A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

She starts slow, soft. Only the measured sound of her voice fills the track. Birds flying high You know how I feel Each line echoes into the next as the

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

She starts slow, soft. Only the measured sound of her voice fills the track. Birds flying high You know how I feel Each line echoes into the next as the

She starts slow, soft. Only the measured sound of her voice fills the track.

Birds flying high
You know how I feel

Each line echoes into the next as the young woman from rural Tryon, sitting in a New York City recording studio in 1965, sings about being truly free on the now-famous cover of “Feeling Good.” Nina Simone, the late civil rights activist, connected with the song’s descriptions of freedom, and her rendition, so packed with emotion and power, became a hit.

Long before she was known as Nina Simone, the singer, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, got her start as an evening singer at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, a gig that she reluctantly took in the summer of 1954 to cover the cost of lessons with famed pianist Vladimir Sokoloff. She’d been studying classical piano at The Juilliard School in New York, where she enrolled at the age of 17 after skipping a few grades and graduating valedictorian of her class at the Allen High School for Girls in Asheville, an elite boarding school for Black girls.

Two Albums: The Amazing Nina Simone and Nina Simone at Town Hall

The Amazing Nina Simone was released as Simone’s second album, and Nina Simone at Town Hall was her first live album. Photography courtesy of NINASIMONE.COM

The Atlantic City gig earned her a following on the East Coast, and a few years later, she landed a deal with Bethlehem Records. She went on to enjoy a prolific and celebrated career in which she created more than 40 original albums, won two Grammy Awards, sold countless records, and became known as the “High Priestess of Soul.”

But Simone’s success was hampered by limitations. She was a Black woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South. Her family didn’t have money to pay for music lessons — she learned to play piano by ear at the age of 3 and honed her craft at the Methodist church where her mother was a minister, and took lessons beginning at age 6 from Muriel Mazzanovich.

For her first album, Little Girl Blue, Simone was paid a flat fee of $3,000 for her work. It’s estimated that she lost out on more than $1 million in royalties. One of her most famous songs, “Mississippi Goddam” — her melodic protest against the killing of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama — was banned in many Southern states.

Simone started speaking out long before she became one of the most famous jazz musicians in North Carolina and beyond. At age 11, she watched from a piano bench at the Lanier Library in Tryon as her parents were escorted from the front row to the back of the room. She refused to play her recital until they could return to their seats. It was this determination that would put Simone on a lifelong quest for that feeling — the feeling of freedom.

Bronze sculpture of Nina Simone in downtown Tryon, NC

You can visit the Nina Simone Plaza in downtown Tryon, where the bronze statue of Simone holds some of her ashes. photograph by Travis Dove

Simone Back Home

Between Trade and McCown streets in downtown Tryon, Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly — a successful musician, actress, and composer herself — stood before a crowd gathered to celebrate her mother in 2010. To her left, a bronze statue of Simone, dressed in a glamorous gown, statement necklace, and heeled sandals, played a floating keyboard. The sculpture had just been completed by Zenos Frudakis, whose notable work includes the sculpture of another famous activist, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that sits in the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa. A plaque added to the stone upon which Simone sits bears the musician’s famous quote, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.” What viewers cannot see is that a heart crafted within the sculpture holds some of Simone’s ashes. Standing next to her legendary mother on that day in 2010, Kelly addressed the crowd. “Today is the right time,” she said. “Mommy has come home.”

Nina Simone Plaza
54 South Trade Street
Tryon, NC 28782

Nina Simone's childhood home in Tryon, NC

Plans are in the works to restore Simone’s childhood home in Tryon’s historically Black neighborhood. photograph by Dillon Deaton

Where a Star Was Born

In a 660-square-foot home in Tryon’s historically Black neighborhood, Eunice Waymon took her first breath, prayed with her parents and seven siblings, made biscuits with her mother, and learned to play the piano. From this three-room clapboard house, Waymon went on to become Nina Simone, a classically trained pianist, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and world-renowned musician. Eventually, Simone’s family moved to Pennsylvania to be closer to her when she moved north to pursue an education in classical piano, leaving the house vacant for years. In 2017, four Black artists from New York purchased the home and, with the help of local and national organizations, plan to restore the residence to reflect the spirit and soul of the family who lived there.

print it

This story was published on Jan 29, 2024

Katie Kane

Katie Kane is the assistant editor at Our State.