In October of 1978, Salome Bey won over a lily-white Toronto with a little cabaret show that proved to be a game-changer for the city’s Black artists. The show was Indigo, a lively dive into the history of the blues, and its creator-star, Ms. Bey, was a radiant lady whose shy demeanour and irresistible gap-toothed grin belied a fierce talent both on and off the stage.
In a city where, at the time, local African-Canadian singers and musicians had to struggle to be seen, Ms. Bey was determined to put on an all-Black revue and raised the money herself to stage it. Not that she was lacking in clout: She was fresh from starring on Broadway in the Tony- and Grammy-nominated gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. She even brought in that show’s keyboardist, Denzil A. Miller Jr., to serve as Indigo’s arranger.
Presented in a small downtown cabaret space called Basin Street, above the popular Bourbon Street jazz club, Indigo became a word-of-mouth sensation, playing to sold-out houses and attracting visiting celebrities. One evening, a beguiled Shirley MacLaine even jumped onstage and proceeded to swoon to the balladry of singer Rudy Webb. Although a mooted New York transfer never materialized, the show ran for 13 months, won a couple of Dora Mavor Moore Awards and later aired on CBC Television. More significant, though, was the change it wrought.
“It was a watershed moment for Black talent in Toronto,” said Ms. Bey’s long-time friend and colleague Daryl Auwai, who was Indigo’s production manager. “Until Salome did that show, we were scrambling for jobs. Suddenly, everybody wanted us.”
It was emblematic of the impact she had during her trailblazing career. Ms. Bey, who died on Aug. 8 at the age of 86, was a powerful influence on generations of younger Black artists. Her protegés are legion.
“I literally would not be where I am without Salome,” said singer-actor Shakura S’Aida, who got her start stage managing one of Ms. Bey’s self-produced shows. “I got to see a Black woman creating something from scratch and then making sure that it stayed true to her vision.”
“She was a true example of fearlessness and being an independent artist,” said Billboard-topping R&B vocalist Deborah Cox, who first performed alongside Ms. Bey as a teenager. “She was so unapologetic in her Blackness. Letting everyone know and understand that Blackness was to be celebrated and not just tolerated.”
Indeed, Ms. Bey wore her African features proudly, refusing to process her hair or otherwise “whiten” her looks for more commercial appeal. Juno Award winner Divine Brown recalled seeing her face in ads for Indigo as a little girl and being inspired. “I remember thinking, ‘Here’s someone who looks like me! I want to be like her.’”
Determined to make work for herself and others, Ms. Bey in the latter half of her career wore many hats: producer, director, composer, actor. But she was always, first and foremost, a singer. Dubbed “Canada’s First Lady of the Blues,” she also sang jazz, soul, funk, gospel, even pop – in 1985, she lent her passionate voice to Tears Are Not Enough, the all-star Canadian single for Ethiopian famine relief, singing alongside the likes of Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
Veteran blues singer Jackie Richardson, who worked with her many times, said she never got over listening to Ms. Bey’s throaty contralto: “She brought the whole depth of her soul to her singing. And she was so free in her phrasing! There would be that sense of humour in it, or those growls, or that deep, deep sadness in songs like [Duke Ellington’s] Solitude. I always thought, my goodness, we’re blessed to be in this beautiful soul’s presence – she was that amazing.”
It was as a singer that a young Salome Bey first made her mark. She was born Salome Wideman on Oct. 10, 1933, in Newark, N.J., one of nine children, to working-class couple Victoria (née Johnson) and Andrew Pierce Wideman. After attending Newark’s venerable Arts High, she embarked on a singing career in 1956 with her younger sister Geraldine and their teenage brother, Andrew. As Andy and the Bey Sisters, the trio toured Europe to great success (they can be seen scatting delightfully for a Paris audience in the Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost) and cut three albums during the early 1960s.
In 1961, the Beys played Toronto, where Salome met and fell in love with local club owner Howard Berkeley Matthews. The couple were married at Toronto City Hall on April 7, 1964, and Salome settled in Canada. The Bey trio broke up a few years later (Andy Bey went on to a distinguished solo career as a jazz singer and pianist) and Salome plunged into Yorkville’s legendary music scene. She released her first, self-titled solo album in 1970.
Before long, she and her husband became a major force in the local community, vibrant symbols of Black pride. While Ms. Bey was injecting soul music into the white-bread CBC specials of Wayne & Shuster and Anne Murray, Mr. Matthews started up the Underground Railroad, Toronto’s first soul food restaurant. Co-owned with football players John Henry Jackson and Dave Mann of the Toronto Argonauts, and jazz drummer Archie Alleyne, it paid homage to the historic escape route for African-American slaves fleeing to Canada. “It became an institution,” recalled Mr. Auwai of the downtown eatery, which served up fried chicken and collard greens to both Black and white patrons on King Street East throughout the 1970s.
In that decade, Ms. Bey segued into theatre and soon made a splash. She starred in the musical Love Me, Love My Children, which launched in Toronto (under the title Justine) before running off-Broadway and winning her an Obie Award in 1972. That same year, she made her Broadway debut in the disastrous Dude, Galt MacDermot and Gerome Ragni’s ill-fated follow-up to their landmark rock musical Hair. But her next Broadway show was a hit. Your Arms Too Short to Box with God was the Black answer to Godspell, a gospel-music retelling of the life of Christ in which Ms. Bey sang the role of Mary. It opened in 1976 and ran for more than a year, while its original cast album garnered a Grammy Award nomination.
In all three shows, Ms. Bey portrayed a mother figure – indeed, in both Love Me, Love My Children and Dude she was a character called Mother Earth. It was a role in which she was frequently typecast. However, when it came time to create her own work, Ms. Bey ditched the maternal pigeonhole. For Indigo, she channelled those sultry blues chanteuses Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, parodied diva Diana Ross and got down-and-dirty on risqué songs like Ethel Waters’ My Handy Man. For fans, and Ms. Bey herself, it was something of a revelation: “I’ve never performed like this before,” she confessed to Maclean’s magazine in 1979. “I guess I’m just wild now.”
Indigo’s success led her to create two more blues-themed shows for the Basin Street venue: Shimmytime (1983) – a full-on salute to Waters – and Madame Gertrude (1985), which focused on the iconic Ma Rainey. For the latter role, she presciently cast Ms. Richardson, who until then had never sung the blues.
Ms. Bey was always encouraging fledgling talent and giving them that necessary push so they could fly. That was especially evident in her next effort, the children’s musical Rainboworld, whose young participants included such future stars as Ms. Cox and Ms. Brown. Perhaps Ms. Bey’s most ambitious project, she composed all its songs and cast the show with kids of all ages, races and religions to bring home a message about diversity and universality.
“Salome was not just ahead of her time, she was ahead of all of our times,” Ms. S’Aida said, noting how the show, which premiered in 1988, brought Toronto’s many different communities together. “It was the first time I’d ever been exposed to the Indigenous community, because of Salome.”
That show was especially dear to Ms. Bey’s heart. Ms. Richardson, the lone adult in the cast, played a bag lady who was secretly the ruler of Rainboworld, a place where troubled kids found refuge and empowerment. “It was a space to trust and be safe in and realize your worth,” Ms. Richardson said. “To me, that speaks of Salome to the bones. Her beliefs were all through Rainboworld, along with her love of other human beings.”
Ms. Bey particularly loved young people. She and Mr. Matthews had three children: Jacintha Tuku (now performance artist tUkU), Saidah Baba Talibah (now singer-songwriter SATE) and son Marcus, whom they adopted from Mr. Matthews’s native island, St. Kitts. She often said that her family took precedence over her career, but she frequently found a way to blend both, performing alongside her daughters as Salome Bey and the Relatives.
Ms. Bey also did charity concerts with her extended family of Rainboworld alumni. Ms. Cox especially remembered the time they sang for Nelson Mandela when he first visited Toronto in 1990, just months after his release from prison. Ms. Bey always made sure they got the most out of such occasions. “She used to always tell us to ‘take it all in.’ Don’t miss the moment, stay present,” Ms. Cox said.
“I get very serious where children are concerned,” Ms. Bey told a CBC Television interviewer in 1978. Ms. Richardson saw that time and again. “She listened to the kids who were having troubles in their personal lives,” she said. “She’d have a bunch of them over at the house, staying for weeks on end.”
In 1995, Ms. Bey formed her own record label, Rainbowhirl, and released a holiday album with her daughters, Christmas Blue, tied in with a CBC TV special, Salome Bey’s Christmas Soul. It was another take-charge initiative – Ms. Bey’s recording history up to then had been sporadic. Her prior releases included a 1979 live album of European gigs and a collection of jazz standards and original songs, I Like Your Company, issued in 1992.
Ms. Bey’s lifetime achievements were recognized with a 1992 Toronto Arts Award and the 1996 Martin Luther King Jr. Award from Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop. In 2005, she was named an honorary member of the Order of Canada.
By then, both Ms. Bey and Mr. Matthews were suffering from ill health – she with dementia, he with aphasia. Mr. Matthews predeceased Ms. Bey in 2016 and her last public appearance was at his memorial. She died at the Lakeside Long-Term Care Centre in Toronto. She leaves her daughters, tUkU and SATE; son, Marcus Matthews; sister, Geraldine de Haas; brother, Andy Bey; and four grandchildren.
Ms. Bey has often been praised as a matriarch to Canada’s Black artists. But Ms. S’Aida believes her many facets shouldn’t be reduced to the facile racial stereotype of the Black mama. “Salome raised us all, but she didn’t raise us as a mother,” she said. “She did it as a fully realized woman, teaching us to step into our power and own it.”