Salome Bey, who on Broadway has played God’s Mother, has traded in her diadem for a red dress and feathers. The star of Indigo, an allblack cabaret revue that, since it opened last October, has been drawing capacity crowds to Basin Street, a Toronto jazz venue, Bey has quit the land of healin’ water and is singing about bootleg liquor, champagne and wine.
Subtitled “A fun-lovin’ look at the Blues,” Indigo traces the history of black American music from field hollers and spirituals to Stevie Wonder and Patti Labelle. Besides top billing, Bey gets credit for the concept and script, but it’s not a one-woman show. The cast also includes three musicians, directed by Denzil A. Miller Jr., who play and swap cracks, and two less familiar, though just as engaging, male co-stars: Dennis Simpson, a beaming gangly hoofer, and Ron Small.
In separate medleys, Bey pays tribute to Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday without resorting to imitative effects. She has her own vocal gifts—a growl that’s an easy match for Etta James’s and stylish control that
stands comparison to Sarah Vaughan’s. Usually commended as much for her quiet dignity as for her husky contralto, this time Bey is rearing to cook and ready to clown. She pokes fun at Diana Ross, impersonates Pearl Bailey with a lazy drawl and an easy sashay, and mines every innuendo in My Man Is a Handy Man. Her new, abandoned ways surprise even herself: “I’ve never performed like this before. I guess I’m just wild now.” She’s grateful to the show’s director, Bette Howard, for helping to bring out the floozie in her.
Indigo might well be the breakthrough success for Salome Bey. She moved to Toronto in 1964 to marry Howard Matthews, now the co-owner of the Underground Railroad, a soul-food restaurant. Raised in the ghetto of Newark, New Jersey, she has been singing since she was a child. As a teenager she won a contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and later, with a brother and sister, toured the jazz circuit as Andy and the Bey Sisters. Like a number of black female vocalists who have lived in Toronto—among them, Jodi Drake, Almeta Speaks, Dianne
Brooks—she had trouble finding opportunities commensurate with her talents. Television appearances and stints at local clubs won her critical praise and loyal followers, but she found bigger rewards out of town. In 1972 she received a Best Actress OBIE award for her performance as Earth Mother in Love Me, Love My Children, a show that originated in Toronto. There was a brief appearance on Broadway in Dude, an ill-fated effort by Hair! composers Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot. For more than two years she played Mary in the Broadway musical Your Arm's Too Short to Box with God, in 1977 receiving a Grammy nomination for her performance on the cast album.
But it has taken Indigo to make her a full-fledged local celebrity and she’s not sorry she stuck it out. “I know that if I had stayed in the States for a while, certain things would have happened but I wanted them to happen here, because this is where I live. Now, all of a sudden, you can’t go down the street without people coming over
to ask, ‘How’s your show doing?’ ”
The time is right to make hay. Indigo and Salome Bey are hot properties. Firm offers have flowed in from Bermuda, Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal, Charlottetown, Halifax, Paris, Chicago, New York, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Dennis Strong, Bey’s personal manager for the last two years, and company manager for Indigo, says that future plans are not absolutely definite but most likely the show will stay in Toronto until midsummer (maybe longer, with a replacement cast), and then tour Canada. The CBC has scheduled a Salome Bey Superspecial to be taped in the spring and Strong is busy investigating concert appearances and suitable record deals. (A special radio adaptation will be broadcast on CBC Radio Feb. 10 and 11.) Strong, a natty, articulate man whose talk about product and markets is as smooth as his hairless pate, does not believe in low profiles: “In Canada, there’s a feeling that it’s gaudy to hype something. And it is if you haven’t got the goods, but I’ve been brought up in a climate that says if you’ve got it, flaunt it.”
Bey herself is not the flaunting kind. Even near the end of the show when she throws away her store-bought bouffant and whips the air with her beaded plaits, she’s still a little hesitant. Her reserve, rather than detracting from her high spirits, adds a bashful charm. She does not fit any stereotypical images of excess, nurtured by stories of Billie Holiday’s smack habit or pictures of Aretha’s wedding dress with the mink trim and 7,000 pearls. Bey doesn’t smoke or drink; she eats no meat but a little chicken; she’s a loving parent who cares about all children, not only her two daughters, Tuku, 11, and Saidah, 4 and a newly adopted baby, Marcus Malcolm.
There’s a lot about Salome Bey’s personality that seems to support her reputation as earth mother: the disarming shyness, the way, in the course of an interview, she can fix her gaze out the window and still be attentive. But she’s not so spiritual that she doesn’t acknowledge, matter-of-factly and without bitterness, that her recognition has been a long time coming: “Maybe I’m sounding egotistic, but I think I deserved much better than what I received, because I think I put out a lot and I don’t think I got it back. And it hurt.” Now that audiences are responding with the enthusiasm her stellar performance deserves, she says, “I feel very good that they feel that way about me.” And flashing a worldly gaptoothed grin, adds, “I’d like them to feel it a little more—some extra TV, recordings, things like that.”
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