As cult figures go in popular music, Andy and the Bey Sisters rank with the cultiest. The trio of singing siblings from Newark, New Jersey–Andy Bey, who also plays piano, and his older sisters Geraldine and Salome–started out in the mid-1950s as an east coast lounge act. But their first European tour–a two-month gig that stretched into two years–made them a favorite of the cognoscenti who heard them at such venues as Paris’s famed Blue Note nightclub. American jazz impresario George Wein took them under his wing, guiding them to a contract with RCA Victor, which released their self-titled debut album in 1961. The record, now long out of print, proclaimed them a “unique vocal trio.” The adjective was apt. Their dark, throbbingly emotional sound–bluesy and gospel-tinged, characterized by heavy vibratos, slow tempos, and dramatic dynamics–swelled from a vocal blend developed over years of ad-libbing.

“It wasn’t like the Hi-Los or the Four Freshmen–it had a more improvisational feel,” recalls Andy, now based in New York and enjoying a newly reenergized solo career. “It was homegrown.” Adds his sister Geraldine de Haas, now a highly respected jazz producer in Chicago, “We were all unschooled. Someone described us as primitive in a way. We heard and felt things differently; we didn’t know the rules. So we broke them.”

The group’s basic formula was simple but unusual: they would phrase a song with a soloist’s loose, funky individuality–bending notes, pulling and pushing the melody against the beat–and then arrange the reshaped tune in dense three-part harmony. Their repertoire was nothing if not eclectic: the RCA album, produced in Nashville by Chet Atkins, ranges from jazz (Andy’s plaintive solo on Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” is a masterpiece) to country, from Brazilian samba (an Antonio Carlos Jobim selection from the movie Black Orpheus, sung in Portuguese) to West Indian calypso, from R & B (a grinding version of Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”) to Broadway (“It Must Be So,” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, arranged as a stunning gospel chorale). Despite being flawed by pro-ducer Atkins’s attempt to “sweeten” the tracks with strings and white-bread backup vocals, Andy and the Bey Sisters remains a rare gem.

But in the music business, “unique” can be a euphemism for uncommercial; in an age when singing groups, especially black ones, were routinely forced into stylistic straitjackets, Andy and the Bey Sisters’ marketing profile remained elusive. “They didn’t know where to put us. They couldn’t pigeonhole us,” says Andy. Even after cutting two albums for Prestige–Now Hear and ‘Round Midnight, which show them moving toward a more progressive jazz style–they failed to broaden their audience beyond a core of informed admirers. “Things just sort of fizzled out,” Andy says. “Other things intervened, and we started moving in different directions.”

While Salome Bey pursued a musical-theater career on Broadway and in Toronto, Geraldine married jazz bassist Eddie de Haas and moved to Chicago, where she’s been active as a performer (the original Chicago production of Hair, Free Street Theater, and numerous gigs at jazz clubs over the years) and arts administrator. The former director of performing arts programs for the Illinois Arts Council, she’s founder and president of Jazz Unites Inc., a south-side agency whose programming includes an annual Duke Ellington tribute as well as the yearly Jazzfest

at the South Shore Cultural Center; she’s also spear-heading an effort to build a museum of jazz history here. Geraldine’s children, Aisha and Darius de Haas, have also carved out careers in musical theater and jazz.

Andy, meanwhile, stayed in New York. Despite working for years as a singer and pianist with the likes of Horace Silver, Max Roach, and Gary Bartz, he remained a relatively unknown figure until last year, when he emerged from obscurity with the acclaimed CD Ballads, Blues & Bey on Evidence Music. Showcasing Andy as a solo singer-pianist, Ballads, Blues & Bey’s ruminative renditions of standards by the likes of Ellington and Gershwin display the virtuosity and adventurousness that characterized Andy and the Bey Sisters, as unpredictably reinvented melodies soar into ethereal head tones and dive into guttural growls. (Andy attributes his remarkable falsetto to his experience at blending vocally with his sisters.)

Ever the maverick, Andy is also openly gay–a highly unusual stance in the traditionally macho world of jazz. He came out publicly three years ago after being diagnosed as HIV positive. “It’s given me a certain awareness of who I am,” he says. “It puts everything out there. There’s none of that thing of having to worry what will this or that person think once they find out. It took me a while to deal with it. It’s not about flag-waving; it’s about finding a certain peace within yourself. That’s hard in general, whether you’re gay or straight.” He cites a lesson learned from a lifetime making music: “You can’t worry about pleasing this element or that element. A lot of singers try to put out a certain kind of image. With me it’s about communication.”

One can only hope Andy Bey’s “overnight stardom” at the age of 57 will prod some enlightened record exec to reissue Andy and the Bey Sisters’ old RCA and Prestige albums, as well as some never-released tracks Andy says are still in the can. “There’s more than enough material in the vaults to make a couple more albums,” he says. There’s also tentative talk of the trio reuniting here next May as part of an international Duke Ellington conference. “You never know,” says Andy. “Once you get a little hot, everything starts to come out of the woodwork.”

Old fans and new admirers can sample the Bey artistry when Andy Bey and Geraldine de Haas appear together–for the first time in years–this Friday as part of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ “Rollin’ on Randolph” series, which offers performances and discussions in an intimate, nonclub setting. They’ll sing and talk about their work at 12:15 PM at the Chicago Cultural Center’s second-floor Claudia Cassidy Theater, 78 E. Washington. It’s free; call 312-744-6630 for more information.

–Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Andy Bey photo by Stephanie (?); Geraldine de Haas photo by Jim Alexander Newberry; album cover.