Award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter Salome Bey — affectionately known as Canada’s “First Lady of the Blues” — has died.
The Grammy-nominated Bey was a multi-disciplinary performer and honourary member of the Order of Canada who achieved legendary status during her life due to contributions in both music and theatre.
Bey died Saturday, Aug. 8 in Toronto, at age 86, according to the family’s publicist. No cause of death was given, but the family’s release said the singer began showing signs of dementia in 2004.
Born in Newark, N.J., Bey 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. Together with her brother Andy Bey and sister Geraldine Bey, she toured the United States and Europe as vocal group Andy and the Bey Sisters.
After making their first appearance in Toronto in 1961, Salome settled there in 1964 and began playing the jazz club circuit, soon earning the sobriquet that would be with her the rest of her life: “Canada’s First Lady of the Blues.”
Contributions to music, theatre, TV
Bey also saw success on the stage, receiving a Grammy nomination for her work on the cast album of the Broadway play Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. Indigo — a cabaret show on the history of the blues that she conceived, wrote and starred in — garnered her two Dora Mavor Moore awards, and was later filmed for TV, airing on CBC in 1984.
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. <a href=”https://t.co/j2SaQi4VaK”>pic.twitter.com/j2SaQi4VaK</a>
RIP Salome Bey, a voice often heard in our house growing up. Miigwetch for all of the amazing music and for being an inspiration to me and so many.
She continued working and releasing music through the coming decades, and added vocals for the 1985 charity single Tears Are Not Enough, which brought together some of Canada’s premier entertainers to contribute to the We Are The World album in aid of Ethiopian famine relief.
Bey also created and appeared in numerous other productions, such as Justine (later renamed Love Me, Love My Children), Galt MacDermot’s Dude, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope and the children’s musical Rainboworld. This last production helped nurture and launch the career of many young Black Canadian artists, such as Deborah Cox and Divine Brown.
Now <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/SalomeBey?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#SalomeBey</a> 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.<br><br>I sang w/ Salome in Rainboworld and you could feel her warmth before she walked in the room. RIP, Earth Mother. <a href=”https://t.co/JiYZb7rust”>pic.twitter.com/JiYZb7rust</a>
Later in life, Bey would often appear with her daughters Jacintha Tuku and Toronto vocalist and songwriter SATE — formerly known as Saidah Baba Talibah — who would accompany her as the Relatives. In 1996, Bey received the Martin Luther King Jr. award for lifetime achievement from the Black Theatre Workshop of Montreal, Canada’s longest-running Black theatre company.
In 2005, she was made an honorary member of the Order of Canada.
Bey’s late husband, Howard Berkeley Matthews, was one of the original founders and owners of The Underground Railroad, a famous restaurant on Toronto’s Bloor Street East focused on serving the city’s Black community.
Bey is survived by her two daughters and son, Marcus Matthews.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.