“You’re nervous at first and then you start singing. And the music just takes you away.”


Administrative assistant, Afro-American Studies
Length of service:
8 years
Other stuff:
Among her fans are her adult daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Audrey Smith-Bey’s father didn’t want her to grow up to be a professional singer.

Fortunately, she ignored her father’s advice.

While it’s not her main line of work, Smith-Bey has made a name for herself locally as a jazz vocalist. And she’s become a part of the campus musical scene, performing at several Penn and Penn-sponsored events, often accompanied by Assistant Professor of Music Guthrie Ramsey.

She describes her own performance style as “jazz mixed with a classical flair,” and counts among her influences such legendary singers as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dionne Warwick, Cleo Laine and Michelle Ferrell.

As might be expected of the daughter of a singer, music has been an integral part of her life from the beginning.

Q. Do you sing professionally or is this just an avocation?
I do sing professionally. I actually started singing at the age of 6 with my sisters. My father used to be an entertainer, and his voice was similar to Arthur Prysock and Billy Eckstine…the big band sound, so there was always music in the house.

Q. Did you and your sisters have a group?
Yes, it was a trio, it was the three of us. We were the opening guest for a group out of Philadelphia at that time in the ’70s called Chapter One. I don’t know where they are now, what they are doing today.
We enjoyed singing. But my father didn’t want us to go into the business.

Q. Why not?
He never did give a reason why not. But we found out later — he’s deceased now, but he told a friend that he didn’t want his girls in the business because it’s pretty rough and biased. Singing, we got a chance to see the negative side of the business.

Q. Such as…?
Well, being a woman, people just figure they could take advantage of you. Men would make all kinds of offers, and I’m sure today that it’s reversed, that women make offers to men, but that’s how it was for us back then. People would promise the world — we almost signed a contract and we’re glad that we didn’t because it wasn’t a good one. So we just continued to [do live performances].
I sang recently in Allenwood [Federal] Penitentiary here in Pennsylvania.

Q. How was that?
Oh, it’s scary to be confined. They had the automated gates, not like what you see on TV when they clank it shut. But when it’s shut, it’s shut. That’s really something. And it was an all-male population that it’s designed for.

Q. Were they appreciative?
They were very appreciative. But it’s kind of hard to get used to men staring at you, because I guess they haven’t seen, you know, women for quite some time.

Q. About how many concerts or performances do you perform each year?
Well, whatever opportunity I get, I take the opportunity. So it’s not like it’s steady. Usually during the summer, it’s sort of slow. But I perform at least once or twice per month.

Q. What sort of audience do you most enjoy performing in front of?
I normally prefer the older crowd, from 30 up. But when I performed at the Art Sanctuary, [Lecturer in English] Lorene Cary brought her daughter to the office, Zoe. She said her daughter had mentioned to her that she really liked the song that I was singing. I sang something by Diane Reeves. And her daughter was really young, I think she was maybe 4 or 5 at the time, and I didn’t figure that someone that young would understand what I was saying. She said, You know that lady in the dress? and she described me in a particular way, and that was interesting. So I know I can relate to a younger audience as well.

Q. Are you interested in recording some day?
I’ll see how it goes. To make a living out of it, I’d have to see, because there’s so much involved. As I said, it is a business, and you need to know the business or you’ll be the business.

Q. Has there ever been a performance that you considered especially magical?
It would probably be the second one here at Penn, in the Penn Humanities Forum at the Clef Club. That was a magical night for me. I was just so full of energy, nervousness — I was on a high for a couple of days after that show. I guess if you were a musician or performer, you know the feeling — when they call your name and you go out and then you’re nervous at first and then you start singing. And the music just takes you away. It’s like being in heaven. Just such a wonderful feeling.

Q. Have you ever performed outside Philadelphia?
When I was performing with my sisters. … We did the East Coast, Baltimore and New York City, but not out of the East Coast, no.

Q. But since you’ve been on your own, you’ve stayed closer to home?
Yes. But I’d like to travel and perform at other venues in other states. You know, a weekend, when we have holidays here and we’re off sometimes, and I could squeeze that in, I’d take it.


Originally published on October 26, 2000