was slumming in Atlantic City.

“Nina,” Eunice replied on the spot.

“She’d always liked ‘Nina,’” Carrol explained, noting that Niña was Spanish for little girl.

Fine, Stewart said. But what about the last name? “Simone,” she said without hesitation.

“It was not contemplated,” according to Carrol. “It was a natural. It seemed to go with it.”

The two names together suggested a certain panache. And when pronounced with a Latin flavor, they sounded vaguely foreign: “Nee-na… See-mone.” “I chose the name Nina because I had always been called Nina—meaning little one—as a child,” she told the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin in 1960, though neither Carrol nor her older siblings had any recollection of the nickname. In a different interview the same year with the magazine Rogue she said “Nina” was adapted from a boyfriend who called her Niña. “I don’t know where the hell I got Simone from.” When she published her memoir in 1991, Nina said that “Simone” came from her appreciation of the French film star Simone Signoret. Variations on the theme, “Nina Simone” felt right as soon as Eunice put the two names together.

Stewart told her to come back in an hour and start to work. When she returned, the regulars at the bar stared in bemusement. Apparently they had never seen a black woman entertainer in the Mid-town dressed like Nina. She had changed into a chiffon gown, applied makeup, and fixed her hair as though she was performing at one of her classical recitals. She didn’t mind the customers, but she was anxious in this new setting because she didn’t know what was expected of her. She calmed herself by ticking off all the pluses: she had talent, she was well trained, and whatever these snickering men at the bar thought of the way she looked, she was the finest pianist they had ever heard. She didn’t know anything about this Count Smith, who got top billing in Stewart’s ad, but he couldn’t be any better than she was even if Stewart advertised him as “royalty at the piano.” Nina might be playing at a bar for a bunch of men who were drinking too much, but if she closed her eyes and thought only of the music, she could be onstage at Carnegie Hall.

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Once she sat down Nina drew on more than a decade of experience, though she was only twenty-one: gospel from church, Bach and the others from her work with Miss Mazzy, Carl Friedberg, and Vladimir Sokoloff, plus all of the popular tunes she had learned playing for Arline Smith’s students and her own. She could mix and match and meld, improvising as she went along. She wouldn’t be tied down to three-or four-minute songs like most piano players, and that first night what she played weren’t really “songs” at all but extended poems made up of musical notes instead of words, none of it on paper, all of it in her head. Some of them went on for thirty minutes.

Shortly after four a.m., when the last of the diehards had shuffled out of the bar, Nina asked Stewart for his opinion. The piano playing was very nice and interesting, he said, but why wasn’t she singing?

“I’m only a pianist,” Nina replied.

Not according to Stewart. Tomorrow night, he told her, “you’re either a singer or you’re out of a job.”

On the ride back to Philadelphia with her brother, Nina realized she had only one alternative: turn herself into a singer. She had used her voice before only as sidelight, when she sang as one of the Waymon Sisters or when she gave occasional pointers to her students. Her limited range allowed her to do only so much with her voice, so the solution was to make singing just one element of her performance rather than the centerpiece. Her voice, she decided, would become “the third layer complementing the other two layers, my right and left hands.” To put theory into practice, at her next performance she picked an easy popular song, sang a lyric, and then played around with it, repeating a line once or twice and then moving on. In another song, she repeated an entire verse and then started to improvise the lyrics as she went along. She reminded herself of the congregants at some of those revivals she had played in Tryon, when folks got up to testify, shouting out their revelations over and over. When the night was over, Nina had her own revelation: she was having fun. But more important, Harry Stewart enjoyed it, too.

Nina got more comfortable with each performance, and it dawned on her that she was creating something uniquely hers, even if what came out was Eunice Waymon of Tryon, North Carolina, filtered through Johann Sebastian Bach of Eisenach, Germany. But however unusual, she welcomed the synthesis. For the past year Nina had kept the different parts of her musical life separate. One part was her storefront business, the work to make money. The other part was her real life spent with Bach, Liszt, and the other great composers. She practiced every minute on her own time and then polished the various pieces once a week with Vladimir Sokoloff. She could tolerate the work at the Mid-town by making her sets as close to classical music as possible, even though she had to play popular tunes and sing. “The strange thing,” she recalled later, “was that when I started to do it, to bring the two halves together, I found a pleasure in it almost as deep as the pleasure I got from classical music.” What’s more, Nina had to admit that after so many years of feeling pressure to achieve at the keyboard, “the Mid-town had made me looser.”

Word spread quickly that something special happened at the club. After midnight new people were coming in, whites, but younger whites than the regulars and much more attentive. They were the hotel waiters and bellhops looking for entertainment before heading home. Happily for Nina, they were more attuned to her style and expectations than the usual barhoppers.

Remembering Miss Mazzy’s instruction, Nina treated the Mid-town like a concert hall, and she was dumbfounded the first time one or two patrons who’d had too much to drink were so boisterous they could be heard above her playing. It broke her concentration, and she resolved right then not to tolerate it. She simply stopped and waited until they quieted down and then returned to the music. Apparently no one had ever done that before at the Mid-town, and the regulars were surprised. But these new customers appreciated it, and almost immediately they became her unofficial bouncers, shushing the noisy patrons and, when necessary, escorting them out of the club.

Nina didn’t care what Harry Stewart thought about the new rules of decorum. In fact, he didn’t seem to mind, and with good reason. Nina was good for business—she was told the place was busier than it had been in years. It was in midsummer, as Carrol remembered it, that Stewart extended her playing time and gave her a schedule of nine p.m. to four a.m., with fifteen minutes off every hour and all the milk she wanted. By this time, Nina had found a place at a rooming house on New York Avenue, which was close to the black clubs but not too far from the Mid-town. Now when she finished her last set, she didn’t face a long drive home. Instead, just before sunrise she walked the few blocks to her room and collapsed into bed for six or seven hours. When she got up, she might listen to some music and visit with a friend, but most of the time she was by herself.

Despite Nina’s obvious popularity, Stewart had hedged his bets. He didn’t include her in the Mid-town’s regular weekly ads in the Atlantic City Press, which continued to promote Count Smith. The ad promised “continuous entertainment,” which presumably was Nina.

Some of the regulars, many of them Nina’s age, introduced themselves over the summer, but she didn’t consider them friends. Nina could be anything but welcoming, sitting at the piano overdressed for the surroundings, playing for hours with her eyes closed, almost imperious in her brief acknowledgment of the audience. She didn’t mean to be uninterested or remote, and she was tickled when they stopped at the piano to compliment her, even if she didn’t make a big show of her appreciation. That’s just the way she was, a bit shy, and perhaps, even without thinking about it, she kept her distance because these folks were white. One night Nina overheard someone explain that she played with her eyes closed because she was a drug addict and was always high. She drank only milk because she got sick from drinking liquor. This was so far from the truth it should have been comical. Instead, the comments hurt Nina to the point of tears.

But she knew that only Harry Stewart’s opinion counted, and he wanted her back the next summer. This got Nina thinking as she returned to Philadelphia in September to resume her old routine as Eunice Waymon, piano teacher and piano student. She had never enjoyed accompanying the aspiring singers, and by early 1955, she resolved to find more work performing because it paid better. Her goal, however, was still the same: to earn enough money to study full-time at a music conservatory. She continued to find her instruction with Vladimir Sokoloff rewarding, and during one lesson or another she must have shown him what she had been playing at the Mid-town. He was impressed.

“Why don’t you pursue this as your profession?” he asked her. He remembered the passion in her reply: “Oh no. My first love is classical music, and I want to be a pianist.”

Nina was not quite a star when she returned to Atlantic City in June 1955, but she had a following, and Harry Stewart and the regulars at the Mid-town were waiting for her. Stewart spent money now to get the word out. The Mid-town’s regular ad in the Atlantic City Press announced her first performance, Wednesday, June 1, with her name in all capital letters, and proclaimed her the “new sensation at the piano.” She had displaced Stan (The Man) Facey, who had gotten top billing in May. Now he was relegated, in smaller type, to the “plus” category.

Opening night was gratifying: the place was full and Nina was relaxed. She eased up with the customers, too, and as the days went on, she made friends with the regulars. One of them, Ted Axelrod, initially had kept a respectful distance, but finally he approached her to say how much he enjoyed her music. Could he share some of what was in his collection with her? Sure, Nina replied. “He’d play me songs I never heard before, and every so often he’d suggest I include them in my live set,” she recalled. One evening he came in with a Billie Holiday record and said he’d like to hear her sing “I Love You, Porgy,” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. As a favor to Axelrod, Nina said she would work up the tune.

Holiday’s version was a delicate rendering that featured an understated piano and a barely perceptible bass. She also smoothed away some of the nonstandard English in the lyrics—Gershwin’s title was “I Loves You, Porgy.” Nina followed her lead and adapted the song to her strength, her piano playing. She tapped into her classical music training for the opening bars, evoking Debussy with arpeggios and Bach with a few trills. Her voice was duskier than Holiday’s, but she gave the lyrics a similarly poignant reading. After the first chorus, she repeated the melody on the piano before picking up the next verse. Holiday’s version, which was recorded for the Decca label in December 1948, went on for just over two minutes. Nina’s piano and vocal embellishments made hers twice as long, but the overall subdued sensibility was the same.

The Mid-town regulars made “I Love You, Porgy” their private hit, so Nina sang it every night. Kenny Hill, a twenty-one-year-old Atlantic City native who had just gotten out of the navy, was one of those regulars. He had found temporary work as a bellhop at the Haddon Hall hotel on the Boardwalk and often passed by the Mid-town after work. He stopped in one night shortly after Nina started and became an instant fan, astonished that a down-home place offered such sophisticated entertainment. “Once you heard her— she had a way of getting you,” he explained. “You knew that she had to go places.”

Hill was the friendly sort, rarely if ever intimidated. He introduced himself to Nina, and this summer, more at ease than the last, she was friendly in return. She had given up the formal concert-hall dress and now showed up for her sets in casual clothes. Hill called it “Bohemian. She dressed like a New Yorker.” Most evenings he stayed through Nina’s last set, sat around to chat with her, and often escorted her back to the rooming house on New York Avenue. “I was in love with her talent,” Hill admitted. It wasn’t a romance, just a nice summer friendship.

Nina’s sets had evolved into a merry-go-round of styles and genres that was rarely the same on any given night: folk songs, show tunes, hits, and some that should have been hits, along with her own creations, which sometimes were the extended piano compositions she played that first week at the Mid-town. As the summer drew to a close, the thought of going back to teach untalented kids was unbearable, and through her agent she found a job in Philadelphia at the Poquessing Club on South Nineteenth Street. It had opened about eighteen months earlier and was a step up in decor, pay, and clientele from the Mid-town. Because the first audiences didn’t know her at all, she could play her Mid-town sets in the opening weeks, and they turned out to be as well received in Philadelphia as they had been in Atlantic City. In a repeat of that experience, word quickly spread. In December, Frank Brookhouser, who wrote the Evening Bulletin’s “Man About Town” column, included Nina in his installment on the eighth. “Kept hearing about a girl who plays the piano and sings at the Poquessing Club. Finally heard her last night. Will hear her again many times. She’s sensational, the finest new talent we’ve heard in this town in many years.”

Brookhouser thought Nina’s looks were similar to Marian Anderson, one of her idols, “but she’s very very different, weaving a singular spell all her own at the keyboard with her husky, emotionally charged voice and a completely individual piano style which reflects her classical training.” With an uncanny prescience, Brookhouser also picked up a tinge of the melancholy, finding in her music “an atmosphere of blue lights and sad memories.”

Nina’s fame brought another pressing problem: she needed to tell her mother about her club work. She decided to take the direct approach and frankly admitted that she played in nightspots as Nina Simone but that she was doing it—and this was absolutely true—so that she could pay for continued classical lessons. She had not, she wanted Kate to know, given up her dream of being a classical concert pianist. What’s more, she never drank liquor in the clubs, and the music she played was not the bump-and-grind, gutbucket blues Kate had so disdained. In fact, Nina explained, she mixed in classical music whenever she could and gave a classical twist to tunes usually played with a pop arrangement.

As Nina remembered it, Kate was unmoved, wanting nothing to do with her daughter’s new, if temporary, career and that hurt. But Nina wasn’t surprised. She knew Kate could never accept certain things—“although that didn’t include the money I gave her every month earned ‘out in the world’”—Kate’s derisive term for any place that wasn’t the church.

Nina forged ahead anyway. Her growing reputation led her to another agent, who booked her into more upscale supper clubs. She was no less committed to proper decorum in these new places than she had been at the Mid-town, only now she had a new tactic. Instead of stopping the music altogether, she simply stared at the offending parties. The unblinking eyes and the stern look on her face left no doubt about her feelings. Besides, the hard stare was more polite than calling out the loud patrons.

Nina continued her studies with Sokoloff even though both of them knew she had passed a line of demarcation. The cutoff point for Curtis applicants was twenty-one. Nina was already twenty-two. Sokoloff agreed to keep working with her, but now her pursuit of a classical career would have to be without a degree from Curtis.

In the meantime Nina readied for her return to the Midtown in the summer of 1956. She started at the end of June, and Harry Stewart welcomed her with a new ad that anointed her “the incomparable Nina Simone.” Ted Axelrod had also returned with a new group of friends eager to hear her, and while she enjoyed his company, Nina wanted something more than friendship with a fan. One evening she struck up a conversation with a young good-looking white man who had a nice smile. He was sweet but not in a cloying way, and his sense of humor made Nina laugh. His name was Don Ross, and he came back the next evening, waiting for her at the bar with a glass of milk in his hand. She was charmed.

From Princess Noire by Nadine Cohodas. Copyright (c) 2010 by Nadine Cohodas. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.