If Nina Simone were still living she would have been 80 years young today. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone began playing piano by ear when she was just three-years-old, laying the groundwork for her love of Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert that would carry her throughout her life.

Simone graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class and dreamed of attending the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia to study classical piano, but was denied admission. Simone would go on to attend Juilliard School of Music instead.

In 1954, Simone took a job playing piano at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City to make ends meet. The bar’s owner wanted her to sing as well as play piano, and she adopted the moniker “Nina Simone,” and showcased her brand of jazz, blues, and gospel for the bar’s patrons.

After catching the eye of the record industry when she was 24, Simone reimagined jazz standards and used her platform to speak out against discrimination and racism. Songs like “Mississippi Goddam,” “Strange Fruit,” “Four Women,” and “Backlash Blues” illustrated to America that Simone was not just an incredible singer, but a woman who was unafraid to speak her mind, even if it put her life and career in jeopardy.

On April 21, 2003, Nina Simone died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rout, Bouches-du-Rhone, France.

In her lifetime, Simone released more than three-dozen albums, garnered numerous awards, received three honorary degrees, and will forever be known as the “High Priestess of Soul.” Her music and legacy will live on forever.

What’s your favorite Nina Simone song?

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