Loading articles...

Singer Salome Bey, known as Canada's first lady of the blues, dies at age 86

Singer Salome Bey, known as Canada's first lady of the blues, has died. She was 86. Bey is seen in an undated family handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Graham Bezant

To audiences, singer Salome Bey was billed as Canada’s first lady of the blues.

But among the Canadian artists she helped nurture, she was better known as “Mother Earth,” her demeanour as soulful and sincere as the voice that won her success both in the studio and onstage.

Bey, who began showing signs of dementia in 2004, died early Saturday morning at the Lakeside Long-Term Care Centre in Toronto, according to the family’s publicist. She was 86.

Singer and actor Jackie Richardson, who describes Bey as a mentor and “sister,” says her contributions to Canadian culture will live on in both the body of work she leaves behind and the talent she lifted up along the way.

“She definitely was an ambassador of what is wonderful and beautiful in our community of artists,” Richardson said by phone Monday.

“Salome was a bottomless pit of soul, the best in human values and being willing always to be that rock for those that needed a rock. That’s Mother Earth.”

Born in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 10, 1933, Bey toured the U.S., Europe and Canada as part of the sibling act Andy & the Bey Sisters.

In 1964, Bey moved to Toronto where she played the jazz club circuit, and soon made her mark on Canada’s music and theatre scenes.

She recorded two albums with renowned jazz pianist Horace Silver, and released albums of her live performances with the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir and at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Bey also lent her vocal talents to the 1985 charity single, “Tears Are Not Enough,” as part of a Canadian supergroup that featured such artists as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Bryan Adams. Produced by David Foster, the star-studded song aimed to raise funds for 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine.

She also earned a Grammy nomination for her work on the cast album of the Broadway show, “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.” Other musical theatre credits include the 1972 off-Broadway show, “Justine,” for which she won an Obie Award.

Bey wrote and starred in “Indigo,” a cabaret about the history of Black music. The show, which won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards, was broadcast on CBC TV in 1984.

Richardson said Bey’s relentless work ethic, and the results onstage, served as an inspiration to countless artists coming up behind her.

Bey took on the role of teacher with her typical generosity and grace, Richardson said.

Her children’s musical, “Rainboworld,” served as a launching pad for many young up-and-comers on their path to stardom, including award-winning soul singer Divine Brown.

“I got my feet wet literally through the opportunities that she presented to me at the very ripe age of 12,” Brown said in a phone interview.

“She played that role for a lot of young, aspiring Black singers in this city.”

Bey’s commitment to Canada’s creative community won her a 1992 Toronto Arts Award, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for lifetime achievement from the Black Theatre Workshop of Montreal in 1996.

In 2005, Bey was made an honorary member of the Order of Canada, which Richardson sees as an acknowledgment of her status as a national treasure.

“She definitely was that Canadian star,” Richardson said. “She belongs beside all the greatest of the musicians internationally.”

Bey is survived by her two daughters, the singer SATE and performance artist tUkU, and son Marcus Matthews.