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Andy Bey: A Vocal Master Returns

It's said that if you truly want to hear a musician's talent, slow down the tempo. Andy Bey sings some of the slowest tempos today: Listening to him is like looking over a master artist's shoulder as he meticulously applies paint to a canvas.

"I like to take my time, but it can be still with an edge," Bey says. "You can still feel the groove, no matter how slow it is. So slow is all right with me, because slow can be very suspenseful."

But Bey isn't just about singing slowly — and calling him simply a jazz singer misses the point. There's the passion of gospel in his baritone, plus an operatic sense of drama.

"You know, I'm a lot of things," Bey says. "I don't mind being called a jazz whatever. Anybody can put a name on the thing. But it's much broader than that. It's about music."

Bey was born in Newark, N.J., in 1939. Though his family struggled to get by, he grew up surrounded by music.

"There was always some kind of musical thing going on," Bey says. "There was always a piano in the house, a little raggedy upright or whatever you want to call it. There were people like Louis Jordan on the radio and Ella Fitzgerald. I kind of liked boogie-woogie and 'Caledonia' and all that stuff."

At the age of 68, Bey has been developing his sound since he was a boy singing the blues in 1953. By 25, he was harmonizing with more sophistication in the family group Andy and The Bey Sisters.

By 1974, Bey was singing funky. Then, he says, "I didn't get any record date for the next 22 years." In the music world, it's called woodshedding: the time a musician spends away from performing, finding, and perfecting his sound.

"I was working with my voice," Bey says. "In fact, I was studying with classical teachers who tried to convince me that I was a tenor, which I never was. I just had a lot of range. 'Cause I wanted to learn more about falsetto and different ways to utilize the soft palette and all that stuff.

"The soft palette is the breath," he adds. "It's a lot to do with how you're breathing, how you're supporting the diaphragm."

For two decades, Bey worked to control the volume of his voice with precision, and extended his range both lower and higher.

"I'm not so much trying to prove anything with range," he says. "I'm just trying to find a certain kind of sound. You can sing the blues at a whisper and you can sing it, you can belt it, and then you can use both dynamics within each song."

Ain't Necessarily So is the title of Bey's new CD. It features live performances that were recorded in 1996, the year he returned to the jazz scene. The disc features a number of standards Bey has molded over the years, including a tune from the '30s — "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" — that serves as the album's standout track.

"I've been doing it for close to 30 years or more," he says. "I got different approaches to it; I've changed the keys to it to fit where my voice is going. I understood that it was a Depression song, but I didn't want to sing it that way. I didn't want to sing, 'Yankee doodle de dum,' so I just scat all those parts."

Another of the album's distinguishing features is that it highlights Bey's piano playing as much as his voice.

"It's like a conversation between the two," Bey says. I can't say that I'm more of a singer, but one supports the other. I mean, I couldn't be without the piano, you know — wouldn't feel right. I need them both."

In the mythology of music, one of the most enduring ideas is of the musician who disappears from the scene and returns years later, having mastered his instrument. Andy Bey's voice is his instrument — and his new album captures the in-the-moment thrill of a master.

Ashley Kahn is the author of A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. Andy Bey's CD, Ain't Necessarily So, has just been released.

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