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Chief Bey: 1913-2004
Chief Bey
African drums

Born: 1913 in Yamassee, NC
Died: April 8, 2004 in Brooklyn, NY

Master of African drums

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins

African drum master Chief Bey died on cancer at the age of 91 on April 8, 2004. A member of Babatunde Olatunji's group Drums of Passion, Bey was one of the most popular African drummers on the jazz crossover scene.

Born James Hawthorne in Yamassee, NC, in 1913, Chief Bey assumed his working name after embracing the Yoruban Yemaja religion. Rigorous training on proper drum techniques accompanied his religious interests, and his interest in jazz made an ideal touchpoint for his musical career.

Babatunde hired Bey (then billed as Baba Hawthorne Bey) for his immensely popular 1959 album, Drums of Passion (Columbia), which set off a nationwide craze for African drumming. Their working relationship endured for the remainder of Olatunji's life. Bey next appeared on Herbie Mann's 1961 album At the Village Gate (Atlantic), which included the smash hit "Comin' Home Baby". The drummer also worked with Ahmed Abdul-Malik (Sounds of Africa, 1962, New Jazz), Art Blakey (African Beat, 1962, Blue Note), guitarist/vocalist Solomon Ilori (African High Life, 1963, Blue Note), Pharoah Sanders (Izipho Zam, 1969, Strata-East; Thembi, 1970, Impulse), Hamiet Bluiett (several sessions beginning with Dangerously Suite, 1981, Soul Note), the World Saxophone Quartet, Miriam Makeba and Randy Weston.

At Chief Bey's funeral his wife, retired nurse Barbara Kenyatta Bey, collapsed and was hospitalized. She joined her husband in death four days later.

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.


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