Salome Bey, the American-born, Canadian singer-songwriter, composer, and actress who was affectionately known as “Canada’s First Lady of the Blues” has died at age 86, August 8th, 2020.
Born Salome Bey on October 10th, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, the Grammy Award-nominated singer sang with her brother Andy and sister Geraldine as Andy & the Bey Sisters across the US, Europe and Canada before relocating to Toronto in 1964. A larger than life arts and culture figure whose artistic output and influence was felt across the world, in both music and theatre, her broad list of multi-disciplinary art achievements and accolades was unprecedented, and included two album projects with Horace Silver; two Dora Mavor Moore awards for Indigo, a history of black music she conceived, wrote and starred in; a Grammy nomination for Your Arms Too Short to Box with God for Best Cast Recording; and an Obie Award in 1972 for Justine. Bey was made an honorary member of the Order of Canada in 2005.
Born to a working-class African-American family in Newark, Bey was one of nine children, and attended Arts High, the well-known Newark high school that was also responsible for producing jazz greats like Wayne Shorter and Sarah Vaughan. She formed a vocal group with her brother Andy Bey and sister Geraldine Bey (de Haas), known as Andy and the Bey Sisters, who subsequently performed in establishments across the globe, toured North America and Europe, and recorded and released albums on the RCA Victor and Prestige record labels. Their debut self-titled album Andy and The Bey Sisters was produced by iconic country music star Chet Atkins; in addition, the group was featured in the Chet Baker film Let’s Get Lost.
After moving to Toronto in 1964 and playing the jazz club circuit, she became known as “Canada’s First Lady of the Blues”. Bey appeared on Broadway in Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, where she earned a Grammy Award nomination for her work on the cast album. She also put together a cabaret show on the history of black music, Indigo, which garnered her two Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Performance in a Revue or Musical and Outstanding Production of a Cabaret or Revue. Indigo was later filmed for TV and aired on Superchannel and later on CBC. Bey also recorded two albums with famed jazz pianist Horace Silver, and released live albums of her performances with the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir and at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Legendary hip-hop producer Larry Smith (Run DMC) played bass for Salome Bey during the late 70s and early 80s.
Known for her extensive community and charitable works, Bey contributed vocals to the 1985 charity single “Tears Are Not Enough” recorded by a supergroup of Canadian artists, that included Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Burton Cummings, Bryan Adams, Bruce Cockburn, Geddy Lee, Kim Mitchell and others, under the name Northern Lights, to raise funds for relief of the 1983-85 famine in Ethiopia. Bey cultivated a consistent and dedicated path to mentoring young up-and-coming artists, and her musical theatre work entitled Rainboworld provided a foundation for young artists to develop their skills and explore issues of the world through music, dance and theatre. This work nurtured a long, extensive list of black Canadian artists such as Deborah Cox, Divine Brown, Orin Isaacs, Simone Denny, and Shantall Young among many others. In 1992 she received the Toronto Arts Award for her contributions to the performing arts, and in 1996 she received the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for lifetime achievement from the Black Theatre Workshop of Montreal.
Bey’s holiday special Salome Bey’s Christmas Soul aired on CBC and featured guests Maureen Forrester, Billy Newton-Davis, Molly Johnson, Jackie Richardson, and the Faith Chorale Gospel Choir. Bey continued to appear in concert, often appearing with her daughters tUkU and SATE who, with other musicians, were known as Salome Bey & the Relatives. Salome started showing signs of dementia in 2004 and had been residing at Lakeside long-term care facility until her eventual passing. In 2018, Bey was celebrated in the 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women project created by The Honourable Jean Augustine. Bey’s late husband, Howard Berkeley Matthews, was one of the original founders and co-owners of The Underground Railroad, a historic eatery in the black community from 1969 to 1979. She is survived by her three children, daughters; singer SATE and singer/performance artist tUkU, and son Marcus Matthews.
To honor Salome Bey’s life and memory, her family kindly asks that you donate to The Freedom School Toronto (email e-transfers can be sent directly to trustee: karen@childrenspeacetheatre.
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