3 Ways Nina Simone Was Unique (And What She Can Teach Us)

It might be stupid to ask, “What was so special about Nina Simone?”

DIY musician tips
Nina Simone (photo via NPR)

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.

How Aretha Franklin Took A Chauvinist Song And Made It A Feminist Song

Aretha Franklin was one of the best singers of all time. She outdid a lot of men in vocal performance and in wit, as is the case with the song “Respect.”

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin (photo via Mojo Magazine)

This was written by Otis Redding, who debuted it in 1965. But it wasn’t until 1967 that the song became a true hit with Aretha Franklin, but this time it had a feminist twist to it.

Let’s take a look at both versions…

One of the verses in Redding’s version goes like this:

What you want, honey, you got it
And what you need, baby, you’ve got it
All I’m asking
For a little respect when I come home

But Franklin took the song and made it her own lyrically and musically. Her version of the above section is:

What you want
Baby, I got it
What you need
Do you know I got it
All I’m askin’
Is for a little respect when you get home (just a little bit)

See what she did there?

She took a song about a man coming home to his girl who demands her respect and flipped it on its head. In a way, it’s a direct response to Redding.

In the original, he does all the work and then gives all of his money to her (“And I’m about to give you all of my money”). While she, apparently, sits at home waiting around, fully depending on her man.

But in her version, she equals things out by singing, “I’m about to give you all of my money.”

What she also did was make the song better overall. The whole R-E-S-P-E-C-T thing — that wasn’t in the original. Franklin added that, creating one of the most memorable hooks in music history.

This is a great story, especially given the time period. The 60s were turbulent times, mainly because of the Civil Rights Movement. The 60s were also difficult times for black women.

What most people forget (including me until doing research for this post) is that the original Women’s Rights movement was in 1848, which started with a convention in New York. What happened in the 1960s was just the “second wave” of the movement.

And Aretha was right there amidst it.

The second push from those in the feminist movement in the 60s was “activism that washed into the public consciousness,” charged by a bunch of different events during a decade drenched in change. Each pro-women thing that happened invited a new segment of the world into the movement.

So what Franklin did with “Respect” was not only a genius move musically, but also a genius move for women and feminists. Dare I say, it demanded women get the respect they deserve.