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Hitting the Highlights: Andy Bey's Best

Please allow a usually jaded music journalist a moment of giddy enthusiasm, but the passion that Andy Bey's singular, silken baritone instills will not be denied. He is a true original — a master of volume, rhythm, and shade. Listening to him live is to know how it must have felt to be there for performances by other jazz masters (say, Billie Holiday or Billy Eckstine), and to be grateful that Bey is alive and active.

Ask Aretha Franklin or, if only one could, Sarah Vaughan. Or Ray Charles or Marvin Gaye. Or any of the countless musicians and music enthusiasts who have fallen under the spell of Bey's vocal conception and the peculiar balance that his sound achieves: It's precise in intonation and pacing, yet strangely loose. Sultry and smoky, yet deeply spiritual. Small surprise that both the blues and gospel figure heavily in his musical upbringing.

Bey was born in 1939 in Newark, N.J., and was a child prodigy as a singer and pianist. By age 6, he was able to perform the Louis Jordan hit "Caldonia," and by 12, he was gigging at the Apollo Theater and recording for the small Jubilee label. It was an auspicious beginning to a lifelong musical journey. After performing in a variety of situations — harmonizing with his sisters in the '60s, singing with legendary pianist Horace Silver in the '70s — a long hiatus followed, during which he worked on his voice, on the muscles that supported his voice, and on the lifestyle that supported his career.

"I've practiced yoga headstands, shoulder stands, sun salutations," Bey told writer David Ritz in 2004. "Breathing. Respect for the breath. Respect for life. Found solace in simple prayer and meditation... I've tried to vigorously exercise my spirit as well as my voice."

Listed below are recordings that capture Bey at three momentous points along his musical journey. All serve equally well as a first step into a soul-stilling world of sparseness and subtlety.

Andy and the Bey Sisters, 'Round Midnight

A 1965 recording, 'Round Midnight features Bey with sisters Salome and Geraldine, with supple jazz accompaniment. At first, the harmonies seem almost corny, but then the sophistication and uncanny flexibility of their three-part style hits home. Just listen and compare how they vary their approach in singing the title line of "Everybody Loves My Baby." (Listen: "Everybody Loves My Baby")

Andy Bey, Ballads, Blues & Bey

A 1996 recording, Ballads, Blues & Bey heralded the return of a vocal master, with a new producer (Herb Jordan) who understood and played to the peculiarities of Bey's sound. His take on various standards plumbed emotional depths that few have found in the same material. "To hear it purely, with the hush occasionally revealing hairline cracks in shifts between deep romantic exhalations and falsetto sequences," raved the normally reserved New York Times, "is a singular experience." (Listen: "I'm Just a Lucky So and So")

Andy Bey, American Song

American Song is more heavily produced and arranged than his previous recordings — acoustic guitar here, a horn section there — yet it's still sparse and exceedingly tasteful. Is this Bey's best? Many have opined as much. He sings some of the saddest songs ever composed — "Midnight Sun," "Speak Low," "Angel Eyes," "Lush Life" — allowing each to develop its own tug between memory and melancholy, romance and regret. His rendition of "Lonely Town" remains a masterpiece of timing, transition, and unguarded emotion. (Listen: "Lonely Town")

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.