On April 22, 2022, Canada Post will launch a new commemorative stamp to honour the legendary Salome Bey. Fans of the acclaimed singer know her as Canada’s First Lady of the Blues, but Bey’s legacy far exceeds the title.
Initially, Bey – who was born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey – intended to become a lawyer. But after spending time studying law at Rutgers University, she decided to dedicate her life to performance where she felt she could make a greater impact on a larger number of people.
She began her musical career in the 1950s touring North America and Europe with her brother and sister as Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters. In the early 1960s – after meeting her future husband, Howard Matthews, in Toronto – she made Canada her home and went on to pursue a solo career.
The pair became leaders in the Black artist community, hosting local and touring performers in their home, which was always filled with music. It was here, in Canada, that Bey flourished creatively. She began writing songs, testing new boundaries and constantly evolving herself as an artist.
Writer, producer, director, mentor
Bey started appearing in musicals, such as the off-Broadway Love Me, Love My Children (Justine in Canada), for which she earned an Obie Award in 1972, and Broadway’s Tony Award–winning Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, which earned her and other performers a Grammy nomination for the original cast recording.
Among her many achievements, she wrote and starred in Indigo, a revue celebrating the history of Black music. Running from 1978 to 1980 to sold-out audiences, the show was a critical hit. It earned her two Dora Mavor Moore Awards, and was later brought to TV, airing on CBC in 1984. Featuring an all-Black cast, the show fulfilled her desire to create more meaningful opportunities for Black artists.
“I ended up doing several different pieces in Indigo and I just felt like wow she really loves what I do. She made me feel exceptional and that I had the talent and ability to perform these works,” says four-time Juno Award Winner, Vocalist Billy Newton-Davis. “She instilled that in me, that I was worthy.”
After Indigo, Bey went on to write more theatre productions. She wrote and starred in Shimmytime (1983) about American performer Ethel Waters, and she wrote and directed Madame Gertrude (1985) about blues legend Ma Rainey.
Her beloved children’s musical Rainboworld – which in 1988 was performed at the Young People’s Theatre – featured a cast of more than 40 children. Many in the diverse young cast got their first taste of performing through the show and Bey thrust herself into a mentoring role. Several of the performers would go on to have successful careers in the arts.
“I remember being enthralled by this woman who was so comfortable in her, for lack of a better term, in her Blackness,” says Toronto singer Divine Brown, who as a youth was part of the Rainboworld cast. “As a young aspiring singer and actor just wanting to be on stage, what Salome provided for me was hope and confidence… She had so much to give.”
Throughout her career, Bey continued singing for audiences. From blues to jazz to pop, she sang at festivals and concerts, in clubs, and on TV and radio. She also released several solo albums and appeared on recordings with the likes of jazz pianist Horace Silver and composer/pianist Galt MacDermot. She later performed with her daughters, TUkU and SATE, along with other musicians as Salome Bey and the Relatives.
Awards and giving back
Always willing to contribute to charitable initiatives, Bey participated in the charity single “Tears Are Not Enough” in support of Ethiopian famine relief in 1985 and was also a member of Artists Against Racism. She was a key organizer of and songwriter for the 1986 Toronto Arts Against Apartheid Festival – the event, which was attended by the then Bishop Desmond Tutu, was held to protest apartheid in South Africa and to raise funds for local Toronto charities.
Over her career, Bey received several awards and honours, including a Toronto Arts Award (1992), the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award from Montréal’s Black Theatre Workshop (1996) and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012). In 2005, she became an Honorary Member of the Order of Canada, and in 2021 was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.
Salome Bey passed away August 8, 2020, in Toronto.
Canada Post celebrates the incomparable Salome BeyAvailable now