Frank Bey sang the blues from a soul seared by growing up in Jim Crow Georgia.
When just a boy, he saw a white mob spit and throw rocks at African Americans, he told The Inquirer in 2016.
"You feel that you're never good enough," he said. "My mother was a gospel singer in the black Welcome Baptist Church, but we weren't allowed to walk across the yard to the white church. It was a collective form of insanity."
Mr. Bey, 74, a revered Philadelphia soul and blues singer, died Sunday, June 7, at his home in Glenolden after a long battle with kidney disease.
“He knew it was his time,” said his wife, Toni. “He had a song out called All My Dues Are Paid, and boy, did he ever pay.”
Within the blues community, Mr. Bey was known as a six-time Blues Music Award nominee and an award-winning recording artist.
Although he never garnered the mainstream recognition of a B.B. King or Otis Redding, he matched them in heritage, musicianship, and caliber of performance, said Sallie Bengtson, president of Nola Blue Records in Lancaster. The label released his last album.
“Frank embodied the soulful authenticity of a rural Georgia native,” Bengtson wrote in a tribute. “Born into a musical family, he endured the Jim Crow South of his youth. He was one of the few remaining musicians born during that era in American music history.”
A native of Millen, Ga., Mr. Bey came to Philadelphia at 17. By that time, he had been singing rhythm and blues for years “in juke joints down in the swamps,” he told The Inquirer.
“He started off in church singing with his mother. He sang through public school, and he had a little group of his own that sang around town,” his wife said. Singing was all he wanted to do, and he developed a following in the South and later in the Philadelphia area.
“He was a deep, soulful blues singer,” said Jonny Meister, host of The Blues Show that airs Saturday nights at 7 on WXPN-FM. “He didn’t become a national figure, but he did get nominated for Soul Blues Album of the Year in 2019 and Soul Blues Male Artist the same year.”
The awards are given by the Blues Foundation, a Memphis nonprofit that sponsors and promotes the singing of the blues around the world.
His first two albums – Steppin’ Out on MAG Records in 1998, and Blues in the Pocket on Jeffhouse Records in 2006 – were released during the start of health issues that restricted his ability to perform for the rest of his career, Bengtson wrote. He scheduled gigs when fresh from kidney dialysis and sang while seated.
He moved to the Bay Area in California, where he recorded three releases with Anthony Paule on Blue Dot Records: You Don’t Know Nothing in 2012, Soul for Your Blues in 2013, and Not Going Away in 2015.
His final two solo works were Back in Business in 2018, recorded in Nashville, and his January release, All My Dues Are Paid. It was recorded in San Jose, Calif., and released by Nola Blue Records.
Mr. Bey’s rendering of John Lennon’s “Imagine” was the highlight of his live performances.
“It consistently brought audiences to their feet in rousing applause and appreciation for its powerful beauty and inspirational message,” Bengtson wrote.
He performed at venues ranging from small churches, clubs, and festivals to national and international jazz festivals.
Tom Dwyer, Mr. Bey’s friend and manager, described him as warmhearted, loyal, honest, gentle, open to others, inventive, and resilient. “He was loved by almost every musician and promoter he worked with,” Dwyer said.
In his spare time, Mr. Bey enjoyed cooking, telling stories, and caring for Bud, a parrot that often joined him onstage. “Take a bow, Bud,” he would tell the bird, his wife said.
At age 27, he changed his name from Bass to Bey after joining the Moorish Science Temple of America. His first wife was Louise Bass. They divorced. She survives. In 1984, he married Toni Bey.
Beside his wife and ex-wife, he is survived by sons Nate, Frank, and Reginald Bass, and stepdaughter Charmone Smith.
Plans for a life celebration were pending.