It might be stupid to ask, “What was so special about Nina Simone?”
The real question is, “What wasn’t special about her?”
But just to set the record straight, here are the three main reasons why Simone stood out and was a tidal wave of influence in the music industry and society as a whole.
Her unique tone
That full, strong voice that could jump an octave and still keep a rapid vibrato — that’s really what made Nina Simone special. It’s what made her stand out among her peers. No one had a voice like her, and we won’t hear another voice like hers for a long time.
And she wasn’t just born with an amazing voice — she worked hard.
She attended Juilliard School of Music in New York (she dropped out for financial reasons). She practiced, and that practice led to her timeless voice.
She was a Civil Rights singer
Simone wasn’t just a singer, she was a Civil Rights singer. She became known as the voice of the Civil Rights Movement in the music world.
Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was in direct response to the 1963 assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evans and the bombing at the Birmingham church.
And after the 1968 murder of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Simone’s bassist wrote “Why (The King of Love Is Dead)” and Simone performed it with her band at the Westbury Music Festival.
These are only a couple examples of how she was a voice for a lot of African-American folks in the 50s and 60s.
She was versatile
Not only did she have great vocal range, but she sang more than just one genre of music as a lot of singers often do.
She could sing jazz, blues, and folk music, even covering Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun.”
But in everything she did, her classical training shined through.
But still, people saw her as a soul singer, often calling her the “High Priestess of Soul,” even though she hated that nickname.
“If I had to be called something, it should have been a folk singer because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing,” she wrote in her autobiography, according to Biography.com.
Simone is someone every aspiring singer should study.
What can DIY musicians learn from her?
This: if you want to be good, you gotta learn your craft, practice a ton, stand for something good, and be open to different types of music.
I first wrote a version of this article for iSing Magazine.