She starting singing as part of a band, opening for Bob Marley at Madison Square Garden, when she was 12 and grew to become the first black woman to win a Juno Award a decade later – Liberty Silver has had a career most people can only dream of.
Co-writing and singing theme songs for two Olympics, performing for world leaders and singing a duet with Mike Reno of Loverboy as part of the Tears Are Not Enough Ethiopian famine fundraiser, Liberty has stayed true to herself and lived her life with integrity and a passion for her art. We talked with her recently ahead of a live stream fundraiser for the Amherstburg Freedom Museum about her career and growing up in Peterborough Ontario.
Tell me a little bit about growing up, you were adopted by a British family and grew up in Peterborough?
Yeah, it was interesting. I was adopted at a very young age, less than a toddler and life was great until I hit public school, and people showed me that I was different. It was quite the journey. I had to fight my way in and out of the parking, in the school yard, and there’s lots of kids who called me all different kinds of names and it was bad. I remember sitting in the middle of my bed in the middle of the night crying and asking God, “What do you want, what am I doing here?” It wasn’t the fact that they were saying that I was different, but I knew I was displaced as a child. So I had big conversations with him. My parents were British and a lot of people said, well, they should have helped you, they should have made you understand, but they didn’t know how to. They used to say, “Oh, don’t give it any energy, just forget about it, brush it under the carpet.”, but when you’re going through it, you can’t do that.
I came home one day and a girl got off the bus with me, and nobody ever walked with me to or from school. And she said, “You know, we don’t hate you because you’re black, we hate because you’re black and adopted.” I went home to my mom, and I said, “What’s adopted?” And my mother explained it to me, you’re from somebody else but we took you and now you’re ours and we love you. And I said, Okay, so everything’s a lie. She said, “So are you alright? And I said, “Yeah, I want to go now.” She says where do you want to go? I want to leave. So my mother arranged for me to go and see my older sister in Toronto, and she goes, “We’ll drive you.” And I said “No, no. I want to take a bus.” And I took a bus to Toronto, I was twelve years old, and it was the first time I had seen other people other than me that looked like me other than when magically Soul Train beamed its way into Peterborough every Saturday morning and I realized I wasn’t the only one. I thought I was the only one on earth, I really did.
I got to my sister’s and she had a pool in her apartment building so I went down for a swim and all of a sudden I hear this guy come through the parking lot and he says, “Wow, you can really sing! I know a band.” He took me to an audition and I got the audition and went back to my sister’s and said, “I got to go, I’m going to a gig.” She said, “You’ve got a job already?” I said, Yeah, I’m gone. Back in those days you could drive over the border with twelve musicians and their instruments and I ended up opening up for Bob Marley at Madison Square Garden. I didn’t even really know who Bob Marley was because we never heard of Bob Marley in Peterborough. I used to go Sam the record man and buy 99 cent records of Earth Wind and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone, all those things. When I got back to Toronto after Madison Square Garden I just did what I knew I was meant to do, which was sing, collaborate, write, and go on tour. I wasn’t looking for awards, I wasn’t looking for that. I just knew that inside me I had found my own destiny and I was exercising that right. And that’s all I did, that’s all I was in it for and of course to get paid. You know, you still learn you got to get paid.
That’s an incredible story. Your first paying gig is opening for Bob Marley. I mean, obviously, it must have told you even at that young age that “Gee, I guess I have talent.”
Yeah, I think I knew I already had talent and I’ll tell you why. Because my father was a first string violin player in the symphony orchestra in Peterborough and he had students, so I was always singing and standing in front of the walls of the basement and making up words to jazz albums, or whatever it was, and projecting. I went to the Olympics, I wrote two Olympic themes that I went back to my dad and I said, Dad, I’m going to the Olympics again. He goes, “Well, that’s not bloody surprising you know, you used to stand in front of the walls and pretend you’re singing to thousands of people. And then I understood the power of manifestation and what you do to make yourself bring out what’s inside of you and that’s what I was doing. That was my escape actually, it took away from all the bullying, from all the sticks and stones and break your bones stuff and I found my piece there. So when I actually got to do it, it was like, wow, this is it; I’m not doing anything else.
It sounds like your dad, being a musician as well was supportive, and probably a big influence, right? Kind of brought that out of you?
Yeah, I get my work ethic from him. He would have violin students come in every Saturday morning, and they’d come with their violins and weeks and weeks went by and I never heard any music being played. I said, “Dad, how come you’re not letting them play the violin?” He’d say, “They have to learn how to hold the bloody bow first.” So he was British, he was a stickler for those things. And they had to be done right. So all those things were inside my head and I had heard them. So when I heard jazz music, oh, that’s a boppity bee bop boop, okay, I know that. So in that sense, absolutely. And I knew I got it, because I enjoyed it and I just did it, it was effortless. I didn’t like him too much because he was a discipliner, but when he discovered I liked music he brought me into his workshop in the basement and he let me play with the trains and stuff and I knew right then we were real tight, but because we had a mutual understanding and respect for the music so it was nice really.
So then 1985 comes, a tremendous year for you, groundbreaking. You won two Juno’s that year. Tell us about that because it was a really big deal.
Yeah, it was the first year of the Junos having inclusivity and so it was a big deal and all the artists were really excited. And I’m like, yeah, that’s cool and I didn’t get the dynamic of what it was until I got there that night because there was something that happened.
They did an interview with all the artists and one guy said, “Oh, It’s a token and it’s no good.” And I said, “Well, this is really good for us. I think this is a really great thing.” And then of course, when the article came out, they put his line underneath my picture, “Oh, it’s a token.” So I learned about the press back at that time, but it was huge, it was huge. I took everything with stride; I didn’t get really excited about stuff because I was more into doing a good performance, feeling relaxed and being happy. And that night I got to perform the original that I won the Juno for and I also won a Juno for reggae.
When I first started doing music in Toronto, it was reggae. So I was like, okay there’s so many great reggae artists; I know somebody else is going to win, because I know they’ve been plugging at it for a long while too. And I did for many years too, it’s just when the times changed, and the economy changed. I changed different bands, right? When the economy’s doing good, you go to jazz and you go to R&B because it’s affordable.
I got there late for the Junos and the reggae award had already gone and Otis (Gayle) had accepted for the both of us. So I thought that’s cool because he’s on that song and it’s good for him. And I’m looking at well, that would be great if my song could win, okay, we’ll see what happens. I was up so for so many awards that night, I think five or something like that. I was on Bill King’s album and another person’s album because I collaborated so much.
When I sang my song and then they announced my name, I looked at the person for the record company and I said, “Oh, who won?” and he goes, “You did, you did!” And if you ever watch the tape, it takes a minute for me to get up there because I was like, “Oh, I one?” Yeah. So when I got up there, that’s when it hit me and I got real shy and I thanked God and I thanked three people, and I got the hell off the stage, basically. And even though it was wonderful, it was more wonderful afterwards, because then you feel what’s going on around you, and you get the impact of everything that’s going on. And I prefer to be more humble because it’s a gift, right?
I know how important it is and also the reality of the Junos is that when you walk off the stage, and there’s a lady there waiting for you and she says, “Oh, can I see the Juno please? And I go “Yes, here.” And she goes, if you want this Juno you’re going to have to pay three hundred and fifty dollars for it. Here’s the place you go to and this is where you pick it up. So you just place your order, and you’re good to go. So that was another okay, you know, I wait, I don’t get too excited, even though I’m happy. And I wait for it, wait for it. You’re walking on the school property, wait for it. All those things that used to not terrify me, but try to hurt me, prepared me for the music business in a big way. So when they took the Juno I thought, okay, cool, no problem, I’ll pay for it or the record company will pay for it. I’ll pay for it. That’s okay. I’ll take care of me. No problem. But it opened my eyes again. And every time my eyes are opened, I’m not so jumpy, jumpy and happy, happy. I’m a really happy person. I joke a lot and have fun. But the reality is real. You know, you have to deal with the reality. And the music business showed me a lot of realities.
That’s crazy that you have to pay for your award!
Yeah, I do public speaking during Black History Month, and I went to a Catholic school with young people from kindergarten all the way up to seven, and I told them the story about coming off the stage and they took the Juno and a little Italian girl, she was in grade one. She goes, “That’s a nota nice!” and I said you must have been raised by your Nona because she sounded just like an older person. But the words that she was saying again, I was like, aha! Yeah, you know what’s happening!
So there’s a reality, what people see is one thing, but what goes on is quite another. I understand the business. At that point, I said, “Oh, this is the business of music; it’s not the music business. So you really have to know what you’re doing and most artists in that position in that category had to raise their funds themselves. They had wives.
There’s a joke, what’s a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless. So you know, we have to do a lot of our own hustling, and other artists get backing, so there was really no springboard for us. That year we were all doing it ourselves. And I think a lot of people were playing catch up because for four years in between Bob Marley, or how many years and then the Junos, I had just been working. This is business. So let me work it.
So then, another thing happened that year where David Foster approached you while you were playing in a club and asked you to be a part of the Tears Are Not Enough recording in support of Ethiopian famine, right?
Yeah, he came up to me and said, “There’s a big controversy about this. We don’t have enough black people and I want you in It.” and I went, Okay! I didn’t think about the politics, you know, I really didn’t think about it. I got there and I realized he had me in the front line with everybody like Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray, Burton Cummings, and all these people. And I said, “David”, and he goes, “Yes?” I don’t know if I’m supposed to be here. I saw these people growing up, right. And he says, “You stay right there, you’re exactly where you belong.” And he saw something in me that I wasn’t really reflecting. Not that I didn’t love and appreciate and respect myself, but it was also a chess move. And I think also there was another woman there, Salome Bey, and she was in an uproar about not enough representation on a video for Ethiopian people who are black people, right?
There was an Ethiopian lady that came into that session before we sang the song and she said, “My people are growing into bones. There’s nothing left of them.” And when she said that, I was done! That’s it; I’ve got to do it! Well, I’m in the right place, regardless of the politics, regardless if you don’t like this person, I’m here for this purpose and God has always done that for me. He always drops you right in the middle of something just like when I did Harry Belafonte and the Arts for Apartheid at The O’Keefe Centre. We walked in and there were German Shepherds everywhere. I said “What are the dogs for?” and the guy says, “They’re sniffing for bombs.” And then I went, Okay, apartheid, now I know what apartheid is. Back to the school yard again it looks like.
You sang for Desmond Tutu, didn’t you?
Yes I did, I sang for Desmond Tutu at that performance. Also, here’s a tidbit for you. I was asked by the Mulroney government to sing Oh, Canada when Nelson Mandela came, and at the apartheid concert, Desmond and I were giggling a lot together. “When I land here, they bring a big taxi and police car for me. In my country, if a police car comes, it’s not good news.” So we were laughing back and forth but now, I’m invited to sing by the Mulroney government to sing Oh, Canada, for his coming to Canada. Twenty four hours before the gig, the Mulroney government calls me up and says, “You’re not singing. We decided to go with someone else.” And I said, “Okay, fine. No problem.” Are you still going to attend? I said, “Yes, I’m going to come.” And when I hung up the phone, I was like, just breathe, just breathe and go.
So I get there, and I get my little passes and I go through and they put me in this big empty room with some water and fruit and stuff, and the side door flings open and who walks through? Desmond Tutu. He goes “Liberty!” And I go, “Desmond!” and I wasn’t feeling you know, a musician friend of mine told me, he said, “Listen, Liberty, if you want to get that mad, don’t do it on the gig, go home and kick the wall or do something like that, but never let them see you sweat.” So I was very happy to see Desmond, It was very comforting. He said, “I have a friend that wants to meet you. Then I said, Okay. And who walks through the door? Nelson Mandela. He goes, “Oh, you’re not dark enough, are you?” and I say “No sir, I’m not.” We all busted out laughing. So that’s even better.
The last laugh was yours.
Yeah. And that’s a private laugh but I’m sharing it now because so many years have gone by and you know, and it really doesn’t matter. But a lot of things go on in the music business, the business of music.
Politics are horrible and it takes a lot to be able to rise above that and if you live your life with that sort of integrity, good things will happen. Right?
Absolutely good things happen. And once again, back to the Peterborough playground it’s all those things. I had already experienced that. And when I got to Toronto, the gentleman that actually took me to the audition, he went and bought me three pairs of shoes and three dresses at Simpson Sears and then he took me over to Le Chateau and bought some accessories for me. The manager of the store was his best friend and when I was looking at some of the accessories I heard him say to Norman, “Why are you going to help her? She’ll never do anything with her life.” And I turned around and said, “Listen, I just got out of Peterborough. There’s nothing you could say, and nothing you could do that could ever deter my attitude. I’m out, I’m free, you know?” And that gentleman ended up being one of the top historian black scholars in Canada, so pretty deep.
So you never know. You just don’t know who you’re going meet. You just don’t know what’s going to happen to you. And you just keep pushing forward, you know, and keep a good attitude. We all get upset, we all get angry, but we can’t let those things break us. We weren’t made like that. We come from a divine place so we aren’t breakable.
You’re a deeply spiritual person, obviously, and you’ve lived your life with those beliefs. Do you sing much gospel? What is your favorite type of music to sing?
You know what? I love rock and I just did a new rendition of Stairway to Heaven and yeah, I love rock because I grew up in Peterborough. Smoke on the Water, you know that stuff? I love that stuff! It was a part of me. I even did some country and western I have a gold hit country and western song, all different kinds of stuff. But I love doing all different kinds of music and right now I’m doing some stuff for some a big studio in Atlanta and I’m doing some gospel, a lot of it is gospel that they’re doing and it’s for movies and TV. I can’t really say the name but if you put the put the little clues together you can kind of figure out who it is.
I do actually love gospel and a lot of times I’ll take ballads. For the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, I’m doing a Leon Russell tune. I’m singing A Song for You and I just gospel it out. Somebody told me, “You know whose song that is? He’s a country and western singer.” And I was like, “Wow, he can write some songs!” So, you know, I just take it, I take whatever the music is and if I like it, I do it and I don’t hold back. I’ve done all different kinds of music with great performers.
Record companies I find always try to pigeonhole you and when I was signed to BMG they were like, “Don’t sing high, you’re going to scare all the people.” and then Mariah Carey comes out, you know. And then I was on my way to Star Search, Star Search invited me down there, and they were very upset that I was going. I said, “Well, I have a Canadian deal, right?” And they said, yes, you don’t need anything else. Well, I want an American deal. Can you give me an American deal? They said, no. I said, “Well then I’m going to Star Search.”, and I always just sailed my own boat.
You have to take control and now everybody has to take control, don’t they?
Well, if you look at the United States and see that most singers have to be naked to be on VH1 or on TV, that’s not the music business, that’s another business. I did an interview with a lady in Winnipeg last week and she goes, “Do you know that two Junos ago that the guy who was hosting it went in front of the camera and said, “Where’s all the people that are supposed to be here? Where’s Liberty Silver? Because of course, they’re talking about, you know, inclusivity, and I was like, “What? They did what?” And I thought that was funny. And of course now they call me for the 50th anniversary and they want me to do a shout out so I’m going to do something sarcastic and funny at the same time, give them the real Liberty! But it’s okay, it’s a great thing and people like to do it and say, “Okay, we did it, now we don’t have to do it again, right?” And that takes fifty years for three but I love the Junos, I’m grateful for the Junos and I understand what they are.
I understand the machine of the Junos. Also, I think a lot of people that want to be a part of that and win an award, it’s a much deeper rabbit hole to go into and you really have to educate yourself. It’s almost like politics in a kind of way. There’s a board and then there’s lobbyists and record companies so it’s not like people voted you in, It’s quite different, and education is really important to know what you’re about to get into so you’re not disappointed.
Listen to Liberty Silver’s music here.