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Salome Bey, Soulful Singer, Actress and Playwright, Dies at 86


In 1978, Salome Bey gathered Black actors and musicians together for a rehearsal of “Indigo,” a musical revue she wrote and starred in about the evolution of the blues. She started with a pep talk.

“She said to us, ‘This is our shot,’” recalled Daryl Auwai, the show’s production director. “‘This is our opportunity for us to show them how capable we are,’” meaning white audiences. “And we did.”

The show was considered a watershed moment in Toronto’s small musical community. Largely an all-Black production, “Indigo” garnered rave reviews, played for more than a year to sold-out crowds and earned two Dora Mavor Moore Awards, the city’s theater award, the first year they were given.

Ms. Bey became an institution in Canada for her soulful singing, which earned her the title “Canada’s first lady of the blues.” But she was much more: She was an actress, a playwright and a director of musicals who broke ground in Canada by creating theater opportunities for Black people.

“She gave us that image of what and who we could be. She was deep Black, with those deep Black features, in a time when that really wasn’t that accessible,” said the singer and actress Dtaborah Johnson, who found a mentor in Ms. Bey. “She was just so fierce in her beauty.”

Ms. Bey died on Aug. 8 at a long-term care center in Toronto. She was 86. Her death was confirmed by her two daughters, who said she had suffered from dementia for 16 years.

Salome Wideman-Bey was born on Oct. 10, 1933, in Newark, the sixth of Victoria and Andrew Wideman’s nine children. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father cleaned the windows of skyscrapers across the river in Manhattan.

Mr. Wideman was passionate about the African roots of Black people in the United States and joined the Moorish Science Temple of America around the time of Salome’s birth, affixing the suffix “Bey” to his name and hers. He also converted to Islam. Salome (the name means “peace”) grew up learning prayers in Arabic and fasting during Ramadan, her sister, Geraldine de Haas, said.

Money was sparse, but the house was filled with music, pouring from the radio and from an old piano in the living room. The children learned to play by ear and often sat around the piano singing harmonies together. Salome was considered the family talent, along with their youngest sibling, Andy, who had taught himself boogie-woogie on the piano by age 3 and cut his first record at 12. (Mr. Bey, now 80, is considered by many to be one of America’s greatest jazz singers.)

When Salome was 14, she sneaked out of the house with her older sisters to take part in Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She won.

“My father hit the ceiling,” she told The Toronto Star in 2000. “Instead of going into show business, he wanted me to study law.”

She did that for two years, at Rutgers University in New Jersey. But she also sang at nightclubs with Geraldine, and once Andy joined them she decided to devote herself to music.

“I eventually realized that, in court, you might be able to help one or two people at a time,” she told the Canadian news service Southam News in 1997. “Going into an auditorium to sing, you can reach a room full of people.”

Billed as Andy and the Bey Sisters, the siblings toured Europe and became regulars at the Blue Note in Paris, where audience members included the trumpeter Chet Baker and the actor Marlon Brando.

One night in the early 1960s, after a gig in Toronto, the trio dropped in at an after-hours club managed by Howard Matthews, who would become Ms. Bey’s first and only love.

“As I sat there, Howard said, ‘You’re the most beautiful Black woman I’ve ever seen,’” she told The Toronto Star.

Ms. Bey moved to Toronto, and she and Mr. Matthews married in 1964.

With partners, Mr. Matthews opened a restaurant called the Underground Railroad. The Black staff dressed in vintage railroad uniforms and served plates of barbecued ribs, collard greens and spice cake.

Ms. Bey played the city’s clubs and fell in love with musical theater, joining productions at the Global Village there. In 1971, she starred in the musical “Justine”; when it was later presented Off Broadway, renamed “Love Me, Love My Children,” she won an Obie Award.

She also appeared on Broadway, in shows like “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” and “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,” but in the late 1970s she decided she wanted to cultivate more opportunities for Black performers in Toronto. “Indigo” was the first show she wrote; it was followed by musical revues about the singer and actress Ethel Waters (“Shimmytime,” 1983) and the blues singer Ma Rainey (“Madame Gertrude,” 1985).

“She was making space for Black voices, and keeping legacies alive,” said her daughter Sate, a musician who goes by a single name.

Many Black musicians and actors from Toronto credit Ms. Bey with discovering and mentoring them.

“The only thing I’d seen before was ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ There was no representation of someone who looked like me,” said the singer and actress Deborah Cox of the first production in which she saw Ms. Bey perform. Later, she joined Ms. Bey’s group to sing for Nelson Mandela.

Ms. Bey developed a trademark style, wearing flowy vintage dresses, chunky necklaces and her hair in an Afro or ornate braids.

The Bey-Matthews home in Toronto became a refuge for Black creative types. Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King and Ray Charles all dropped in after shows.

The couple had two daughters. In 1978, while visiting Mr. Matthews’s godmother in his native St. Kitts at Christmastime, they learned of a woman who had died while giving birth. “Don’t think I’m crazy,” Ms. Bey recalled telling her husband, “but two nights ago I dreamt we had a son, and I carried him into Canada.” She saw it as a sign. The next day she went to the hospital and held the child; the couple adopted him.

Ms. Bey exposed her children to art, bringing them to parties, plays, concerts and clubs. She worked on songs at the piano with them, and they appeared onstage with her, often as members of her group, Salome Bey and the Relatives. She later developed a musical based on questions about injustice and disharmony posed by her older daughter, Tuku — who, like her sister, uses only one name. The production, “Rainboworld,” had a cast of more than 40 children and starred her younger daughter during one of its runs, in 1993.

In addition to her daughters and her sister, Ms. Bey is survived by her son, Marcus; her brother, Andy; and four grandchildren. Her husband died in 2016.

In 2005, Ms. Bey was named a member of the Order of Canada. But it was an honorary award; she never became a Canadian citizen.

Apsny News

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