Andy Bey was never stingy when it came to paying dues. As a child prodigy on piano and vocals growing up in World War II-era Newark, N.J., Bey probably could have become a star more than 50 years ago, but an inner reticence always seemed to hold him back. Instead, he spent decades honing his craft, becoming the toast of late 1950s Paris in a popular vocal trio with two of his older sisters. Later he recorded with jazz greats such as Horace Silver, Gary Bartz and Stanley Clarke, but never seized the spotlight on his own.
Finally, in the mid-’90s, the recognition that he had long eluded finally arrived when he began recording solely under his own name. Voted the top male jazz vocalist last year by the Jazz Journalists Association, Bey performs at the Jazz & Blues Company on Friday, focusing on pieces from his gorgeous new album American Song.
“I had a lot of hits and misses when I was young where I could have gotten out there, but there was something that always intervened that stopped me,” says Bey, 65, from his apartment in Manhattan. “It might have been a disappointment at the time, but as I got older I realized it was a blessing in disguise, because I kept on growing and learning from all of the older musicians and singers that came out of Newark.”
With encouragement from vocal legends like Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan, who was also born and raised in Newark, Bey always centered his life around music.
“I was like a sponge,” he says. “I listened to everything, from the blues singers I used to see on the street to all kinds of church situations, the Baptists and the Holy Rollers. I ended up playing the Apollo Theatre opposite Louis Jordan, someone who influenced me when I was just a kid.”
For much of his career he was featured in combos as a power belter, pushing his voice to be heard over hard-charging horns. But at a time when great male jazz singers were few and far between, Bey moved to the forefront of the scene when it became clear that his resonant baritone was equally effective crooning ballads and lilting Brazilian songs as it was tearing through horn-like solos. Indeed, he made his most important connection when he was in the midst of changing his sound from tough belter to tender balladeer.
Familiar with Bey’s recordings with Silver and Bartz, Los Angeles-based songwriter and producer Herb Jordan came to see the singer perform solo at the Whitney Museum.
“I did everything in an intimate way,” Bey says. “I wasn’t using any kind of forte or singing hard. I wanted to get another side of me out there.”
Duly impressed, Jordan set out to showcase Bey’s gift for turning standards into finely wrought, emotionally stirring tales. Backed only by his own piano work, Bey made his first American recording in more than two decades with 1996’s acclaimed Ballad Blues and Bey, establishing his reputation as one of the finest male jazz singers in the world.
Jordan has produced Bey’s subsequent three albums, each a definitive jazz vocal statement. In 1998, relinquishing the piano chair to the brilliant Geri Allen, Bey recorded Shades of Bey. In 2001, Bey accompanied himself on Tuesdays in Chinatown, exploring a mixed program encompassing Sting, Milton Nascimento and Big Bill Broonzy.
Rather than trying to please a record label, Bey and Jordan have created a series of classic albums by setting out to please themselves.
“We have functioned outside of the recording industry,” Jordan says from his office in Los Angeles. “We make all of our records independently, so Andy is not subject to a record company’s schedule and an executive’s attempt to chase a trend.”
Andy Bey plays Friday, April 8 at 7:30pm at The Jazz And Blues Company, San Carlos and 5th, Carmel (above The Hog’s Breath Inn). $55. 624-6432.