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BELTONE STUDIOS,  4 West 31st Street

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By the early 1900s Manhattan's Theater District had begun to move north to the area around Herald Square, where the opening of Macy’s department store, and the construction of Pennsylvania Station signaled the arrival of New York’s Gilded Age.

 

As author Maxwell Marcuse noted, “All the world came to Broadway to shop, to flirt, to dine, to gamble, to find amusement and to meet acquaintances...” 

 

The Hotel Wolcott, located just off Broadway on 31st Street, opened on May 1, 1904.

 

With its audacious Beaux-Arts exterior and Louis XIV-style lobby, the hotel was designed to cater to the wealthiest and most demanding of guests.

 

A brochure at the time of the opening boasted a bathroom in every suite, the freshness of the Cape Cod oysters, and “little chickens that come unplucked from the Jersey farms,” served in the restaurant.

 

“There is always a servant glad to do just what you want done, in just the way you want it done, at your command on the instant."

 

Past Guests include Henry Miller, Edith Wharton, and Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain.

 

By the 1950’s, the hotel’s Ballroom was being used as a recording studio. The large room with plaster walls had a natural echo, and an hourly rate of $20 made it popular with the city’s independent record labels.

Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers discussing a recording session at Hotel Walcott, September 30th 1958 

© Pictoral Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Publicity photograph of Nina Simone, New York City 1955

© JP Jazz Archive/Getty Images

Eunice Kathleen Waymon aspired to be a concert pianist, playing piano before her feet could reach the pedals. By the age of six, she was playing during her mother’s church services. 

 

Having earned a scholarship for a one-year program at the Juilliard School in New York City, Waymon used her time there to prepare for the entrance exam to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Curtis refused her application.

 

“I knew I was good enough, but they turned me down.” said Waymon. “It took me about six months to realize it was because I was Black. I never really got over that jolt of racism at the time,” 

 

Waymon began playing piano at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City to pay the rent while she continued private study. Fearing her mother would find out she was playing “the devil’s music”, she adopted a stage name, Nina (a nickname from a former boyfriend) and Simone (after the French actress Simone Signoret). She was promptly told by the owner that she had to sing as well, otherwise she’d lose her job.

 

Simone’s reputation grew quickly as she took popular songs of the time and gave them unique interpretations in jazz, blues, and classical music.

 

Sid Nathan, owner of Bethlehem Records, offered Simone a record deal, presenting her with a list of songs for her to sing and a list of musicians to record with. Simone refused.

 

“I wasn’t interested in being famous, and I didn't think being a singer was any big thing,” said Simone.

 

Nathan relented, allowing Simone to record whatever she wanted, as long as she left the next day to go to the studio.

In December 1957, 25-year-old Simone recorded 14 songs in a 13-hour session at Beltone Studios at the Wolcott Hotel. Each track was recorded in one take. 

 

“​​I went into the studio and recorded my songs exactly as I always played them, so when you listen to that Bethlehem album you’re hearing the songs played as they were at the Midtown Bar.”

 

Simone signed away the rights to the recordings for $3000 and spent the next three days playing Beethoven "to get the recording session out of my system.”

 

11 tracks were released as an album, “Little Girl Blue”, in February 1958, showcasing Simone’s sensual and soulful voice, combined with a virtuoso piano performance that uniquely blended jazz, gospel, and blues with her classical training. Simone even inserts a Bach-influenced fugue into the title track.

 

Her plaintive, heartbreaking performance of Gershwin’s “I Love You, Porgy” was released as a single in June 1959, reaching number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100, the only top 20 hit she would have.

 

In the early 1960s, Simone’s music became more political as she aligned herself with the with the Black Nationalism and Black Power movements.

 

The iconic protest songs “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” in 1967, and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” in 1969, became the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement.

 

"An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times,” said Simone.

 

In April 2003, The Curtis Institute of Music awarded Simone an honorary doctorate in music and humanities. Two days later she passed away.

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By the early 2000s, the Wolcott was operating as a two-star budget hotel. A complimentary breakfast of coffee and muffins was served from a table in the lobby. The ballroom was used as storage space.

 

In March 2020, the Hotel contracted with the city to become a temporary shelter for homeless prisoners on early release due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

 

The program was abruptly ended in March 2022 in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by a sudden influx of immigrants entering New York City, many of whom crossed the US Southern border seeking asylum.

 

Today the Hotel Wolcott serves as a “humanitarian relief center” providing temporary shelter, food, medical care, and casework assistance.

 

Today the Hotel serves as temporary shelter for 175 immigrant families.

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