Nina Simone, 70, a singer, composer and pianist who combined spiritual, jazz and protest songs in the 1960s and 1970s and who had been dubbed "the high priestess of soul," died April 21 at her home in France. The cause of death was not reported.
With a deep and husky voice that growled and whispered, Ms. Simone had her first hit with a torchy rendition of "I Loves You, Porgy" in 1959.
She soon moved from pop ballads to protest songs as the civil rights movement took hold. Her own compositions, including "Mississippi Goddam," "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" and "Four Women," became particularly affecting and haunting anthems of the era.
She filled concert halls for decades, often turning them into forums for her biting political remarks and celebrations of art and folklore. Through it all, she rendered an eclectic mix of music with precise diction and a powerful vibrato.
In the 1960s, she had a run of best-selling albums, including "Wild Is the Wind," "High Priestess of Soul," "Silk and Soul," "Pastel Blues," "I Put a Spell on You," "Let it All Out" and "Nina Simone Sings the Blues."
A hallmark of her recordings was her love for contrasting sounds and defying predictability. Her version of the pop staple "Love Me or Leave Me," for example, plays a dazzling classical run with a throaty jazz vocal.
"It's always been my aim to stay outside any category," she told a reporter. "That's my freedom. However, freedom, to me, is the definition of what jazz is, so I can't say that I'm not a jazz performer."
She made American racism a core concept in her art, and as late as 1998 she said she felt a palpable disgust at the treatment of blacks in the United States. She had left the United States in 1973 and lived in the Caribbean and Africa before settling in Europe.
As a person and a performer, she often bore a confrontational style that caused her to lash out when she felt her audience, or an interviewer, was not paying her enough respect.
Her reputation was mixed in some circles. Hollie I. West, writing in The Washington Post, said her artistry "represents human indomitability." Others, such as New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett, once wrote that she "has become more interested in the message of her songs than in the singing of them."
Struggle was always part of Ms. Simone's life. She was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C., one of eight children. Her father was a gardener and handyman, and her mother was an ordained Methodist minister and housekeeper.
She learned piano by ear at age 3, and a white woman for whom her mother worked paid for her early lessons.
"I hated those recitals," she told an interviewer. "At the first one, in the 'white library,' there was a big hassle about where my mother and father sat. . . . Only years later, when I stopped studying and went back to improvising, I realized [my white teacher] had trained my fingers. When I think of what she did for me, I have to look past what I hated about the white people."
In the early 1950s, she attended the Juilliard School in New York and then found work at clubs. One bar owner in Atlantic City told her that he wanted a singer, not a pianist, which prompted her to try her vocal talents. She also tried a new name -- and was a hit.
Her first big success came in 1959 when she recorded "I Loves You, Porgy," from the Gershwin musical "Porgy and Bess." That lifted her from small performances to major venues, such as the Newport Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall.
She also began appearing on television and with other performers, including comedian Bill Cosby.
The civil rights movement changed her persona. She said she felt compelled to write "Mississippi Goddam" after the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, which killed four girls.
Over the course of her career, she also recorded Duke Ellington compositions, Israeli folk songs and songs by the Bee Gees.
By the 1980s, she was tiring of her reputation as a protest singer, she told The Post.
"I'm not about protest songs anymore," she said. "I want to perform with symphony orchestras and choirs. I want to play concertos."
Through her career, she never abandoned the pop balladry with which she first made her reputation.
When her recording of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" was released as a single in 1987, after it was used in television ads for Chanel No. 5 perfume, it reportedly sold 175,000 copies in the first week.