KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Nina Simone was the famous singer, pianist and sometimes civil rights activist who made her mark in the 1950s and '60s. And the North Carolina town where she grew up has helped to preserve her legacy since her death. At the center of that effort is the house where Simone was born, a house that was falling into disrepair. And the hope has been to find a buyer and get it restored. Now the house has been sold. And as Helen Chickering of Blue Ridge Public Radio reports, the hard work is just beginning.
HELEN CHICKERING, BYLINE: Perched on a hill in the crook of a windy road in the town of Tryon sits a small wooden house - three rooms, a fireplace and a porch. Unremarkable except for the plaque near the front door that designates the 1930 home as the birthplace of legendary singer-songwriter Nina Simone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME")
NINA SIMONE: (Singing) My baby don't care for shows. My baby don't care for clothes.
CHICKERING: The Tryon native dazzled the music scene with her deep, forceful voice and a repertoire that included a mix of jazz, folk and blues.
HAPPY MCLEOD: I remember seeing Nina at the Village Gate in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELING GOOD")
SIMONE: (Singing) Breeze drifting on by, you know how I feel.
MCLEOD: And boy, could she cast a spell on an audience.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELING GOOD")
SIMONE: (Singing) And I'm feeling good.
CHICKERING: That's Tryon native Happy McLeod.
MCLEOD: And at the time I didn't even know she was from Tryon.
(SOUNDBITE OF NINA SIMONE SONG, "LITTLE GIRL BLUE")
CHICKERING: She was born Eunice Waymon in 1933, and her musical gift was evident early on. She started playing the piano by ear in the Methodist Church where her mother was a minister. Word of her talent spread, and she began training as a classical pianist with the help of a supportive but segregated community. In a 1984 interview, Simone recalled her first brush with discrimination at a recital.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SIMONE: It touched me first time when I gave a concert, a recital at age 12. And they wanted to put my mom and daddy on the back row. And I remember standing up quite brave and said, oh, no, my mom and dad will sit on the front row.
CHICKERING: After high school, Simone left Tryon for New York, where she continued training. But her dreams of a classical piano career took a detour, and she landed a job singing jazz in a nightclub under the name Nina Simone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I PUT A SPELL ON YOU")
SIMONE: (Singing) No, I ain't lying.
CHICKERING: The moniker stuck and fame soon followed. And like that childhood piano recital, Simone used the stage to speak out against discrimination.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM")
SIMONE: (Singing) Everybody knows about Mississippi. Can't you see it? I know you can feel it. It's all in the air.
CHICKERING: Woven throughout it all a complicated and often troubled personal life, which would take its toll on Simone and her career. She eventually moved to France, where she lived until her death at 70, far away but not forgotten by her North Carolina home town. Residents who knew her and many more who didn't have worked to preserve her legacy, rescuing and restoring her childhood home with hopes of creating a museum. But tough economic times stalled that effort, and the house was put on the market in December. Real estate agent Cindy Viehman worked with the seller to find just the right buyer.
What was it like showing a piece of history?
CINDY VIEHMAN: In this case the house sold itself. It was more of just trying to convey what we hope would happen and that this would be a preserved piece of history.
CHICKERING: A message that resonated with New York artist Adam Pendleton. Speaking by Skype, Pendleton said he learned about the house from a Tryon art connection and worked with three other artists to make an offer.
ADAM PENDLETON: What a great opportunity to step up and protect something that has such significant symbolic importance that can serve to represent, I think, in a profound way all that Nina Simone has meant and means for American culture.
CHICKERING: The sale to the four artists has stirred excitement in the tiny town of 1,800. Happy McLeod is helping set up a Simone exhibit at the Tryon Historical Museum.
MCLEOD: And it's just wonderful to have people from out of the community come in and realize, hey, this is worth preserving.
CHICKERING: For now, the new homeowners from New York are grappling with how to get the grass mowed and leaky roof fixed. Pendleton says they plan to tap into their creativity and connect with the community as they figure out how to tell the story of the small wooden house perched on a hill and the musical legend who was born there. For NPR News, I'm Helen Chickering in Tryon, N.C.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH I KNEW HOW IT WOULD FEEL TO BE FREE")
SIMONE: (Singing) I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.