She is her own woman, a singer, songwriter and performer whose ability to transcend genres echoes the tradition of her mother, musical icon and pioneer Nina Simone. Blessed with a rich vocal range, an innate skill for lyrical interpretation and a soul-deep understanding of music as a means of healing, empowerment and celebration, Simone is very much her mother’s daughter, she is most assuredly a multi-talented artist in her own right.
A highly-praised live performer whose impressive resume includes starring roles on Broadway in such acclaimed musicals as Rent and Aida, Simone has developed an exciting and diverse repertoire of pop, soul, jazz, rock and funk, expressed in shows she’s done throughout the U.S. and in the UK, Ireland, Holland, Finland, Spain and France. With the upcoming February 2008 release of her first full-length album, Simone On Simone (a big band tribute to her mother produced by famed jazz musician and arranger Bob Belden), music lovers worldwide will discover
the vocal dynamism that live audiences have witnessed for over a decade. “This is my tribute to my mother, a chance for me to do the songs I love the most the way I hear them. It’s a glimpse of my life over four decades…”
Born Lisa Celeste Stroud in Mount Vernon in upstate New York, Simone’s earliest exposure to music naturally came through her mother’s work as a globally-loved musician and freedom fighter but she recalls,“I heard a lot of other artists because we had albums by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight & The Pips, gospel records by all of the Hawkins family and Reverend James Cleveland. The radio was on when my mother was traveling to gigs so I heard everything – The Beatles and The Mamas & The Papas to two of my all-time favorites, Ronnie Dyson and Donny Hathaway. Of course I heard my mother’s music: the albums I remember the most are “Silk & Soul” and “The High Priestess Of Soul.” Miriam Makeba was a constant favorite in our house but I didn’t hear much jazz and even though my mother was classically trained, I never heard much classical music either…”
Simone - who was featured in 1972 with her mother in a photo spread for “Essence” magazine - spent most of her early childhood in New York City, and then in Nina’s home state of North Carolina before accompanying her globe-trotting mother to Liberia, Barbados and Switzerland. She completed her education in the U.S. and joined the USAF in 1982. “Actually, I originally planned to be an international lawyer,” Simone recalls with a smile. “Then I went through ‘reactive active rebellion’ and enlisted in to the military!”
Studying civil engineering (“I can drive Hummers and Deuce-and-a-Half trucks!”) and rising to the rank of staff sergeant, Simone’s first onstage appearance happened during her tenure in Germany when a friend heard her sing at a nightclub and later received a call from an American singer based in Europe asking if Simone would like a gig as a background singer. That led to more shows and each weekend, Simone (who took the stage name in honor of her mother) would find herself onstage, oftentimes working with ‘The Magic Platters,’ singing the songs of the popular ‘50s and ‘60s group. It was during a 1991 show at a ski resort in Switzerland that Simone first sang a song closely associated with her mother. “I did ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ and afterwards, I thought, ‘this is what I should do with my life.’ Singing was like breathing for me,” she recalls. In spite of her parents’ misgivings, Simone continued to follow her heart and travel the world. She found herself doing background vocals for Latin superstar Raphael.
Simone traveled with the Spanish hitmaker for two years, performing throughout Spain, Puerto Rico, South and North America doing shows for SRO crowds at Madison Square Garden in New York, the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles and the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Auditorium in Miami. “After I left Europe with Raphael, I headed to Los Angeles on my ‘quest for superstardom,’” Simone recalls with a grin. “I moved in with two other girls, we formed a group called Aura and we spent six months trying to make it. I spent my last $2,500 on a Hyundai!” Towards the end of 1994, Simone began doing regular shows at The Atlas club with the B-Sharp Quartet, performing at venues like The Baked Potato and Shanghai Reds (where her mother saw her onstage for the first time), “being a waitress, singing at open ‘mikes’ and doing children’s theater.”
The period of paying dues in Los Angeles paid off when Simone was approached in 1995 to audition for the national touring company of the already-successful musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. “Initially, I turned them down!” she remembers but when she was cast for the role of
Soul Sister, she subsequently went on to appear as both Mary and Simon (becoming the first woman to ever play that part during the run).
In 1996, intent on making her first recording, the singer/actress did her first demo but her plans were interrupted when she got a call to audition for the musical Rent. The opportunity to star as Mimi Marquez in Rent's First National Tour soon presented itself and Simone spent almost 18 months traveling across the US thus earning her nominations for both Helen Hayes and Jefferson Awards for her show-stopping performances.
In 1998, Rent headed to Chicago; six months after the show’s run ended there, Simone decided to stay in the area, becoming the lead singer for the acid jazz band, Liquid Soul earning a Grammy nomination for the album “Here’s The Deal” (for which she was a contributing writer), in her own words, “performing at every ‘House Of Blues’ in the country!” In 1999, Simone fulfilled a long-held dream, appearing for the first time onstage with her mother at the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin and opening for her at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall. In May of that year, she gave birth to a daughter, RéAnna and “three days later, I was called to audition for The Lion King.”
In 2001, Simone took on the leading role of Aida in the Tim Rice-Elton John musical of the same name for the national touring company. She had worked on Aida during its initial workshops for the award-winning show, noting, “it felt good to be remembered.” She headed up Aida’s First National Tour earning the “National Broadway Theater Award for Best Actress in a Musical.” She reprised the role on Broadway to critical acclaim in 2002.
Dr. Nina Simone came to see her daughter play the role in April of the same year and with a grin, Simone recalls how her mother “yelled out from the audience when I was onstage!” It would be the last time the two would see each other: one year later, on April 21, Nina passed away at her home in the South of France, just days before her daughter was due to visit during a break from her Broadway performances in Aida.
The loss of her mother was understandably a time for reflection and pause for Simone: “My mother began to support me in my choice of a musical career in 1999. She finally wanted my star to rise. I remember when did sing together – at The Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. We sang one of her songs, “Compensation” and she accompanied me. She would grin in spite of herself…”
Simone coordinated, performed and eulogized her mother at the packed memorial service held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, completing her performances in Aida in June, 2003 and doing some shows in and around New York. In 2004, Simone performed with her Uncle, Sam Waymon in a tribute to her mother at New York’s “Blue Note” and with members of Nina’s original band at Carnegie Hall in a JVC Jazz Festival tribute the same year.
An invitation from Sandra St. Victor, former lead singer with the soul/funk band The Family Stand to work on a show entitled “Daughters Of Soul” (with the offspring of Chaka Khan and Donny Hathaway as well as Nona Hendryx, St. Victor and other special guests) began a three-year association that resulted in performances in The Netherlands, Finland, France, Spain and the U.K. “It’s a chance to be around some great female performers and have a really good time. It’s wonderful,” Simone recalls.
On April 21, 2006, three years after her mother’s passing, Simone paid tribute to her at Town Hall in New York, at the very venue where forty-seven years earlier a 26-year old Nina Simone had enjoyed her first major show in the city. With some of the original members of the band who had accompanied her mother then (including longtime musical associate, guitarist Al Shackman), Simone’s spellbinding, soulful performance turned into the genesis for the recording of Simone On Simone. “The idea had been pitched to me before but I had been writing a lot of my own material for almost ten years and my goal was to record those songs. It felt like an obstacle between me and that goal to do a tribute record to my mother. But after the Town Hall performance, I started considering it seriously…"
Fortunate to have gotten over fifty of her mother’s original arrangements, Simone began working with producer Bob Belden (whose credits include work with Woody Herman, Donald Byrd, Mel Lewis and Dianne Reeves and extensive credits as a premier jazz reissue producer) on the recording project, culling eleven songs from Nina Simone’s repertoire, including one live performance on which her mother accompanied her and featuring one poignant and highly personal song, “Child In Me” which Simone fondly refers to as “my love song to my mother.”
She succeeds admirably turning in tour-de-force performances on little-known gems from her mother’s recorded repertoire such as “Keeper Of The Flame,” “I Hold No Grudge” and “Don’t You Pay Them No Mind” (all from Nina Simone’s 1966 LP High Priestess Of Soul) as well as reworkings of such classics as “Feeling Good,” “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” (given a completely new and original twist), “Work Song,” the spirited “(You’ll) Go To Hell” and swinging versions of “Love Me Or Leave Me” and Duke Ellington’s “Gal From Joe’s.” Rounding out her first of many future albums: “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” (the Billy Taylor tune closely identified with her mother as one of the potent message songs which were so much a part of Nina Simone’s catalog of music with themes of freedom, self-empowerment and justice for all) and “How Long Must I Wander,” a plaintive song that speaks to Simone’s own formative years traveling across the globe with her mother.
n addition to completing work on her debut CD in 2007, Simone performed in a week-long St. Louis production of Les Miserables and did shows with “The Daughters Of Soul” in the U.K. and Holland. Since her mother’s passing, she has been busy managing Nina Simone’s extensive estate as well as co-founding in 2003, the Nina Simone Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission – fulfilling her mother’s wish – is to raise money for the education of African-American children and children of African descent.
Encouraged by the constant support of God, family, friends and fans, Simone says her commitment is to “keep singing, keep writing, keep performing, spreading the word, spreading the healing, spreading the message and spreading the love!” With a rich heritage to draw from, a wealth of accomplishments and accolades as a Broadway star and live performer and a finely-developed sense of her own unique artistry, Simone is ready to establish herself as a successful recording artist of the first order. She’s off to a wonderful start with Simone On Simone, an album that honors her mother’s musical contribution while beginning a new chapter in her own musical journey.