Born James Hawthorne in Yemassee, South Carolina, Bey moved with his family to Brooklyn and then to Harlem, where he began playing drums and singing in church choirs. He also served in the Navy during World War II and later attended cosmetology school.
In the 1950s, Bey performed in an international tour of Porgy and Bess starring Leontyne Price and Cab Calloway. He also began a busy recording career, performing on Herbie Mann's At the Village Gate (1961), Art Blakey's The African Beat (1962), Ahmed Abdul-Malik's Sounds of Africa (New Jazz, 1961), as well as albums by Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba and Pharoah Sanders, among others. He took his stage name after joining the Moorish Science Temple of America, a Muslim sect. Then he taught the shekere, a West African percussion instrument, at the Griot Institute at Intermediate School 246 in Brooklyn.
Bey died at his home in Brooklyn of stomach cancer at the age of 91. His widow, Barbara Kenyatta Bey (born Barbara Ann Coleman in Harlem on June 9, 1944), was a priestess of Yemaja in the Yoruba religion. She collapsed at his funeral and died four days later.
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (November 2014)
With Hamiet Bluiett
- Dangerously Suite (Soul Note, 1981)
With Herbie Mann
- Herbie Mann at the Village Gate (Atlantic, 1961)
- Herbie Mann Returns to the Village Gate (Atlantic, 1961 )
With Pharoah Sanders
- Izipho Zam (My Gifts) (Strata-East, 1969 )