There aren’t nearly enough words to express the vast contributions that Toronto’s late cultural pioneer Howard Matthews – who entered the spirit world on August 31st, 2016 – made to local city life in general, or to the black community and the overall Toronto area music scene in particular. That would require a 288 page biography.
But in our efforts to preserve, document and disseminate crucial black Canadian history, not just during Black History Month, but throughout the calendar year, both for current educational purposes and for posterity, we present to you the life of Howard Matthews. Black lives really do matter.
Those in the Canadian cultural know have understood that for the last four decades, Howard was a trailblazer, a renaissance man, and a man of firsts. That might’ve had something to do with his adoration of the world’s first global black civil rights icon, the late Marcus Garvey, who was a Jamaican wordsmith and entrepreneur able to connect the entire African Diaspora through his words and actions.
As is the case with most renaissance men, who engage a very wide range of incalculable interests, some people only know them through their public contributions to cultural life, as was Howard’s case, being primarily known as an artist manager, restauranteur, tireless community worker, fundraiser and father. But these descriptions don’t tell the whole story or do him justice. Howard had also at one time or another been a model, actor (CBC), cook (Western Hospital), and rated films for the NFB (National Film Board) switching with ease between a dizzying array of roles and jobs covering his storied lifetime.
But back to the firsts.
Some know the St. Kitts born Howard as the devoted husband of Broadway star and jazz and blues singer Salome Bey “Canada’s First Lady of Blues”. Married to singer Salome Bey on April 7th, 1964, that year Bey moved to Toronto to be with Matthews. She thus began a highly successful solo career and he served as her manager. Out of their marriage and lifelong union, they had three children and one grandchild. Their son Marcus Malcolm Matthews lives in St. Kitts, while their two daughters, Saidah Baba Talibah “SATE” and Jacintha Tuku Matthews are Toronto based vocalists. Clearly, the apple did not fall far from the tree.
From the time he entered show business, some would argue that making a mark on Toronto’s cultural, entrepreneurial and music life was his fate and destiny. In 1947 at the age of 12, the first person Howard Matthews met when his family arrived in Toronto from St. Kitts was the late legendary jazz drummer Archie Alleyne. Archie sat one seat ahead of Howard when they attended Lansdowne Public School and they carried on a lifelong friendship. The two friends once even shared a house at 260 Church Street with renowned Canadian architect Harvey Cowan. One could only imagine what Archie and Howard are talking about now up in Heaven. If there aren’t any good jazz and blues clubs up near them pearly gates, Howard might be looking to open up the first one there – with Archie sitting in on drums naturally – as both their spirits continue to live on here, in Toronto.
By the late 1950s, Howard had co-founded The First Floor Club, an upstairs after-hours spot located at 33 Asquith Avenue near Yorkville, in a coach house just east of where the Toronto Reference Library now stands. It was at this club in 1961 that Howard first met his eventual wife vocalist Salome Bey, when she showed up with her brother and sister, Grammy Award nominated Andy Bey, and vocalist Geraldine Bey, (or Andy Bey and The Bey Sisters as they were called) looking for a jazz drummer named “Archie Alleyne” they had heard about. Andy and The Bey Sisters had just performed at Toronto’s Colonial Tavern before heading to the First Floor Club. At the front entrance of the club they encountered one of the club’s owners, Howard Matthews. And the rest, as they say is history.
Black Torontonians have always adored images of proud functioning black family units from elsewhere, namely the United States, whether they come vis a vis the mythical Cosby Show, right on down to the prevailing Holy Union of Barack and Michelle Obama. But for more than 30 years, dating back to the mid-1960s, Bey and Matthews prevailed as one of the first black Canadian power couples who led the way in intentionally promoting black culture and history, as a means of helping young, black people feel good about themselves. “From the very beginning, everything they did was done as a couple,” said blues singer and long-time friend Jackie Richardson in a Toronto Star story by reporter John Goddard.
Their home and restaurant (more on that later) was a cultural hub for many local and international traveling entertainers, professional athletes, politicians and music industry titans to gather. Out of the plethora of organic networks built, and connections made at their home and restaurant, there is one well documented tale of local urban legend that arguably stands out from some of the rest. And it involves how multiple Grammy winning bluesman BB King actually first met fellow blues icon Lonnie Johnson. It was at Howard Matthews house! He was hanging out in Howards kitchen with fellow music luminaries Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.
Here’s the quick version as recounted by Canadian music industry veteran Richard Flohil – who was the first to bring B.B. King to Toronto for a concert – in his book Louis Armstrong’s Laxative and 100 Mostly True Stories About A Life In Music. Flohill writes: “Although they had never met, King counted Johnson as one of the most influential figures — along with jazz guitarist Charlie Christian — in the formation of his own unique style. I told my surprise caller — in town early for a show and enjoying a rare night off — I’d get back to him. I phoned Howard Matthews, the owner of the city’s first soul food restaurant, The Underground Railroad, a key figure on Toronto’s burgeoning black music scene, and the husband of singer Salome Bey. “D’you where Lonnie Johnson is?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “Well, where IS he?” I asked. “In my kitchen,” was the reply.
Others knew Howard as part owner of “Toronto’s first soul food restaurant” – The Underground Railroad – where all of this spontaneous magic happened.
The restaurant opened on February 12, 1969, and became one of the city’s best-known restaurants for over 20 years, where locals took out-of-town guests to rub elbows with celebrities and professional athletes. (Torontoist, 2014). Howard was one of the four partners in the business, alongside the late Archie Alleyne and two former Toronto Argonauts football stars, quarterback John Henry Jackson and kicker Dave Mann. The first location of the Underground Railroad was 406 Bloor Street East and had 60 seats for in-house dining. The restaurant then changed locations in April 1973, moving to 225 King St. East to accommodate up to 200 patrons. “Southern fried chicken, barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas and collard greens,” Alleyne said of the menu, when being interviewed by John Goddard of the Toronto Star. His love for providing unique cultural dining experiences continued well on into the early 2000s when he worked at Southern Po Boys. Before becoming an established restauranteur, as a gregarious and admittedly troublesome teenager, Howard had actually learned to cook when he was sent away to a boy’s reformatory school in Bowmanville (Ontario Training School for Boys). After working odd jobs, he and a business partner opened the First Floor Club, a jazz club in a former coach house on Asquith Avenue, and later turned the Kibitzeria restaurant, near the University of Toronto, into a blues bar. Then from 1969 to 1979, he helped run the restaurant portion of the business.
By the late 80s, Howard became one of the co-founders of CAN:BAIA (Canadian Artists Network: Black Artists In Action), the first black national multi-disciplinary arts organization that worked to promote black artists both nationally and internationally. Certainly, honoring those among us, and those who came before us, was a long running theme throughout Howards life. He established a fundraising concert series known as The Blues Ball, with proceeds going to the Canadian Cancer Society.
Now back to legendary black civil rights icon Marcus Garvey. Howard always felt it was important to honor those who paved the way for him to do his work, just as we honor him now, and had spent some of his earlier years producing music events with Philip Harry and Band 355 – i.e. 355 was the Toronto address of the UNIA (United Negro Improvement Association) Hall on College near Augusta where Marcus Garvey would speak – which included the late Archie Alleyne and various local black musicians.
By the early 2000s, perhaps many young and old black entrepreneurs and/or emerging jazz, soul and blues music industry enthusiasts, musicians, and change makers, were already standing on the shoulders of greats like Howard that came before them, and didn’t even know. This document lays testament to a localized black music history that should never go forgotten. By 2005 Howard had a stroke and suffered from Aphasia. He became a resident of the Lakeside Long Term Care home along with his wife Salome and eventually passed away on August 31st 2016.
On September 18th at Lula Lounge, please join us for a celebration of not only Howard Matthews’ incomparable life but also of black Canadian music and cultural history.