She was a Grammy nominee, a Dora Award winner and a member of the Order of Canada. But above all, Salome Bey was widely and affectionately known as “Canada’s first lady of the blues,” with a voice filled with sincerity and soul and a presence that nurtured a cohort of young artists.
The American-born Canadian singer-songwriter, composer and actress was a legend in life thanks to her contributions to both music and theatre, in the studio and on stage. Bey died on Aug. 8 in Toronto, according to the family’s publicist. She was 86.
Born in Newark, N.J., in 1933, Bey began her career with Andy and the Bey Sisters, a vocal group with her brother Andy and sister Geraldine that toured in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. In 1964, Bey moved to Toronto and joined the jazz club circuit, where she quickly made a mark on the local music scene and earned the sobriquet that stuck for the rest of her life.
Bey released her self-titled debut album in 1970 and recorded two albums with pianist Horace Silver in 1972. She also released live albums with the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir and at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Bey had success in musical theatre as well, first releasing the album Salome Bey Sings Songs from Dude in 1972, after starring in the Galt MacDermot play. Then, she earned a Grammy nomination for her work on the cast album of the Broadway production Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. She won an Obie Award for the off-Broadway show Justine and she won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards for writing and starring in Indigo, a cabaret about the history of Black music.
Her children’s musical Rainboworld, presented at the Toronto Young People’s Theatre in 1988, is known for helping to nurture the careers of many young Black Canadian artists, including award-winning soul singer Divine Brown.
Bey also took part in the 1985 charity single Tears Are Not Enough, featuring a Canadian supergroup of artists including Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Bryan Adams who came together to raise funds for the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine.
Bey’s commitment to Canada’s arts community was formally recognized with a Toronto Arts Award in 1992 and with the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for lifetime achievement from the Black Theatre Workshop of Montreal in 1996. She was made an honorary member of the Order of Canada in 2005.
Bey was an outspoken advocate of gender equality and a member of the Canadian charity Artists Against Racism.
Later in her career, Bey would perform with her daughters tUkU and SATE as Salome Bey & the Relatives.
Growing up in #Ottawa in the 1970s #SalomeBey was a legend in our household… a veritable superstar. We were all so proud of her. We admired her talent and strength and dignity and conviction. She was one of us…ours. R.I.P.
— Adrian Harewood (@CBCAdrianH) August 10, 2020
Now #SalomeBey leaves us 😢 Jazz & blues legend for sure, but theatre legend also: Spring Thaw, Indigo, Your Arm’s Too Short To Box With God, and Once on this Island.
I sang w/ Salome in Rainboworld and you could feel her warmth before she walked in the room. RIP, Earth Mother. pic.twitter.com/JiYZb7rust
— Ryan G. Hinds (@ryanghinds) August 9, 2020
R.I.P. Salome Bey, a true Canadian legend. Salome Bey was known as “Canada’s First Lady of the Blues”. The Grammy-nominated, Dora Mavor Moore and Obie Award-winning artist was an honorary member of the Order of Canada. pic.twitter.com/j2SaQi4VaK
— AfroToronto (@afrotoronto) August 10, 2020