(February 10, 2008) They met at the First Floor Club, an upstairs after-hours spot near Yorkville.
Singer Salome Bey showed up with her brother and sister looking for a jazz drummer they had heard about, 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."
So began an attraction that blossomed into a lifelong partnership that enriched the entire city. For more than 30 years – from the mid-1960s – Bey and Matthews prevailed as the power couple who led the way in promoting black culture and black history, and helping young, black people feel good about themselves.
Now less mobile and in their 70s, they are to be honoured tonight at one of the city's premier Black History Month events – Many Rivers to Cross, a music revue starring Joe Sealy and the couple's daughter Saidah Baba Talibah at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
"From the very beginning, everything they did was done as a couple," says blues singer and long-time friend Jackie Richardson.
"I love those two," says singer and one-time protégé Molly Johnson. "They came to Toronto and made stuff happen."
Matthews arrived in 1947, when he was 12, from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. By the late 1950s, he had co-founded the First Floor Club, in a coach house just east of where the Toronto Reference Library now stands.
Later he turned the Kibitzeria restaurant, near the University of Toronto, into a blues club, and from 1969 to 1979 helped run the restaurant he remains best known for – the Underground Railroad.
"Toronto's first soul food restaurant," recalls Alleyne, one of four partners in the business along with two former Argonauts football stars, quarterback John Henry Jackson and kicker Dave Mann.
"Southern fried chicken, barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas and collard greens," Alleyne says of the menu. "We started on Bloor St. with 60 seats and two years later moved to King St. E., with 200. That place was popular."
Bey grew up in Newark, N.J.
With her brother Andy and sister Geraldine, she began touring in 1957 as Andy and the Bey Sisters, appearing in Toronto the first time in 1961, when she met Matthews.
Afterwards, the singer and club owner kept in touch through letters, Valentines and long-distance phone calls.
"We shared a house on Church St.," Alleyne says of Matthews. "One evening when I left for work, Howard was talking on the phone to Salome, and I when I got home around one in the morning he was lying in bed with the phone still stuck to his ear.
"I said, `Howard, Howard, what happened?'"
"He said, `Oh! She sang me to sleep.'"
In 1964, Bey moved to Toronto to be with Matthews. She began a solo career and he served as manager.
"In the 1960s and 1970s, she was sort of a focal point, always driving something," says Bill King, a jazz pianist and artistic director of the Beaches jazz festival. "A lot of it was black awareness, especially getting young people to know who they were and what their history is.
"She didn't come out with a four-piece," King says. "She came onstage with 14, 15 people, a lot them black kids from the community, singing."
Bey forged her own direction. More than club shows, she performed in revues and stage productions, and by the late 1970s she was writing her own.
In 1978, she wrote and starred in Indigo, a history of the blues. In 1983, she created Shimmytime, about jazz and blues singer Ethel Waters. In 1985, Bey wrote Madame Gertrude, about blues singer Ma Rainey, and persuaded Jackie Richardson to take the lead role.
"She is Mother Earth," Richardson says of Bey. "She has such depth in her voice, such depth within her soul... She is so rooted, so earthy with it."
Bey and Matthews raised three children. Their son Marcus lives in St. Kitts. Their two daughters, Saidah Baba Talibah and Jacintha Tuku Matthews, are Toronto singers.