Before & After: Andy Bey

A listener, and storyteller, for the ages

Andy Bey (right) and writer/educator Ashley Kahn in session at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music image 0
Jared Ellison

Andy Bey (right) and writer/educator Ashley Kahn in session at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music

At the age of 77, Andy Bey is one of New York City’s best-kept secrets. Those who know, know, but he’s not one for self-promotion or career building. His albums, like 2014’s Pages From an Imaginary Life, are filled with down-tempo treasures, yet they arrive at an irregular pace. He resists almost all invitations to tour. Local gigs pop up with minimal announcement, the vocal maestro most often accompanying himself on piano in small venues that sometimes seem incongruous relative to his stature and talent. A marked exception was a two-set evening at the Greenwich Village piano bar Mezzrow this past January that was immediately followed by the winter’s worst snowstorm-a forecast that did not dissuade a dedicated 30 or so fans from filling the small room. Choosing standards and confessional originals from a dog-eared notebook, Bey sang and played, and time stood still. Each song ended with lingering silence, no one in the room wishing to break the spell. Then applause would erupt.

This is Bey’s first Before & After, an exercise tailor-made for a man who seems able to recall almost every song he has sung or heard. And over the years he has heard and sung a lot: as a child accompanying his parents to church and to various theaters and clubs in his hometown of Newark, N.J.; performing as a teen star in Harlem in the ’50s; touring with his family group, Andy and the Bey Sisters, in the U.S. and Europe in the ’60s; and singing in bands led by Horace Silver and Gary Bartz in the ’70s. Then, after a hiatus of roughly a decade and a half, he returned in the mid-’90s with a series of career-defining albums-Ballads, Blues & Bey, Shades of Bey, Tuesdays in Chinatown-that have established him as a (or perhaps the) pillar of the jazz baritone singing tradition.

1. José James

“Tenderly” (Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday, Blue Note). James, vocals; Jason Moran, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2014.


BEFORE: Is that José James? Yeah, I like his sound. I met him at the New School [in Manhattan] about four or five years ago and he wanted to study with me. What I told him was, “Don’t concentrate so much on being a jazz singer. You have a beautiful, very natural sound, and just work with that.” I like him when he’s doing stuff like this. It’s cool because he’s not trying to deal with chords or trying to be too musical-he already is musical, just singing it straight. His sound is the thing that resonates.

I’m aware of this album, but I haven’t heard the whole thing. His take of “Lover Man” is interesting because he just says “Lover”; when I did it, I would say “Lover Girl.” José made it freer for a man to sing it, especially for a gay or straight man.

Is that a challenge, covering a song written from a woman’s perspective, like some of Billie’s?

I think you have to respect the concept of what she was trying to do. But you never do Billie Holiday as Billie did, because you can’t understand what she dealt with-what her life experience was that she brought to the music.

Anybody can walk onstage and say, “I’m a jazz singer,” or “Hey, I’m doing jazz.” Or you can get in a class and study this music, but it’s about on-the-job training. You have to get on the bandstand and sing with a bunch of musicians and fall flat on your face a few times and be willing to get back up again. It’s not about learning a few hot licks, and then singing with a five-octave range and you’re going to conquer the world.

2. Jimmy Rushing

“Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ No More” (The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing, Esq., Columbia). Rushing, vocals, piano. Recorded in 1956.


BEFORE: That’s Jimmy Rushing-Mr. Five by Five. He had a beautiful tenor voice and a certain kind of timbre. Nobody could do what he did. He could sing extremely high and he could swing. He was one of the great ones.

I had forgotten that monologue he did on this tune until I heard “Tricks ain’t walking no more…” It might have been well known, [but] I didn’t know it at that time because I was still a youngster; even my parents wouldn’t have known what this was about-a prostitute, of course. Sex can be very humorous, in its own way.

I first met Jimmy with my sisters when I was on [the television program] Spotlight on Harlem, when I was around 12. I had a chance to sing a solo and Jimmy was the guest star that week. The next time we met was when we were going to Europe in 1958 on the [ocean liner] Ile De France, again with my sisters. We were singing on the boat. He was very nice, and we were young and a class act: I had my little tuxedo, my sisters had their gowns that one of my older sisters used to make, and we had our little arrangements.

I got to know Jimmy better that time. He told me stuff about Count Basie and how that band had so much life and energy with Lester Young and Harry “Sweets” [Edison], and Jo Jones of course. He reminisced a little bit but was dealing with his own stuff by that time.

3. Carmen McRae & Betty Carter

“Am I Blue” (The Carmen McRae – Betty Carter Duets: Live at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, PolyGram). McRae, Carter, vocals; Eric Gunnison, piano; Jim Hughart, bass; Winard Harper, drums. Recorded in 1987.


BEFORE: Oh yeah! That’s Carmen McRae and Betty Carter live in San Francisco. I got this album. I’ve seen Betty and Carmen many times. I’ve seen Betty singing in little dives, but it was always about the music. I was pretty friendly with her in a sense. She was a little hard sometimes; so was Carmen. They both knew me from New Jersey. Betty Carter used to play at a little club in Newark called Len & Len’s, and there was another club where I first met Carmen.

People talk about Carmen and Betty [having] pitch problems, but that’s bullshit. Betty Carter had to have relative pitch in order to do the things she did. The same with Carmen. On their earlier records they sang right on the note, but it’s not about having perfect this or being perfect that. What about Billie Holiday? She might have sung sharp in some ways, but it’s about that feeling of life in the music.

Betty had a way of singing, it was almost like she was making fun of certain things. It got even more beautiful in the end, when she did that album Feed the Fire with Geri Allen, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. Nobody could scat like Betty Carter. She had her own language and concept; they were all intertwined with how she swung and how she could get dynamics out of a band. She was a total musician: She knew theatre, she could play piano and she was the only one that took scatting to another level after Ella.

4. Les Double Six

“Boplicity (La Légende du Troubadour)” (Swingin’ Singin’!, Philips). Louis Aldebert, Jean-Claude Briodin, Monique Guérin, Christiane Legrand, Eddy Louiss, Mimi Perrin, vocals; René Urtreger, piano; Michel Gaudry, bass; Daniel Humair, drums. Recorded in 1962.


BEFORE: Is that the Double Six of Paris? I met some of them in Europe when me and my sisters were living in Paris for almost a year-all of ’59, up to my 20th birthday, and we didn’t come back home until 1960. When we first got there it was September the 10th, 1958, and I was still 18.

That’s “Boplicity.” I love that tune. There are some lyrics that Mark Murphy used to sing [to that], but they’re singing this in French, of course. It’s clever but it doesn’t really grab me or make me want to pop my finger. I’m not spitting at it; I can respect it from a musical standpoint. Every note is sung perfectly, but it’s not a question of good or bad: It’s got to get beyond the so-called perfection.

You can hear where they’re coming from. It all started with Eddie Jefferson doing “Moody’s Mood for Love” in ’52, then King Pleasure did it a little later with Blossom Dearie doing the second part: [sings] “What is all this talk about loving me, my dear…” And then Lambert, Hendricks and Ross came along in 1956. The Double Six might have made it in the States but they didn’t necessarily have to, because they were big in France and Christiane LeGrand’s brother Michel was big over there, too. He was doing a lot of movie soundtracks in the ’50s and ’60s and using them, so they were doing fine.

5. Jimmy Scott

“All the Way” (All the Way, Sire). Scott, vocals; David “Fathead” Newman, tenor saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Grady Tate, drums. String section arranged by Dale Oehler. Recorded in 1992.


BEFORE: I’ve got this record. I knew Jimmy Scott since I was a kid-that’s how far we go back. He was a little older than me-he was born in 1925 and I was born in 1939-but I was always aware of Jimmy and always loved him. When he was younger, he used to play at a club in Newark on the weekends called Lloyd’s Manor. He had amazing pipes back then. Later in the ’60s I took George Wein, when he used to manage me and my sisters, down to hear Jimmy playing at a club called Frederick’s Lounge, and he was still in his prime then.

He had some disease as a kid that kept him little [Kallmann syndrome], though he eventually grew a little bit. His voice was naturally high, but it was big and really controlled. I first saw him at the Adams Theatre [in Newark] with Lionel Hampton’s band in the late ’40s. My parents took me and some of the younger siblings. I was still in grade school. During that time it was amazing to hear him. Jimmy would be hunched over the microphone and the sound wasn’t clichés-his phrasing and bent notes and all weren’t like anyone else. He would sing three ballads in a row and that would be enough-“Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.” Then Milt Buckner would get on the piano and they’d start playing a boogie-woogie and the place would be rocking.

I loved [Jimmy]. He influenced me vocally and even in a sense of being an individual. He influenced a whole lot of singers. Nancy Wilson loved him to death. Big Maybelle, who was bad, and people like Etta Jones, everybody listened to Jimmy Scott. Even Bird loved him. He got a little frail as he got older, but he was still great because he had this thing in his voice-you could call it angst or whatever. It was about his believability, and he was always soulful.

We first met on one of those little package shows around Newark or Jersey City that [impresario] Bill Cook put together. Bill saw me as a kid playing a boogie-woogie and singing and then he started using me. Jimmy was living in Newark, signed to Savoy, but he was trying to…

Un-sign himself?

Right, because [Savoy Records head Herman] Lubinsky was notorious. He wanted to sign me as a child prodigy, which I didn’t get a chance to do, and maybe it was just as well.

6. Aretha Franklin

“I Wonder” (Aretha Arrives, Atlantic). Franklin, vocals; Jimmy Johnson, Joe South, guitars; Spooner Oldham, electric piano; Tommy Cogbill, bass; Roger Hawkins, drums. String section and horns arranged by Ralph Burns. Recorded in 1967.


BEFORE: C’mon, challenge me. That’s Lady Soul. You know I got to know that. Aretha was phenomenal. Cecil Gant wrote “I Wonder.” Dakota Staton did it and Etta Jones did it, too, in the ’60s. Oh yeah, I love this. I met Aretha when she was on Columbia Records and John Hammond was producing her. She made some phenomenal recordings on Columbia-“Try a Little Tenderness,” “Skylark,” “Just for a Thrill.”

I met Aretha when she was 18 years old. She came from the church, of course, but she was very much aware of secular music. We would run into her sometimes in Washington, D.C., when I was with Andy and the Bey Sisters, at a club called Abart’s [International] that used to pass out rubber checks. When we were playing at Trude Heller’s in Greenwich Village, Aretha used to come down when we were working opposite Blossom Dearie-who had my sister’s future husband playing bass, Eddie De Haas-and sometimes she would sit in. She’d say, “I want my daddy to hear you!” She loved our sound and our jazz concept.

She’s just an amazing talent. She had a little classical training-that’s why she had that wide range, which she always had. You listen to the gospel records she did, like Amazing Grace. She’s a genius, that’s for sure. I prefer her earlier stuff than the later, even though I like what she’s

doing now.

What is it about the black church? Could that be the most successful music school ever?

There’s so many schools in the black situation, so many different things to choose from in the black experience-blues, bebop, gospel, hip-hop. Aretha definitely had that same thing that Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder have-a certain thing that just keeps going on. If Donny Hathaway hadn’t passed, who knows what he would have done because he was taking it to another level from a musical standpoint-in his arranging, and all of his abilities. His daughter Lalah is amazing. She’s got that bottom in her voice and an incredible top, and an ability to improvise in a certain way.

7. Benny Goodman Sextet

“Where or When” (Small Groups – 1941-1945, Columbia). Goodman, clarinet; Peggy Lee, vocals; Lou McGarity, trombone; Mel Powell, piano, celeste; Tom Morgan, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Ralph Collier, drums. Recorded in 1941.


BEFORE: Is the horn player the leader? The voice doesn’t sound too familiar to me but it could be somebody like Mary Ann McCall, who used to sing with Woody Herman. [listens to rest of song] I liked the performance, the intimacy of the voice and the phrasing. It was sung very well from a technical standpoint but without being technical. It touched me in a way but it didn’t make me hoot and holler. I thought it was very pleasant, very warm.

It sounded like something I heard when I was really young on the radio. She reminded me of a big-band singer who sat in a chair and waited for her time to step up and do a ballad. I think it’s a white singer. It wasn’t Rosemary Clooney, because I know her sound and I know Doris Day; it wasn’t Doris Day. Can I get a hint?

The leader was the clarinetist who took the second verse.

Benny Goodman? But it wasn’t Peggy Lee. She didn’t have that kind of breath and sound.

Well, it wasn’t her yet. It’s Peggy Lee when she was 19.

Let me hear it again.

AFTER: That threw me. Peggy was about understatement and she got a lot of that from Lady Day, and she became a little brassier as time went on. It had a sincere thing about it, but it was warm. This didn’t sound like nothing in the ’40s; when was this, 1941? It sounds a little more modern in a sense, maybe because of the accompaniment. Her intonation is on the money. I can dig it now. She was 19 and she was singing that the way Nat King Cole would sing a melody.

Peggy was a hell of a musician, and she knew what made her look good and she was a hard taskmaster. I met her once later on when she was singing in a wheelchair.

8. Joe Lee Wilson

“Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul” (Livin’ High Off Nickels and Dimes, Oblivion). Wilson, vocals; Bob Ralston, tenor saxophone; Ray McKinley, piano; Stafford James, bass; Napoleon Revels, drums. Recorded in 1972.


BEFORE: Joe Lee Wilson! I knew him from the ’60s and ’70s. Joe Lee had incredible pipes. If he would have had more discipline in certain musical choices, he could have done more. But he had a certain kind of energy and he would just come out there and boom! But if he would have been able to channel some of his energy in another way, no telling how he could have come across.

It’s almost like he wanted to be the Albert Ayler of singing, or what he thought Coltrane was doing. He was from Oklahoma, and he got a scholarship to come to New York during that time when everything was kind of going towards the avant-garde. He was hanging out and dealing with that environment and the drugs that were going on. I could understand him, knowing Joe Lee. But it would lock him into what he called his sense of freedom. He was trying to do some straight stuff, like when he used to sing “It’s You or No One.” Just singing a ballad you could hear the richness in his tone, because he had the baritone but he also had a tremendous ability to reach up and sing high.

He always used to say, “I got my highs but you got your lows.” I had highs too, but his were constant! I saw him the night he sat in with Miles at the [Village] Gate and sang “Four” and some other stuff. It was exhilarating to hear him live, because he would encourage his sidemen to take it to the max. But I loved him for his wanting to be something other than just to be locked into a certain bag. In that I agreed with him 100 percent.

9. Charles Brown

“Black Night” (The Complete Aladdin Recordings of Charles Brown, Mosaic). Brown, vocals, piano; Maxwell Davis, tenor saxophone; Johnny Moore, guitar; Eddie Williams, bass; unknown, drums. Recorded in 1950.


BEFORE: That’s definitely Charlie Brown. I love Charlie Brown. Hell of a musician, plays piano and plays his ass off. But that sound-you know he loved Nat Cole, and then Ray Charles. Loved them both. Charles Brown was an amazing talent.

I didn’t go through a Charles Brown period myself, but I heard it all and I’m sure I was influenced by it because I heard this when I was a kid. I used to go to these blues shows and I hear B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Jimmy Reed at the Apollo Theater. In Newark, Andrew Tibbs was one of the greatest blues singers and he had tremendous chops. I heard a lot of blues singers during that period-Ruth Brown, Larry Darnell, Wynonie Harris, Dinah Washington. They all used to play at the Laurel Garden, a [venue] in Newark.

The blues is about the truth. A lot of people got talent, but it’s got to come from something that’s higher than yourself; you can call it spiritual. People can tell when you’re shucking and jiving-it’s about life experience. It goes back to that.

Charles Brown was real handsome I remember. Even Billie Holiday said that for her it was between Buck Clayton, the trumpet player who used to be with Count Basie, and Billy Eckstine and Charles Brown. She said those were three handsome motherfuckers.

10. Cécile McLorin Salvant

“What’s the Matter Now?” (For One to Love, Mack Avenue). Salvant, vocals; Aaron Diehl, piano; Paul Sikivie, bass; Lawrence Leathers, drums. Recorded in 2015.


BEFORE: That ain’t Cécile McLorin, is it? That’s who it is? At first I thought it was that singer that did “Midnight at the Oasis,” Maria Muldaur. Yeah, I recognize certain little things because Cécile can get really sweet and coy for a minute. She’s got talent and she’s young. I don’t think the depth is there yet, but I think the talent is enormous. It’s not a putdown; it’s like her sound is somewhat scattered to me. It can’t sound like you’re trying to be this in order to get that effect across. I don’t care what you do, whether you scream or you whisper, it’s got to resonate something in you that’s true.

AFTER: I don’t particularly like the tune to be honest. This sounds like it could be a Bessie Smith tune from that era. I’m not familiar with it, but I didn’t like the approach because it was like affectation more than actually getting to the nitty-gritty. Fabricated nitty-gritty.

11. Caetano Veloso

“Cucurrucucú Paloma” (Talk to Her, Milan). Veloso, vocals; Pedro Sà Moraes, guitar; Jaques Morelenbaum, cello; Jorge Helder, bass. Recorded in 2001.


BEFORE: At first I thought it was a male voice but then I can tell it’s a female voice. But it could be a male voice. Is that Elis Regina? No?

The song’s in Spanish, but you got the right country as far as the singer.

I know it’s Brazilian. I’m getting Brazil vibes. Is that Egberto Gismonti? Dori Caymmi? It’s not somebody that I recognize because a lot of them sound similar. Wait a minute. I’ve heard this song before. I know this voice. I just can’t think of the singer’s name. So beautiful. I like the balance of his lower range and then how he uses it in the mix with the falsetto. Fantastic. That must be one of his songs. It’s not? But he sings the hell out of it, working with the different registers in his voice. It’s so important to have dynamics.

AFTER: Extraordinary, the vocals and the accompaniment. Is he playing the guitar as well? No? It really doesn’t matter because it all meshes together. It’s sad but not melodramatic-almost like there’s some humor there, especially when he goes into the birdcalls. Not funny but charming, with the quality of his voice. Oh, I loved it.

12. Esther Phillips

“The Deacon Moves In” (The Best of Little Esther, Collectables). Esther Phillips, Charlie White, lead vocals; the Dominoes, vocals; Earle Warren Orchestra. Recorded in 1951.


BEFORE: Is this an old record? It sounds like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Is this a newer group? No, it sounds like the ’40s, like Bull Moose Jackson or Ivory Joe Hunter. Wait a minute; it might be Chuck Berry-that ’50s rock and roll.

AFTER: It didn’t sound like Little Esther. It sounded a little like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but not as polished. Sister Rosetta was a mother vocally and playing the guitar. She was playing a white Gibson and was a little crazy. We worked opposite of her at a place called the Eighth Wonder in New York, during the period in the early ’60s when gospel was being played in some nightclubs. She may have come from the church but she used to curse like a sailor.

I met Little Esther. She came to see me when I was at the Apollo working opposite Louis Jordan. She was a little older than me; she loved Dinah too. I was into music like this-rhythm and blues. A little before that it was called “race records.” I got exposed to all sorts of music at a very early age-jazz, singing-but I was always into R&B as well, because it was about music, it wasn’t about labels. I might go down to the sanctified church and hear something there, or go the clubs with my sisters and hear Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine singing “Dedicated to You,” or Dinah Washington singing “I Wanna Be Loved,” or Ruth Brown singing “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” It was all good music.

Little Esther was still a teenager when she did this song about a horny deacon. Did this turn people’s heads back in the early ’50s?

Not really. This is pretty tame, because I heard stuff a lot wilder. Sometimes my older sister would take me to Lloyd’s Manor and Redd Foxx would be the comedian there, before Little Jimmy Scott or Ruth Brown performed, and he was talking about all kinds of stuff. Women would be there pretending not to listen. He’d tell a story and say, “I see you there,” and point them out. He was ridiculous but it was funny as hell. This one joke he told was kind of nasty: He was with his wife and they were getting ready to go to bed, and she said, “Wait, a skunk’s in the house. What about that smell?” He said, “Oh, honey, he’ll get used to it like I did.”

Andy, you have so many stories to tell. Did you enjoy this?

I enjoyed it. I’ve done a lot of listening in my life, so there are certain things that always resonate with me-a Billie Holiday recording, or a song from the ’30s or ’40s or ’50s, even Miles or Monk. I heard that music coming up, and I think that’s part of the whole experience. I’m a listener.

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