SINGING SONGS TO HAVE A SAY: THE STORY OF SALOME BEY
On the morning of November 10th 1933 Newark, New Jersey saw a number of births take place. Amongst these, singer Salome Bey came into the world. Born into a musical family, Bey and her siblings (Andy Bey and Geraldine Bey) would nurse a love for singing and music in their youth; performing at school, in church and for family and friends at parties.
As their teen years wore on and their talents grew, they'd christen themselves "Andy & The Bey Sisters," in 1957. Salome was a student at the well-known Arts High, the performing arts high school also responsible for producing jazz greats Wayne Shorter and Sarah Vaughan. They got their professional start performing in local New Jersey clubs. As their reputation grew however, they'd have the opportunity to perform throughout the U.S.A. and even perform briefly in Europe.
While on tour with her siblings in early 1962, she'd make her first appearance in Toronto; performing at the Colonial Tavern on Yonge Street among other clubs while spending a few weeks there. Before a gig, their drummer had a problem and was unable to perform. They had recently heard about a local jazz drummer Archie Alleyne, who it so happened was a few blocks away relaxing at the “First Floor Club.” Salome Bey showed up with her brother and sister looking for Archie, and at the door encountered one of the club's owners, Howard Matthews. "Howard saw Salome and it was like in the cartoons," recalls the drummer, Archie Alleyne. "All of a sudden, cupid and the hearts start floating around."
You could say this was an impactful visit, one that would ultimately convince her to stay. So began an attraction that blossomed into a lifelong partnership. For over 40 years, Bey and Matthews prevailed as the power couple who led the way in promoting black culture and black history.
She began appearing on the jazz and blues club circuit as a solo performer in Toronto over the following few years. She established herself as a formidable singing talent and appeared on a number of local music TV shows. Her un-paralleled stage presence and powerful voice made her a perfect fit for musicals.
Her earliest performances in musicals were at Toronto's "Global Village Theatre" in the Robert Swerdlow revues Blue S.A. (1969) and Justine (1970). Swerdlow was the founder of the establishment and artistic director for seven years. This theatre employed a few dozen performing artists and produced over one hundred original Canadian theatre pieces and dance works between 1969 and 1976, including Toronto’s first permanent production of Michele Tremblay’s Hosanna.
In 1970, given the glowing revues of the plays she performed in as well as her continued success as a solo performer, she recorded an album for CBC's LM Transcription series; featuring a number of songs written by Robert Swerdlow for his plays. She'd then release an album for Quality Records later that same year (also licensed to Canadian Talent Library and reissued on Pickwick in 1980).
The following years saw her spend some time in New York, making brief returns to Toronto. She was in demand for a number of musicals; having won an Obie for her 1971-1972 performance of Justine in New York. She'd go on to perform in the New York production of Justine (renamed Love Me, Love My Children), Galt MacDermot's Dude (New York 1972), Micki Grant and Edward Padula's Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope (Toronto 1973, Washington 1974); and in Alex Bradford's Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (New York 1975-77). She was nominated for a Grammy Award for her work on the cast album of the latter production.
While in New York in 1972, she recorded an album of songs from Galt MacDermot's "Dude," to capitalize on the success of the musical in the city at the time. This album had minor chart success in the US and Canada. In 1976, she would team up with American Funk band Brotherhood and release the lone 45 "The Real Thing."
The latter half of the 70's saw Salome Bey perform across Canada and the U.S. in theatre as well as becoming one of the top performers on the Jazz and blues circuit. She put together a blues & jazz cabaret show on the history of black music; which she wrote and starred in and featured an exclusively black cast and crew. This show was titled Indigo and released in 1978. It received rave reviews, being played to sold out crowds for multiple years, as well as earning her two Dora Mavor Moore Awards for outstanding performance. Indigo was widely credited with breaking ground for Black theater performers in Canada. The show was later taped for CBC-TV in 1984.
As the 1980's began she was courted to appear at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1981. The Montreux Jazz Festival (formerly Festival de Jazz Montreux and Festival International de Jazz Montreux) is a music festival in Switzerland, held annually in early July in Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline. It is the second largest annual jazz festival in the world after Canada's Montreal International Jazz Festival, and has been running since 1967. Her performance received rave reviews and an album was recorded and released back in Canada later that year.
In 1985, Salome was part of the Canadian super group “Northern Lights” which performed the charity single "Tears Are Not Enough." Bey can be seen in the music video for the song singing the line "Every woman, child and man" with Mark Holmes of Platinum Blonde and Lorraine Segato of The Parachute Club.
Her revue Shimmytime (about Ethel Waters) was produced at Basin Street in 1983. A similar production, Madame Gertrude (about Ma Rainey, played by Jackie Richardson), followed there in 1985, and Bey's children's musical, Rainboworld, was presented at the Young People's Theatre in 1988. She also took other musical and/or dramatic roles - eg, in Thunder, Perfect Mind (Toronto Free Theatre, 1985); Mother Goose (Royal Alexandra Theatre, 1985); and Coming Through Slaughter (Silver Dollar Tavern, 1989).
Salome Bey continued to appear in concert (including many benefits), in clubs, and on radio and TV. She’d appear often with her daughters Jacintha Tuku and Saidah Baba Talibah who, with other musicians, accompanied her as the Relatives.
She sang for Canada Day celebrations at Ontario Place, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and at Expo 86, and is known for her stirring interpretation of 'Mon Pays,' a song she sang first in the 1970 Spring Thaw.
She’d return to performing in 1990 in Canada and ultimately recorded two more albums in the 1990’s; I Like Your Company in 1992 and Christmas Blue in 1995 as Salome Bey & The Relatives. Bey starred in CBC TV's 1995 holiday special "Salome Bey's Christmas Soul."
In 1996, Bey received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for lifetime achievement from the Black Theatre Workshop of Montreal, and in 2005 she was made an honorary member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s second highest civilian honour.
Salome Bey was one of our most talented vocalists. Although not Canadian by birth, she made Canada her home, and was beloved across the country. Her strides in the black community and towards more widespread appreciation of black culture and art are one’s that should be celebrated. Her music and spirit lives on.
WRITTEN & RESEARCHED BY: AARON LUSCH