Kansas City singer Ida McBeth, 'unmatched in melody and soul,' dies at 70
Ida McBeth started her career as a teenager singing at the Playboy Club in downtown Kansas City. She went on to earn mayoral proclamations and a lifetime achievement award from the American Jazz Museum.
Ida McBeth, a deep-throated diva whose dramatic renderings of jazz, blues and pop standards entertained countless Kansas Citians over decades performing at area music clubs, died Wednesday morning.
McBeth’s singular sound, she once explained, was driven by her desire to make sure audiences felt the experience behind the songs.
“I’m telling a story. That’s why I feel like it sounds distinctive,” McBeth told KCUR’s Chuck Haddix.
McBeth’s long legacy as an entertainer earned her a litany of Kansas City accolades: a mayoral proclamation in her honor in 1990; “Best Of” write-ups in The Pitch in the mid-2000s; a crown and keys to the city as the Queen of the Kansas City, Kansas, Street Blues Festival in 2005; an induction into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame in 2019.
“She played around the world, bearing the torch of the queen of jazz and blues," says Gerald Dunn, director of entertainment at the Blue Room. Dunn hired McBeth for regular performances there more than 20 years ago.
"In reference to Black women in jazz, for me it was empowering to me to see a woman having her own group — it was usually men," vocalist Millie Edwards says of McBeth's role as a band leader. "That gave hope to young Black girls to be in music; a woman can not only be in the scene but also handle the business side of it. That was a sign of strength and hope."
A moment of pause and prayer for the family of our dear lady of song Ida McBeth as she ascends to heaven. She was a Kansas City musical force and light, unmatched in melody and soul. May the warmth of her smile and tone carry us through. We love you Ida. pic.twitter.com/8ZF9bKnqJL— American Jazz Museum (@ajazzmuseumKC) March 1, 2023
When the American Jazz Museum honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, McBeth told Haddix it was hard to fathom because it seemed as if her career was just getting started.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1952, McBeth recalled singing her first solo in church when she was just five years old. The song was “It’s In My Heart.”
“I loved the song, so I started singing it,” she remembered. “And I always sounded like a grown woman, even when I was a little girl. So one Sunday morning they said, ‘We’re gonna have Miss McBeth come up here, little old Miss McBeth, come up here and sing the song — baby, come on.’”
Choir members arranged boxes for her to stand on so she could reach the microphone. When the solo came around, she began to sing.
“And I remember — because it kind of scared me — all the sisters got to falling out with the white dresses on, and the deacon was going over there with the fans, fanning them trying to get them off the floor, and I was getting scared, thinking, ‘My mother’s gonna give me a whooping ‘cause I made the old ladies fall out," she said. "But then I found out that was a good thing.”
McBeth’s professional career began in a decidedly less sacred environment.
As a young teenager, McBeth would sneak away from a gift-wrapping job at Montgomery Ward on 7th Street in Kansas City, Kansas, to sing at the Playboy Club in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
She’d been discovered by a Kansas City, Kansas, music store owner named Ray Naylor, who heard her singing along to Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” while browsing sheet music.
“He stopped me and said, ‘Oh my God, I love your voice. Do you sing anywhere?’ I said no, and he said, ‘We’re going to get you somewhere.’”
Naylor formed a trio and got them gigs at the Playboy Club.
“My mother finally found out that I was sneaking over at the Playboy Club," McBeth remembered. "She got so upset, until I showed her how much money I was making.”
Soon, the trio had regular gigs at the Playboy Club in Chicago, too.
In those days, McBeth said, she performed whatever was popular at the time, including hits by performers like Roberta Flack.
“I did a lot of those. And I was trying to sound like those people,” she said. “Then I finally found my own voice. It takes time to find who you are.”
In crafting her distinctive persona, McBeth also resisted becoming too tied to the city’s legacy sounds.
“I couldn’t sing the blues because I had never really had the blues,” she told Haddix. “I didn’t want to sound like somebody else singing the blues. That was a personal thing.”
Eventually, she got the blues enough to sing them.
"That was the hardest phase of music I had to ever sing,” she said.
After graduating high school McBeth attended the University of Kansas, but left college and moved in 1973 to Los Angeles, where she played six nights a week at a Bel Air club and recorded her first album.
McBeth returned to Kansas City and began performing regularly at the storied Signboard Bar, at what was then the Crown Center Hotel. She went on to perform on Sunday nights at Harry Starker’s on the Plaza.
But it was McBeth’s 17-year gig at the Point every Wednesday through Saturday that turned her into a Kansas City institution. From those gigs, she went on to regular performances at the Blue Room.
“She paid tribute to the women who she said left a blueprint for other women artists: Julia Lee, Nancy Wilson and, of course, Coco Taylor — and she made them part of her show," says Dunn.
People would come to her shows and ask for another artist's song, Dunn says, "because she had taken those songs and made (them) her own. If she liked a song she was going to take it and make it her own. That was one of her trademarks.”
From her earliest years singing in church, through her teenage years playing gigs in places where she probably shouldn’t have been, to a luminous career in the Kansas City spotlight, McBeth’s singular voice seemed to be powered by simple, yet certain, confidence.
“I was strong enough to where I wanted to sing because I knew I had a song to sing,” McBeth told Haddix. “It’s just me. Can’t nobody be Ida better than I can be Ida.”
KCUR's Laura Ziegler and Reginald David contributed to this report.