One of jazz music’s best-kept secrets and least-appreciated performers, Andy Bey made his musical debut as a teenager in New York and Paris, proving himself a talented instrumentalist with a versatile vocal range. After releasing his fourth album, however, he faded from public view for more than two decades, contributing to albums by fellow artists instead of working on solo material. Bey resumed his solo recording career in 1996 with a critically acclaimed release, and has since remained a perennial favorite, known for his calming vocals and mellow reveries.

Bey was born on October 28, 1939, in Newark, New Jersey. One of nine siblings, his affinity for music began to unfold at age three when he began to play the piano. Too tiny for the stool, he constantly slid from his perch. He was singing with tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley by the age of eight, and as a child he was a regular performer on two television shows: Star Time Kids and Spotlight on Harlem. The precocious child even appeared at the Apollo with Louis Jordan in 1952. Bey cut his first record, “Mama’s Little Boy Got the Blues,” that same year at age 13, and some sources claim that he performed with Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan while still a teenager.

Bey attended Newark’s Arts High School but never graduated. More occupied with singing than studying, he formed Andy Bey & the Bey Sisters in 1956 with his two older sisters, Geraldine and Salome. The trio developed a following in New York’s Greenwich Village, impressing soul artist Aretha Franklin. Bey quit school during his senior year and took the group on a European tour; they spent much of their time performing at the Blue Note in Paris, where they were admired by stars like Marlon Brando and Marlene Dietrich.

The trio disbanded in 1966 after releasing two albums, Now! Hear!, and ‘Round Midnight, on Prestige. A solo album, Experience and Judgment, appeared on Atlantic in 1970, before Bey withdrew from public sight.

While shunning the media spotlight for more than two decades, Bey remained prominent nonetheless in professional music circles, performing with popular jazzmen McCoy Tyner, Lonnie Liston Smith, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, and Eddie Harris. Bey contributed vocals and instrumentals on more than 30 albums with various artists.

During these years Bey was associated most notably with pianist Horace Silver, contributing vocals to the 1970 albums That Healin’ Feelin’, Total Response (Phase I), and Total Response (Phase II). In 1970 Bey joined Gary Bartz, singing on Harlem Bush Music and adding percussion and electric piano on Juju Street Songs and Follow the Medicine Man in 1972. The versatile Bey contributed flute and vocals to Stanley Clarke’s Children of Forever in 1972 and played violin on Horace Silver’s 1999 release Retrospective. After a two-year sojourn in Austria teaching jazz vocalization, Bey returned to the United States in 1993 to contribute vocals to Silver’s hard-bop revival It’s Got to Be Funky.

In 1996 Bey released his first solo album in more than two decades on the Evidence label. The dreamy piano tracks and what Alex Henderson of All Music Guide called “heartfelt vocals” earned critical acclaim for Ballads, Blues & Bey. His equally well received 1998 follow-up, Shades of Bey featuring Bartz, drummer Victor Lewis, and bassist Peter Washington, peaked at number 24 on Billboard‘s Top Jazz Albums chart. Even as mainstream jazz hailed his return, Bey maintained that he never left the business. Although he shunned live performance and maintained a low profile during the 1970s and 1980s, his reluctance, he explained, was a wish to avoid being controlled by the commercial recording industry.

Reviewing Bey’s 2001 release, Tuesdays in Chinatown, critic Ron Scott called the Herb Jordan production one of the best male jazz vocal offerings of the year–an experience “[t]hat touches the soul with the same joy as seeing the sun and moon share the sky during an early morning interlude … constantly vibrant with a hypnotic radiance.” Steve Graybow of Billboard quoted Bey’s description of the album as a “controlled fire … simmering underneath.” The recording features Lewis, Washington, Steve Turre on trombone, and Marty Erlich on saxophone, offers a wide range of compositions, from works by Milton Nascimento and Sting to Rodgers and Hart. Bey’s distinctive arrangements and emphatic bass lines, are featured throughout, although one classic track, “I’ll Remember April,” a Ron Carter bass arrangement from 1972, is reprised by Carter himself. Bey also includes the Afro-Brazilian track “Saidas e Banderas” in the original Portuguese.

Critics concur that Bey is greatly under appreciated. His generous four-octave voice starts in the baritone range and soars upward. MusicHound Jazz critic David Prince called Bey’s falsetto “creamy, evocative, and chill-inducing.” His seemingly effortless vocal ability has earned Bey a reputation as a singer’s singer, singled out as a personal favorite by none other than the late John Coltrane. Terry Teachout, writing in Commentary, ranked Bey’s rendition of the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch over Me” as the number-seven song in The Great American Songbook: Part 2. In January of 2002 Bey was featured among the “Singers over Manhattan” series at Lincoln Center.

In 1996 the politically outspoken Bey, no stranger to controversy since voicing his antiwar sentiments during the Vietnam era, revealed that he was both gay and HIV-positive. “I try to take one day at a time,” he told the Cincinnati CityBeat. “I don’t take a lot of medication, but communicating–not entertaining–is the best medicine. Knowing that I’m accepted heals me and makes me want to stay.”

by G. Cooksey