Photo: Bill King Taken at 2005 Women In Blues Revue at Massey Hall
Photo: Bill King Taken at 2005 Women In Blues Revue at Massey Hall

Salome Bey - Friends Have Their Say!

How do you say goodbye to an old friend when it's Toronto at a crossroads, coming to grips with its not so inclusive past?

Salome Bey worked her butt off producing, writing, raising capital and mounting theatrical works of relevance, character and power, revealing the stories of black accomplishment, strains and resistance. Bey pushed those within her sphere to be part of the upswing and take their place in the dynamic cultural reshaping of Canada to come. Long before Black Lives Matter became a movement of enormous weight and influence, Bey was a one-woman juggernaut. 

I'd catch up with Salome from time to time through her husband Howard Matthews and drummer Archie Alleyne, the two of us sharing the stage in our jazz piano trio for a good decade. Howard would be promoting and trying his best to advance the most recent Bey production. It was the first meeting in 1984 that caught me off guard.

Vocalist Liberty Silver and I were playing a downtown club when Salome came backstage. Usually, these occasions are meet and greet, where the visitor extends a hand and a few words of good cheer. For Liberty and I, it was the reversal. Salome sat and said nothing. The two of us looked at each other and figured we needed to treat royalty as such. Salome in time and few words offered her approval. Later Liberty said to me, "That was scary." Not scary in fearful scary – but scary in that Bey carried with her profound history and impactful words.

I've often thought about the aura that shadows artists of supreme intelligence, grit and ability and how the room temperature fluctuates - like being backstage with Aretha Franklin or Sharon Jones, standing near Nancy Wilson, lunch with a Betty Carter, on stage with a Martha Reeves. It's an unworldly experience.

2005 and forward, I began to notice a change in Salome. Archie informed me it was the early stages of dementia. The next decade the unrelenting disease took hold. It was the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir summer concert at Nathan Phillips Square when Salome leaves her chair, walks down the front and sings along with the ensemble that revealed the first signs of the challenges she was facing. Director Trevor Payne brings her onstage, treats her kindly and embraces. Everyone in the music community attending knew what was transpiring and teared up. A few years later, Archie asks if the trio could back Salome at a private function at the upscale restaurant Scaramouche – the owner was a big fan. The evening played out as a series of starts and stops and long pauses.

Over time my partner Kristine and I would drop in on Howard and Salome with Archie leading the way in a care centre, both still together and struggling with health issues side by side where they had always been, the same royal couple I'd met so many decades before.

So many friends, so much to say. In their words – musicians and friends share their thoughts:

Orin Isaacs

Canada's First Lady of The Blues Has Left Us.

Salome Bey was the first Real Artist that I ever played with; she gave me my first shot at being a pro. I'll never forget the night that she came to a gig that her daughter was performing at, and I was playing bass. I was around 18, and I remember seeing her at the club and thinking 'wow Salome Bey is here.'

Now I knew of Salome because my Mom was a huge fan of hers. My Mom took me to see Indigo as a kid; my Mom used to take us to The Underground Railroad restaurant to eat, you get the idea. So, I played my heart out that night, and I remember being nervous when she came up to me after the show. She is kinda intimidating at first; she just smiled and asked me in her deep majestic voice, "Son, can you read music?" I said, 'Yes!' She smiled and continued, "would you like to be my bass player?' I said Yes!! and I gave her my phone number. I was freaking out!

A few days later she called and left a message on my answering machine, when I played that message for my Mom, SHE NEARLY HAD A COW RIGHT THERE AND THEN!!! My Mom was so excited, it was like, My Son Has Made It!!

That day my pro career as a bassist was born. Now I can go on and on about all the things Salome & Howard did for me over the years, but I'd be writing for days.

We lost a Legend!!! R.I.P. Salome!!

Daryl Auwai

The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen!

Salome Bey has passed on. She of the fabulous voice. She who sang with fire, power and glory. She of the gentle whispering voice that could rise to the strength of a volcano is no more.

Salome Bey was my close friend, colleague and champion. I am incredibly saddened to hear of her passing. I last saw her at the Celebration of Life for her dear husband, Howard Matthews. Him of "Phillips's, St. Kitts," as he loved to say.

We worked together consistently from when we first met while she was appearing as Mother Earth in a show at Global Village in 1970 or thereabouts until I went off on national tours as a P.S.M. in 1982. She always pushed me to work harder, develop more technique and skill, be a better writer, designer, director, and she was forever supportive. She was also my confidante. We spent thousands of hours together, conversing, analyzing, working, eating, enjoying other artists, thinking, planning and best of all .... laughing.  She could laugh!

Salome's heart was so big it could envelop all of us who knew her. She was my rock and place of refuge, my sister, my momma, my girlfriend, my mentor, my accomplice, all those things at the same time.

Tabby Johnson remarked that "she changed the dance," and that may primarily be about the hit musical Indigo, of which I was a part (Sadly, the only original cast members of that still alive are Rudy Webb, Denzil Miller (piano) and Jim Norman (drums). But I also think Tabby was referring to how she defied the stereotypical imagery of Black female performers and refused to compromise. She wrote Indigo in 1976 and persevered for two years so it could be produced with an all-Black cast and company, at a time when we could hardly find regular employment in theatre. It was sold-out from opening night for 13 months and went on to win Best Production, Best Musical, and Best Performer at the Dora Mavor Moore Awards.

May our many great gods embrace our Queen and hold her in splendour. In turn, may we always be inspired by and cherish her work and keep her dear in our hearts and memories forever.

Rueben Kincaid

Lovely lady. I worked with Salome in 1989 when she starred in Coming Through Slaughter. Staged at the Silver Dollar, this jazz musical was nominated for a Chalmers Playwrighting Award, and a Dora Mayor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play. Actor Julian Richings was awarded a Dora for his outstanding work in the production. Slaughter also featured Graham Greene, whose next gig was Dances with Wolves.

I do hope you were fortunate enough to have experienced this 1989 production. I witnessed every rehearsal and every performance of Slaughter. From day one, the admiration and respect the cast & crew had for Salome were unquestionably evident. Ever the supportive, encouraging professional, Salome quickly assumed the secondary role of 'Den Mother' to all, with the same passion she applied to performance. This lovely genuine lady emanated warmth, positivity, and charm.

Arden Innis

I used to bring my sons to see Salome Bay in the mid-1970s. Once the 1980s began, I started working with her in theatre. One particular production, Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje, we composed the music as well as playing husband and wife at the Silver Dollar Club in Toronto. Dougie Richardson and Washington Savage shared in the composing credit with us. The play was significant because so many great players were associated with the production. Graham Greene, Julian Riching. Richard Rose directed. The experience was very electric, with Michael Ondaatje on hand editing daily. As the years went on from there, we'd do the club scene every so often. Later, in 2005, we were neighbours in the P.A.L. building in Toronto. Salome was working on a new play then. It was entitled, Bags, a story about a street person who talks about her experiences over twenty-five years living on the street. Shortly after that she moved to Bridgepoint hospital. Howard Matthews (Salome's husband) would keep me up to date on how she was doing. The one thing that stays with me about Salome is that she had such great powers of staying in the moment of a project. Always on top of a situation.

JoJo Bowden

Salome was Jazz and Blues education for all of us, Black musicians of that era and beyond. It was 1984, and I had just completed three years at Humber College Music. I needed one credit to graduate, but the late Ron Collier guided me towards this exceptional human being, Salome Bey. I sat in and subsequently performed in the show Indigo and was welcomed into the family. Rehearsals at the Bey/Matthew's house during the day, watching Salome blend her fruit and vegetable smoothies while rehearsing and taking care of her family at the same time. The highlight was a trip and then a return trip to Expo '86 for the Olympics. She was my second Mom during that time, and I'll never forget the love and musical training that was bestowed upon me by this Musical Icon. You are missed, Salome Bey!

Gilbert Carty

I remembered Salome Bey, who passed away yesterday. She was a strong, dynamic Blues voice in this City. I remember seeing her perform many times. She was noted for her musical Indigo. When she was performing at a venue, and she noticed you in the crowd, you would be a prime candidate to sing with her. I remember that happening to me during a campaign party for Barbara Hall. The song was It Ain't Necessarily So.

Salome was an engaging personality with a significant stage presence. Salome was also continually active in her community. During the re-naming of the Scadding Court skating rink, changed to The Harry Gairey Rink, I recall taking her and Howard Matthews to meet Lou Gossett Jr. She did not need an introduction. Lou had said, 'Aw, The Bey Sisters!' I had visited Salome and Howard over the years while in care till their declining health had taken them away. Condolences to Tuku, Saidah, and Marcus, family.

Tabby Johnson

She was all the things I wasn't. Loud and proud, fierce and determined, focused and driven, beaten but not bowed. She was Salome. I met her as a child first through her husband and life partner Howard's soul food restaurant, The Underground Railroad. For us Americans living in Toronto, it served the food Nana made, the food served at our kitchen tables. Salome though not always/often at the restaurant seemed to be a presence at our once a month-ish Sunday brunch after boring St. Thomas church. The first time I heard her sing, it was like coming home. All the joy, the sorrow, the pain, the praise everything I kept locked inside, she sang out loud. Later I rediscovered her when a boyfriend at the time shared a wall in a line of row houses.

I heard that voice - she lived with the family on the other side of that wall. So blessed was I to hear and feel for the first time a baby's fist or foot through the mama's stomach. "Oooo feel this," she'd say as we sat outside, "feel this, "and she took my hand and placed it on her baby bubble. These were to be my full-on performing years, and as I left teenhood, Salome talked to me bout being a shade child. She told me when black is beautiful, I'll be out. Not harshly and not meanly. She and I always spoke to our truths, which meant we didn't always agree, but isn't that a good thing for friends? She loved and worried about her babies. She taught me 'bout fierce loving.

I always thought we'd see each other over tea and catch up. By that time, though, fallen prey to that insidious disease called Alzheimer's and, as such, was lost to me. Activists before labelled movements,  Salome strove to make Blackness and our stories matter. Ahead of her time. Maybe powers that be might, when we can, why don't you remount her work? For real 'cause all this lip service means nada if her glorious work lies shelved in some Canadian Artistic Director's garage and or in some granting bodies archives. If y'all did have faith and respect for her work, that's what should happen. Nuff said.

Bob Ellis

I had the privilege of hearing/seeing this lady perform! She was an incredibly talented artist who gave much to the Canadian music scene. I think so many vocalists and musicians are grateful for having the opportunity to be influenced by her. She is now able to reconnect with her Howard! R.I.P. Salome!

Darlene Hendrickson

My heart is aching from this loss, but I know that Salome is in a better place and can finally reunite with Howard. 

The saddening news of Salome's passing is bittersweet due to her having dementia.  Many of us felt we already lost her over the years as she slowly slipped away inside herself.  It's difficult to witness people ageing as it's always the people with the strongest, most commanding personality and spirit that tend to slip away. The most majestic shining stars who sparkled from within, drawing everyone towards them, start to fade over time. It's just heartbreaking!

I remember meeting Salome, Howard, and their kids when I was just a kid.  They came to our house to visit my surrogate grandmother Aunt Sarah (Hawley), who often stayed with us when she attended St. Kitts.  I had heard of Salome and knew she was a singer, but although I did not know much about her, I admired her. There was something about her!  I didn't see them much for a few years till my late teens and 20s.  It was from that time I often ran into Salome and Howard at events and came to find out that Howard and I had mutual cousins.  

The more I observed Salome and was around her, the more I was in awe of her.  Certain words come to mind when I think of Salome - confident, eclectic, free-spirited, natural talent, wise, strong, phenomenal with a kind heart and generous spirit.  What I loved and adored about Salome was she exuded confidence with the presence of "what you see is what you get" with no apologies as she walked to the beat of her drum. She was an inspiration and mentor to many artists coming behind her. Unfortunately, many of the young artists today are not aware of who she is, all she accomplished, and they didn't have the opportunity to learn from her.

I eventually got to know Salome and Howard better as, over the years, my friends and I would sit with them for a while at Afrofest and many jazz clubs during intermission.  They would tell us their stories of how they met, years at The Underground Railroad  Restaurant, artists they worked with, and much more.  We could sit for hours as they talked, listening to events from back in da day.  It was trips down memory lane for them, but it was not just intriguing and mesmerizing for us; it was also an education about the jazz/soul scene in T.O. 

Watching them tell their stories was extremely entertaining.  They had a particular way of communicating, playing off of each other as each remembered different parts of the story.  Howard spoke of how enamoured he was with Salome from the first time they met. We kept telling them that they should be writing down their stories.  One of my biggest regrets is that we didn't have the phones then that we have now to record all those stories.

It was heartbreaking when Salome first got sick and started losing her memory.  Then Howard got sick with him being her primary caregiver, and we lost him!  Now the beloved Queen of the family has passed. 

Salome and Howard will always hold a special place in my heart. I'm blessed to have known them and spend time with them. She will live on through her children, who are also blessed with incredible musical talent like their mother.

My deepest condolences go out to Tuku, Saidah, Marcus, Click, their children, and extended family.

Canada's lost one of our musical legends.  R.I.P. SALOME... gone but never forgotten, we will miss you forever! 

Leave a comment